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Generator Safety: Being Prepared When It’s Needed Most

For many of us, it is hard to fathom the devastation that a natural disaster like Hurricane Ida can cause and what it is like to personally live through that experience. Living in the Midwest my entire life, I have only seen the destruction as depicted on news channels. While I am grateful that I never personally experienced a hurricane, my empathy runs deep every time I see those that are impacted by these catastrophic events. One of the things that strikes me the most is what people must feel during the anticipation, knowing that the hurricane hitting landfall is inevitable. Some of the first footage that news channels typically start showing is the community preparation before the storm arrives. Boarding windows, filling sandbags that create barriers, gathering supplies, or even helping to get one another out of the impacted area. Individuals working together for a common goal of minimizing the potential damage of the unknown. It truly is remarkable how collectively communities work together to be prepared for an event that’s sole aim to tear them apart.

As I wrote this blog, it made me start to think more about how I would handle my own preparedness should I ever be faced with this situation. Where do you even start? Where most searches start in the year of 2021 – Google. A quick internet search leads to great hurricane resources like those found at ready.gov which is a website overseen by the United States government. This month also happens to be National Preparedness Month, sponsored by ready.gov to provide tips to help be prepared for disasters. But my natural innateness as an electrician drives my thoughts to the inevitable power loss that communities face with many natural disasters. Then, the immediate need for power restoration to be able to maintain and restore when the event subsides. Without question, generators are a necessary part of this equation. Generators not only need to be well maintained so they are ready to operate, but they also need to be utilized in a safe manner when they are called to action. Here are the first things that come to mind when it comes to operating a generator safely:

  • Proper connection to the premises wiring. Temporary connections of the generator to premises wiring system will likely lead to more safety concerns. For example, hooking up a generator to a home where it back-feeds through the home wiring and back onto the utility power lines is a major safety concern. With utility line workers working diligently to restore power after storms, having voltage imposed back onto the electrical grid they are repairing can be fatal. Buildings and homes should always have listed transfer devices installed to National Electrical Code® (NEC®) standards by a licensed electrician. When installed properly, a transfer device will make a clean switch between utility power and back-up generator power. Having a listed transfer device is critical to safety, regardless of the generator being portable on wheels or a stationary “whole-house” generator that are commonly installed these days.
  • Test ground-fault circuit-interrupters (GFCI’s) before each use. The NEC has requirements that generator manufacturers install GFCI protected receptacles in generators to disconnect power when a ground-fault is detected. The faults can commonly occur from items such as damaged extension cords or contact with water. GFCI receptacles should be tested based on manufacturer’s instructions but ideally before each use of the generator receptacle. GFCI receptacles that do not function properly should not be utilized until they can be replaced.
  • Generator location placement is critical. Generators need to be operated outside, in an area where they are not subject to rain saturation whenever possible. Aside from electrical concerns, operation of a generator also emits carbon monoxide which is a major concern. With carbon monoxide being odorless, areas that are unventilated can expose individuals to carbon monoxide poisoning which can often result in death. A little over a month ago, at a three-day concert being held in Jackson, Michigan, three young men died due to carbon monoxide inhalation emitted from a generator assumed to be placed in a poorly ventilated area. A tragic event that reinforces how crucial it is to place generators in a spot that provides proper ventilation.

While we can’t always anticipate the destruction a natural disaster may bring, we know that each event comes with a new day and a time to rebuild. Utilizing generators to help with the process is necessary, but preparation must be done to ensure they can be operated in a safe manner when needed. As part of being prepared, there are some great resources available to help with the process. Here at NFPA, we offer a generator safety tip sheet that offers additional advice as well additional resources on carbon monoxide safety. Taking advantage of resources that are available will help you to be better prepared when disaster strikes. While the storm itself can seem unbearable, there is rarely more beauty than the rainbow that awaits on the other side. Preparing to be safe is a necessary component that ensures we are able to see the beauty that the new day brings.

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Corey Hannahs
Electrical Content Specialist, Corey serves as an electrical subject matter expert in the development of products and services that support NFPA documents and stakeholders.

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