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Keep safety in mind when you power up your generator

Be it wind storms, flooding events or freezing cold, we are often at the mercy of the weather here during the winter in the Pacific Northwest.

With frost February nearly here, this seems a particularly good time to review how to safely operate a generator!

Use your generator safely

Used properly, generators can mean light, heat and comfort during a storm or power outage. They can be true lifesavers. However, used improperly they can be life-takers.

So, if you own a generator, take some time before the lights go out (or go out again) to review the generator’s manufacturer’s directions so that you can plan ahead where to safely position and how to safely operate your generator. Even if you’ve already used yours this season, giving yourself a refresher on all the safety concerns will be time well spent.

The major key, of course, is to take special care so that the unit is placed so that exhaust cannot enter your home and cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

That reminds us to remind you that every home – especially those that might use a generator – needs to have a working carbon monoxide detector. If it has been awhile since you checked your carbon monoxide detector, take some time to do that now. They only last 10 years! While you’re at it, test your smoke alarms.

It’s important that any household that has their generator connected into the home’s electrical system in any way ensures that it has a UL-approved transfer switch that isolates the PUD’s equipment from the homeowner’s. This needs to be installed by a qualified electrician or homeowner by permit and inspected by the officiating electrical inspector.

To be clear -- if you plug a lamp or your refrigerator or another appliance directly to an extension cord that is directly energized by the generator then no switch is required. If the generator powers an appliance through the electrical service panel then you must have an isolation switch installed and inspected.

Without this switch, the generator will “back feed” active electricity back to the transformer – those power lines work both ways! Therefore, someone turning on their generator without such a switch will send energy back through the line and transformer at 120 volts and come out at 7,200 volts – causing injury or even death to PUD crews working on the lines!

In addition to risks of life and limb, an improperly installed generator can also be ruined when the PUD personnel fix the outage and the power begins flowing through the lines again.

Once your generator is properly installed, here are some tips from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). For preventing a fire, carbon monoxide poisoning or other disaster in your home because of improper generator use, this is what you should do:

  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

  • Always use generators outside your home, away from doors, windows and vents. One generator can produce as much carbon monoxide – an odorless, colorless gas – as 100 cars! Even using generators inside partially enclosed areas is courting disaster.

  • Do your best to keep the generator dry. Place the generator on a stable, dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure.

  • Dry your hands before touching the generator every time you touch it.

  • Plug appliances directly into the generator or use a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cord. Ensure the entire cord is free of cuts and tears, and that the plug has all three prongs.

  • Never plug the generator into a wall outlet. This can cause utility workers and others using the same transformer to receive an injurious – or even fatal – shock.

  • Before refueling your generator, turn it off and let it cool. Never refuel the generator when it is running or hot! (Fuel spilled on the hot engine could burst into flame.)

  • Store fuel outside of your living area in clearly labeled containers – not glass. Make sure the containers are kept away from fuel-burning appliances.

  • In addition to carbon monoxide detectors, make sure to also have a dual sensor smoke alarm in your home. This device will sound quickly for both a fire that has flames and a smoky fire that has fumes without flames.

  • Prepare an escape plan and practice it with those who live in your household twice a year. Talk with family members about the escape routes – there should be at least two from each bedroom – as well as the predetermined meeting place outside of the home.


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