Operate Your Backup Generator Safely This Winter

December 12, 2022

It’s storm season. And you know what that means: if you have a backup generator, you may need to turn it on sometime soon.

A generator can make the difference between a freezer full of food that will feed you through the winter and a massive composting project. It can keep your family warm. It can help you continue to work or stay connected to friends and family by making it possible to charge your personal electronics. And if you’re dependent on electricity for a health device, a generator can keep you healthy or even save your life.

But used improperly, a generator can be dangerous or even life-threatening. It’s essential that you operate it according to instructions to keep you and your loved ones safe. 

Here’s what you need to know:

Prevent Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning

Backup generators — like a grill or a camp stove — runs on gasoline, propane, natural gas, or diesel. These sorts of devices should never be operated indoors. Even outside, they should be kept away from doors, windows, vents, or any other openings that could allow carbon monoxide inside.

If you operate your generator inside an enclosed space, like a garage or inside your home, the space can fill with carbon monoxide. This odorless, tasteless gas can lead to incapacitation and death. If carbon monoxide levels are high, the gas can kill occupants in a matter of minutes. If you start to feel dizzy, nauseated, headachy, irritable, or tired, get outside as quickly as possible.

According to Iowa State University, if a person loses consciousness from carbon monoxide poisoning and survives, they can experience relapses for weeks and even develop high sensitivity to carbon monoxide for the rest of their lives.

Opening windows and doors with a generator operating inside will not keep you safe; carbon monoxide can still build up and fill the space to dangerous levels.

The golden rule is this: Never operate a backup generator indoors.

Install Carbon Monoxide Alarms — And Make Sure They Work

Carbon monoxide alarms detect the gas and alert you when dangerous levels are accumulating. According to the Red Cross, you should install alarms “in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas.”  

Make sure the batteries are operational. Test and replace them frequently.

If the alarm goes off, get outside into fresh air as quickly as you can. If it’s impossible to move outside, get close to an open door or window. Call emergency responders and remain in the fresh air until they tell you it’s safe to return to your home. 

Reduce Dangers of Electrical Shocks and Electrocution

People plugging in a portable backup generator (especially in the middle of an emergency situation, such as a storm or other natural disaster) may overlook safe electrical practices. It’s common for people to bypass electrical safety systems, like circuit breakers. 

First, never plug a generator directly into the electrical system of your home, garage, office building, or other structure. To safely plug it in, you need a qualified electrician to install a transfer switch. 

Plug electrical appliances directly into the generator using grounded (three-prong) extension cords that are in good working condition. Be sure extension cords are not frayed or otherwise damaged and that they’re properly rated for use with a generator. 

Make sure your generator is dry. If necessary, protect the generator from rain or other wet conditions with a canopy. Do not operate or touch the generator if you’re wet or if you’re standing in water.

Make sure your generator is properly grounded. Double-check that your grounding connections are tight.

Avoid Fire Hazards

Before refueling, turn the generator off and allow it to cool. If you spill fuel on hot generator parts, it can ignite.

Store fuel properly. Be sure extra fuel is stored in approved containers and that containers of fuel are kept well away from the generator and any other devices that produce heat and away from living spaces.

To learn more about generator safety, read these sources:

Consumer Reports

Iowa State University


Red Cross

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