When a severe storm hits and results in a power outage, you may be inclined to head to the closest hardware store, outdoor-equipment dealer or big-box retailer to buy a portable generator. Then you can just haul the generator home, connect a heavy-duty extension cord and run it to a few essential lights, your furnace motor and perhaps a small appliance or two, right?
A portable generator is a serious piece of equipment, and buying the incorrect one for your emergency power needs can damage it – plus overload your home’s wiring, hurt your appliances, potentially harm your family and even endanger the lives of line workers trying to restore power in your area. So, before you need a portable generator, do a little research and figure out the best one for your needs – and have a licensed electrician connect it directly to your home’s electrical service panel through a permanent transfer switch that isolates individual circuits in your home from the co-op’s power lines.
Consider these tips when you go shopping for a generator
Before you go to the store, make a list (or draw a map) of the lights, appliances and other things – and their circuits – you’ll want to power during an outage. Be sure to list medical equipment too, even if the devices have battery-backup systems.
Portable generators are rated in maximum watts and continuous watts, and your local dealer should have a wattage calculator to help you decide what size generator you need. Unless you just want to power the bare necessities – a few lights or the refrigerator – start your search with units rated at 5,000 watts or above.
Here are some other generator features to consider:
- Cart (or frame) with wheels. A generator is heavy – often 200 pounds or more – and you’ll soon tire of needing to find another person to help you move it.
- Electric starting. In bad weather, you’ll appreciate the convenience. Make sure the battery for starting the generator is included.
- Emergency shutoff. If the engine oil gets low or there’s another malfunction, the unit will turn itself off.
- GFCI protection. The generator should include a ground fault circuit interrupter on every outlet.
- Fuel gauge. Without one, you’ll have to shut down the generator to check the fuel level in the tank.
- Inverter technology. This ensures high-quality, “clean” power that won’t damage computers and other devices with sensitive electronics.
- Low noise level. You know how loud small gasoline engines can be, so imagine listening to one run for hours on end. Look for the lowest decibel rating – in the 70s or lower, if possible.
- Automatic throttle. The engine speed will adjust itself to the load, reducing fuel use.
When you plug in a generator, line workers’ lives are at risk
When a storm hits your area, your co-op’s linemen rush to your aid as soon as weather conditions allow them to travel and make repairs safely. On location, line crews always take the necessary safety precautions before they work on a damaged or downed power line.
They start by verifying other crews are not working on the same circuit. Then they visually inspect to make sure the circuit has been opened and tagged to isolate it – and use a voltage detection device to ensure the circuit is de-energized. In addition, they place personal protective grounds on the circuit to make sure the line immediately will be de-energized should the circuit accidently be energized while work is in progress.
But even after taking these measures, our workers’ lives remain in your hands. We’re proud of our outstanding safety record, but sometimes – no matter how many steps we take to keep everyone safe – the very people we’re there to help unknowingly put our lives (and theirs) in danger.
Did you know that the portable generators you and your neighbors use when the power is out could prove fatal to line workers and other members in your area when used improperly? A generator connected directly to a home’s wiring or plugged into a regular household outlet can cause back-feeding through the transformer on the pole and along a power line – and electrocute anyone who comes into contact with it, even if the line seems dead and is laying on the ground. A transfer switch will prevent that from happening.
Follow these guidelines when using a portable generator
Co-op employees aren’t the only ones in danger when a portable generator is used improperly. You may be at risk of electrocution, fire injury, property damage or carbon monoxide poisoning if you don’t follow the safety instructions that came with your unit.
Keep these things in mind when using a portable generator:
- Read the manufacturer’s instructions and learn how to operate and shut off a new generator before you need to use it. If you already own a generator, check to see if it’s been recalled for a safety issue on the website of the Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov – or call the agency’s Hotline at 800-638-2772.
- A generator quickly can produce high levels of deadly carbon monoxide gas, so locate it at least 15 or 20 feet from the house to prevent fumes from seeping inside. Make sure windows and doors near the generator are tightly closed, and test your home’s carbon monoxide alarm before firing up your generator.
- Only use heavy-duty, grounded, outdoor-rated extension cords that are in good shape and rated for a load greater than the total wattage of all connected appliances and other devices (125 volts x amps = watts). All plugs should have three prongs, and make sure your generator is properly grounded too.
- Never overload the generator. A portable generator only should be used when necessary to power essential equipment or appliances.
- Keep children and pets away from the generator when it’s running.
- Keep the generator dry, and don’t operate it indoors or in an enclosed or partially enclosed area such as a garage or porch.
- Practice power management. For example, when the power is out for several hours or longer, use the generator to run the refrigerator every few hours so food won’t spoil – instead of just powering lights in your home all day long.
- Give your generator several breaks during the day. Most portable generators aren’t designed to run 24/7, so shut down your unit several times a day to let it cool down.
- Always switch the engine off and allow it to cool before adding fuel in a well-ventilated area. Take care not to contaminate the fuel tank with dirt or water. Also check the oil every time you add gas.
- Turn off the generator’s circuit breaker before starting, so the load doesn’t draw current until the generator is running smoothly. Turn off the breaker before stopping the generator.
- Test the ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) on the generator every time you fire up the engine.
- Always keep a fully charged fire extinguisher near the generator, and never add fuel while it’s running.