Whether you use it professionally at home, in a commercial setting, or for recreational activities at a campground, a portable generator can be a very useful tool. It is worth noting that for every type of engine-driven machine, there are hazards involved in its operation. This safety guide is designed to give you a quick overview of the main safety issues when using portable generators and to minimize the risks involved in their use. We’ve gathered all the information you need to know about generator safety into one handy guide.
There are three main safety issues when dealing with generators.
Carbon monoxide (CO) emissions and the potential for CO poisoning
Electrical hazards and the possibility of electric shock/electrocution
Fire and explosion hazards
We will look at each of these three hazards in turn and provide the safety information you need to minimize these risks.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
By far the most serious hazard involved in the use of generators is carbon monoxide poisoning (CO). Every year, people die from carbon monoxide poisoning due to improper use of generators. Never use a generator in an enclosed or partially enclosed space.
You can’t see it, you can’t smell it.
A generator, like many machines with engines running, will quickly produce large amounts of carbon monoxide. It has no smell at all, and you can’t see the gas. Even if you can’t smell the exhaust fumes, that doesn’t mean you aren’t exposed.
Nausea, dizziness or weakness
If you start to feel sick while using the generator, go outside into the fresh air immediately. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include feeling dizzy, nauseous or weak, however this can quickly turn to incapacitation and then death.
Never use a generator indoors
The only way to protect you and those around you from carbon monoxide poisoning is to never use a generator indoors. Never run a generator in your home, garage, cellar, shed, cabin, tent or any other enclosed area. Even partially open, ventilated areas can accumulate carbon monoxide – opening windows and doors or using fans does not negate this risk.
Follow the instructions that came with your generator
Locate the unit outside, away from any doors, windows and vents
Have a carbon monoxide alarm with a battery backup for your home or workplace
Test your carbon monoxide alarm frequently and replace the batteries as required
Remember. People die from carbon monoxide poisoning every year. Don’t run a generator in an enclosed space. Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill you in a matter of minutes.
Electrical hazards and electrocution
Generators are designed to put out a lot of power when you need it, but if your generator has been damaged or you’re not using it properly, the power output could be in places it shouldn’t be – and could hurt you or those around you. Here are some quick tips you need to follow in order to protect against the risk of electrocution again.
Keep generators dry and out of the rain
Power supply box safety
Avoid moisture and operate your generator on a dry surface. If possible, use a protective cover. Dry your hands properly before operating the generator.
Use properly rated cables and extension cords
If you cannot plug an appliance directly into the generator, use a heavy-duty, outdoor rated extension cord. Make sure your cord is rated in amps or watts over the total load of the connected appliance (including any starting requirements). Visually inspect the cord for breaks or cuts. Make sure that all three pins of the plug (especially the ground) are undamaged.
Never try to back power your generator
Safety of portable generators
Plugging your generator into an electrical outlet in your home is known as backfeeding, and it is very dangerous. Not only could you end up hurting yourself, but you are also putting everyone else served by the same utility transformer at risk. Not only can it leave every one of your (and possibly your neighbor’s) plug outlets charged, but it can bypass some of your home’s built-in circuits and overload protection devices.
Using an electrician to wire a backup generator
If you plan to connect a generator to your home’s wiring, you must have a qualified and competent electrician to do the installation. You will need a proper transfer switch that meets all the requirements of your local electrical code. This is not a DIY job!
Although unlikely, a generator is essentially a liquid fuel-powered engine with a fuel tank on top – if your generator is damaged or you use it improperly, there is a risk of the fuel igniting.
Fire and explosion hazards
Clean up any spilled fuel immediately
Fuel in the open is more likely to catch fire than properly stored fuel. In the wrong situation, even a small spill can lead to a bigger problem. Clean up any fuel as soon as a spill occurs.
Never refuel a hot generator
Overflowing generator fuel
Before refueling a depleted generator tank, make sure the entire generator has had a chance to cool down. Turn it off and leave it for at least one hour. Spilled fuel can ignite on a hot engine.
Store your fuel safely
Generator fuel storage
Whether your generator uses gasoline, diesel or LPG, you should not store it in your home. Keep flammable fuels outside of your living space and properly labeled in a proper secure container. Do not keep your fuel near appliances that burn fuel, such as a heater in your garage. If your fuel is not properly sealed, vapors can slowly escape and build up. This vapor can be ignited by a test light or even an electrical arc from an appliance switch.
Avoid using generators on board
Generators on board
We do not recommend the use of gasoline generators on board. Gasoline spills or leaks will potentially cause vapors to build up in the hull. Even the slightest spark (such as a light touch of a light switch) can ignite gasoline vapors and cause an explosion.
Only allow a qualified electrician to install the generator to your main power supply via a transfer switch. This is an easy job for a qualified electrician, but very dangerous for you to attempt on your own.
Recommendations for connecting a generator to your home or workplace
Generators should be completely isolated from the mains – without proper isolation, utility workers can be seriously injured while working on the mains.
Use a double pole, first break follow-on, transfer switch (HD manual transfer switch).
Use only generators with an output of 5kW or more as backup power for your home.
The wire between the generator and the transfer switch is not protected by the RCD built into your home. We recommend using steel armored cable for the connection.
When using a generator as a standby power source for the premises, a low impedance ground spike needs to be installed.
As with any powered machinery, if in doubt, stop and ask a professional. Don’t take any risks with your generator. Maintain regular maintenance and visually inspect for damage before each use.