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Generator Safety: Tips for Running One Safely

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 30, 2022

If your electricity goes out because of a hurricane, tornado, or any another reason, a generator can help. It’ll restart your lights, fridge, or help charge your phones and laptops. But it’s important to understand how to properly use one. Here’s what you need to know.

Where is it safe to run a generator?

Portable generators give off high levels of carbon monoxide equal to hundreds of cars. If you run your generator indoors (even the basement or garage) or too close to where you live, it could lead to burns or carbon monoxide poisoning. This odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas can be fatal. In fact, death from carbon monoxide can happen within just 5 minutes if the levels are high enough. 

Some newer portable generators have a sensor that shuts the machine off if carbon monoxide levels get too high. Others have engines built to give off less carbon monoxide in general. While these safety features can help save lives, it’s ultimately up to you to make sure you’re using the generator correctly. 

How far from a house should a generator be?

Place your generator at least 20 feet away from your house. Make sure that the engine exhaust is pointed away from all windows and doors.

Is it OK to run a generator in the rain? 

Don’t run a portable generator in the rain. If you can’t avoid it, buy a tent specifically made for them. It keeps your generator covered but still ventilated. 

How long can you run a generator safely?

Don’t use your generator too long. Generators are a temporary source of power. You shouldn’t use it as a permanent source of power. 

Is it safe to run a generator unattended?

Follow safe steps if you must leave the generator alone. If you can’t keep an eye on the generator, make sure to keep it secured on a flat surface so it won’t tip, slide, or roll. Lock the wheels or put wedges under the tires so it doesn’t move. Keep the generator out of pathways so people don’t run into it.

Other Tips to Use a Generator Safely

There are many other ways to ensure that your generator runs safely:

Make sure an expert installs your generator. A qualified electrician should install it. It should have a mark of a nationally recognized testing laboratory (like UL, Intertek, or CSA).

Use the right tools alongside your generator. Consider a battery-operated carbon monoxide detector. It’ll alert you if carbon monoxide levels get too high.

Before you refuel, let it cool. If you need to refuel a gas-powered generator, turn it off first. Let it cool off before you refill it. If you spill gasoline on a hot engine, it could ignite. If it’s cool, this lowers the risk of burns while you fill it up.

Stock up on fuel. In emergencies, you’ll want to make sure you have enough gasoline for your gas-powered generator. Make sure you’re prepared and store the gasoline in an ANSI-approved container. Keep it in a cool, well-ventilated area. You can also add stabilizer to the gas to help it last longer. Be sure to not store the gas near any possible heat or fire sources inside or outside of your living area.

Install a transfer switch. This connects a generator to your circuit panel and will power your hardwired appliances. This will allow you to avoid extension cord and the safety risks that come with them.

Prevent electrical hazards. If you’re not able to get a transfer switch, you’ll still be able to use the outlets on your generator. But you must follow certain steps to stay safe. If it’s possible, plug appliances directly into the generator. If you need to use an extension cord, use a heavy-duty one made for outdoor use. 

Make sure that the rating (either in amps or watts) is at least equal to the sum of the electrical load from each of the connected appliances. Check the entire extension cord for cuts and make sure it has all three prongs. These safety measures will protect you from shock if water collects in the equipment. 

Make sure the generator is grounded properly. If it’s not, the generator could become electrically charged and electrocute someone.

Don’t back feed your house. If you try to back feed your house, it means that you’ve attempted to power your home’s wiring by plugging your generator into a wall outlet. This can be very dangerous. You’ll put you, your neighbors who are connected to the same transformer, and utility workers at risk for electrocution. You could also risk frying your electronics and starting an electrical fire. 

Use hearing protection. Generators vibrate and can be noisy. Too much noise can lead to hearing loss and fatigue. Wear hearing protection to keep your ears safe.

Run your generator every now and then. Since you’ll keep your generator in storage for a while, it’s important to run it every couple of months to make sure it still works. This will help you stay prepared in case you need it during an emergency. Never keep gasoline in the generator when you’re not using it. This can damage it.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Consumer Reports: “Generator Safety Tips That Will Get You Through a Storm and Maybe Save Your Life.”

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: “Generators and Engine-Driven Tools.”

OSHA Fact Sheet: “Using Portable Generators Safely.”

Electrical Safety Foundation International: “Portable Generator Safety – Generate Safety.”

Mississippi State University: “How to Safely Use a Generator.”

Townson University: “Portable Generator Safety Guidelines.”

International Code Council: “Out of Power? Use Generators Safely.”

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