By Gordon Williams, American Red Cross Volunteer

When stormy weather knocks out the power to your house, it’s comforting to have a generator to turn to for back-up warmth and light. Trouble is, that comfort can quickly turn to calamity if you don’t know, or don’t follow, the rules for home generator safety. 

A generator that is not used properly can set off a devastating fire. In fact, blame for two recent house fires on Whidbey Island is placed directly on home generators. In one case, leaking fuel caught on fire. In the other case, Deputy Chief Terry Ney of the South Whidbey Fire/EMS told a local media outlet “It is unknown exactly how the fire started from the generator, but it clearly was the point of origin.” 

So what are the rules for using a home generator safely? The first rule is to pick a generator with enough capacity to handle the power demands you will put on it. For help in choosing a generator, we turned to the American Red Cross. In consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Red Cross offers these four steps to choosing the right-sized home generator: 

  1. Add up the power requirements of the appliances and devices you will want to use. (Check the back and sides of the device for a label with this info). 
  2. Add up the wattage of all the light bulbs you will want to use. 
  3. Calculate the total amps you need by dividing watts by volts. 
  4. Choose a generator that produces more amps than you will need. Some machines will draw three times the load at start-up, and some will lose operating efficiency over time.  

To help you with the calculation, most household devices draw 120 volts, while most major appliances require 240 volts. 

Next, decide where to place your generator. Never use a generator indoors or in a partially enclosed space, including a garage, deck or crawl space. Deputy Chief Ney says it should be at least 10 feet from any structure. Don’t operate the generator near an open window or door. 

Once you have the right generator properly in place, you want to stay alert to the four major causes of home generator calamities: fuel-related fires, carbon monoxide poisoning from toxic engine exhaust, electrocution, and what is known as back-feeding. 

For safety’s sake, follow the fuel storage rules recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Keep your generator outside and fuel your generator outside,” says FEMA.  “Don’t store fuel for your generator in your house. Gasoline, propane, kerosene, diesel, and other flammable liquids should be stored outside living areas in properly labeled, non-glass safety containers.” 

FEMA warns that spilled fuel can ignite and burn—as can vapor from a fuel line leak or an improperly sealed container. In describing one of the Whidbey Island fires, Chief Ney explains, “It appears there was some sort of malfunction of the fuel system causing a fuel leak, which in turn caught fire and spread down through the deck and up the wall of the building.” 

When it comes to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, FEMA warns, “Carbon monoxide from generators is completely colorless and odorless, so you won’t know it’s there. It could kill your family and your pets.” 

Install battery-powered CO alarms throughout your dwelling to alert you to danger. The Red Cross says to install CO alarms on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas. For lots more on CO poisoning, go to the CDC site

Deal with the risk of electrocution, and of violating local building codes, by having a qualified electrician supervise the installation of the generator. Use only heavy-duty electrical cords in feeding juice from the generator to appliances. Have the electrician or your local utility install a power transfer switch in your set-up.  Keep the generator dry and don’t use it in rain or wet conditions. Check with your fire department for any local rules governing generators, including the amount of fuel you can store and how you can store it. 

The rules about back-feeding are meant to protect both you and utility workers from electrocution. The Red Cross explains that back-feeding means trying to restore power to the house by plugging the generator directly into a wall socket. By doing so, you have restored power to circuits that are assumed to be powerless. 

Utility workers have every reason to assume they can safely touch anything electrical in your home, only to confront a fully live and lethal electrical line. Of course, back-feeding puts you and all family members, as well as utility workers, at the risk of electrocution. 

Don’t use the generator to feed power to house electrical circuits. Run power strips from the generator and use extension cords connected to the power strips to deliver power to where you want it in the house. Because it is possible to overload the generator, the Red Cross suggests staggering the operating times for household devices rather than running everything at once. 

Finally, there are these two additional warnings from the Red Cross: 

  • Turn the generator off and let it cool down before refueling. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite. 
  • Should the CO alarm sound, move everyone outside into fresh air or at least to an open window or door.

Having a generator will make you and your family feel more comfortable in a power outage, but it is critically important to understand how to use them properly. Taking shortcuts can be dangerous. The Red Cross and your Fire Department want you to be safe; don’t invite them to a fire that can be prevented!

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