Generate Safely: Tips to Save Lives

Plug appliances into a portable generator using properly rated extension cords. Start with the largest power user. Make sure the generator is outdoors on a dry, level surface away from any openings to the home. Photo by Nikki Cullen

Experiencing a power outage? Ready to power up your generator? Don’t overlook safety in your haste to light up your home.

Despite the convenience and comfort of generators, improper use can be deadly. More than 900 people in the U.S. died of carbon monoxide poisoning—and thousands were injured—while using portable generators from 2005 to 2017. In 2019, 55 fatalities were directly attributed to CO poisoning from portable generators.

“Proper use of a generator can mean the difference between life and death,” says Erin Hollinshead, executive director at Safe Electricity, a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council.

Because generators are not used regularly, it is common to overlook basic safety measures.

While members typically do not need their generators often, due to recent wildfires, PSREC members have experienced increased interuptions in service. Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative (PSREC) Member Services Manager Corby Erwin reminds members to “make sure your generator is maintained, make sure it runs properly, make sure it is fueled and, most importantly, have a plan.

Erin highlights eight basic steps to follow:

  • Do not take generator use lightly. Familiarize yourself with operating instructions. Know how to safely use a generator before an outage or emergency.
  • Make sure the generator is in working order by maintaining it between uses.
  • Place the generator at least 20 feet away from windows, doors, or any other opening to your home. Do not use it in a garage, basement, or crawl space, and do not use one in any structure a person may enter. Instead, use it outdoors in a dry location, or under an open-sided, portable canopy structure if there is precipitation.
  • When camping, do not place a generator where exhaust could enter an RV, tent, or other enclosed areas. Make sure it is in good working order before heading out.
  • Keep carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home and test them often. Have one in your camper or RV, too.
  • Discuss the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning with family members and loved ones. Symptoms of exposure include headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, and tightening across the chest. People often do not associate these symptoms with carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Use properly rated extension cords to plug appliances into a generator. This means using safety-tested cords designed for heavier, outdoor use.
  • Post safety guidelines and operating instructions with the generator.

FAQs: Operational Guidelines for Proper Use of a Generator

Be prepared for any circumstance by understanding proper generator use. Here are answers to frequently asked questions.

What steps should I take before starting a portable generator?

First, assess each appliance’s wattage requirements to avoid overload. Check the oil level of the generator. Refer to the engine manual to ensure you use the correct amount and type of oil. With the generator turned off, fill it with fresh fuel in a well-ventilated  area.

How do I power my appliances?

Never plug a generator into a wall outlet. This causes backfeeding, which puts utility workers, neighbors, and household members at risk of electrocution. Use a heavy-duty extension cord to plug appliances directly into the generator. Place the generator outdoors on a dry, level surface.

How do I avoid a voltage surge?

Let the generator run about two minutes before plugging in extension cords, appliances, or equipment. Do not start a generator with items plugged in. Start from the largest power user to the smallest. Items with electric motors—well pumps, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and plug-in space heaters—require a surge of power to start. Unplug cords in the reverse order they were plugged in. Wait about two minutes before turning off the generator.

How do I prevent carbon monoxide poisoning?

Never use a generator inside a home, garage, basement, or partially enclosed area. Keep it outdoors to prevent fumes from entering through doors, windows, and vents. Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home. You may be exposed to fumes even if you smell nothing. Get to fresh air immediately if you feel sick.