Portable generators come in handy when you lose power due to a hurricane, tornado, or even just a fallen tree branch, but they can also be dangerous if used incorrectly. Between 2005 and 2017, more than 900 people died from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning while using a portable generator, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Other than CO poisoning, other hazards include electric shock or electrocution, fire and burns.
Here are seven tips to keep you safe while using a portable generator.
Only use generators outside
Due to the risk of exposure to the elusive carbon monoxide — which you can’t see or smell — never run generators inside, even in garages, basements, or sheds. “To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and death, only operate your generator outside and at least twenty feet away from the house,” says Karla Crosswhite-Chigbue, a generator safety expert at the CPSC. “Direct the generator’s exhaust away from the home and any other buildings that someone could enter.”
If you’re starting to feel dizzy or faint, there’s a chance you may be exposed to carbon monoxide, so be sure to access fresh air right away. Remember: You may have been exposed to it, even if you can’t smell anything.
Update your CO alarms
This is also a good time to ensure that you have proper CO alarms installed in your home. “There should be a CO alarm outside each sleeping area and on each level of your home,” says Crosswhite-Chigbue.
[ Related: The Best Carbon Monoxide Detectors of 2020 ]
Make sure you have a detector that’s battery operated or has a battery backup, if plugged in, and follow maintenance and battery replacement instructions. This usually means testing your batteries monthly.
Look for the right labels
“There are two voluntary standards for portable generators, the Portable Generator Manufacturers Association’s G300 standard and Underwriter’s Laboratories UL 2201 standard,” says Crosswhite-Chigbue. “Both require generators to shut off automatically when certain concentrations of carbon monoxide are detected around the generator.” The expert added that generators complying with either of these standards will reduce the risk of death and injury when compared with non-compliant generators.
Only use in dry conditions
Generators pose a risk of shock and electrocution. Wet conditions only make this threat worse. For emergency purposes, if you must use a generator when it is wet outside, protect it from moisture but, again, do not operate it inside. Position the generator under an open, canopy structure on a dry surface so that water can’t reach it, puddle near it, or drain under it. Dry your hands, if wet, before you touch the generator.
Do not attempt to power your home by plugging your generator into a wall outlet. This is called “backfeeding,” and not only is it very dangerous but it poses serious threats of electrocution to utility workers and your neighbors who get energy from the same transformer.
Avoid simple fire hazards
It may seem like common sense, but flammable liquids, including gasoline, propane, and kerosene, should always be stored outside in non-glass containers. Do not ever keep these products in living spaces within your home.
Properly label your sources of fuel and do not store them near any of your other fuel-burning appliances, like a natural gas water heater. Also, before you refuel your generator, turn it off and let it cool. If you accidentally spill gas on hot engine parts, they could ignite. Don’t take that risk.
Protect people and pets
Always keep your distance from portable generators due to the heat they give off during operation. It’s especially important to keep your little ones and pets away, since many components of portable generators can get hot enough to burn skin (and fur!) as they operate.
The bottom line
Generators can be wonderful back-up power sources in the event of an outage or emergency situation. But keep in mind that they come with their own set of rules for safe use. Hundreds of people die annually from improper use of generators, so it’s important to follow the guidelines above.