Portable Generator Safety 101

We take portable generators for granted, without really thinking too much about their risks, thanks to the hard work of generator manufacturers, who do their best to provide us with the safest products possible.

Yet, accidents can happen. And, in most cases, the users are at fault. This article is here to help you not be one of them and enjoy your portable generator safely.

Portable generators are awesome devices! They offer independent power on the go; anywhere, anytime. However, they should not be treated like toys. Let us illustrate.

Every single portable generator is powered by a combustion engine, which generates a perpetual contained explosion of fuel under high pressure, which results in both heat and fumes. Let’s also not forget that the electrical power produced by your portable generator, which you happily use to power your appliances, was also historically used as a means of execution. This phrasing should help highlight why safety precautions should not be neglected.

The silent killer

Take a guess; What is the most dangerous hazard when using portable generators?

While less dramatic than electrocution or death by fire, the correct answer is CO (carbon monoxide), by a huge margin. You can’t hear it, nor smell it. You might not even notice its effect until it’s too late. CO accumulation may kill you in a matter of minutes.

Even though modern generators have been modified to generate only low amounts of CO, the gas can sneakily accumulate indoors. Open windows, AC, nor fans are not enough to keep an enclosed area with a portable generator properly ventilated! However, with this said, CO poisoning is the most preventable of the listed hazards.

Here are several recommendations to avoid the risk of CO poisoning.

  • Never use a portable generator indoors!
  • Never place a portable generator next to doors, windows, or ventilation shafts.
  • Equip your home with CO alarms.
  • Choose a generator with an automatic CO shut-off (such as the Champion 100592, RYOBI RY907022FI, or Briggs & Stratton P4500 PowerSmart).
  • If you feel dizzy, tired, or nauseous while your generator is running, immediately seek fresh air and call 911 (or equivalent).

For more information on the dangers of CO, check takeyourgeneratoroutside.com.

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Fire hazard

Portable generators are powered by combustion engines. Naturally, you would assume that there is some risk that they may break down and catch on fire. However, manufacturers are usually better at making generators, than their customers are at using them. Therefore, this scenario is pretty unlikely.

How do generator-related fires happen? As the 2nd law of thermodynamics predicts, generators will produce heat, and quite a lot of it. This is not an issue for the interior of the generator, if well designed, but it may be for any of its surroundings – most importantly, the very fuel your generator runs on.

To prevent unnecessarily risking your property, here are several recommendations.

  • Never overfill a generator.
  • Never fill the generator while it’s still hot.
  • Clean any spilled gas and wait for it to dry up, before powering your generator.
  • Never store gas canisters next to a generator.
  • If you spot unusual amounts of smoke coming from your generator, call 911 immediately.
  • We recommend keeping a fire extinguisher in your household. However, never use water-based extinguisher, nor water alone, on your portable generator.
  • Keep the surroundings of your generator clear (safety radius can be found in your user manual).
  • Never smoke near a generator.

Electricity

Whoever gave us electricity; be it Tesla, Edison, Volta, Galvani, or according to some, even Ancient Aliens, they were pretty generous. Even though it is only the third most powerful of the fundamental forces, it’s enough to power our entire society. But this power can backfire in pretty horrific ways.

Portable generators are no exceptions and in fact, require additional precautions above the standard safety measures, which apply to electrical appliances and power tools. Remember, electrical current is indiscriminate and human bodies are surprisingly good conductors – if given the opportunity, electricity will flow right through you.

Here are several safety tips to ensure that will not happen.

  • Unless explicitly stated by the manufacturer, a power generator should always be grounded before powered up.
  • Do not use power generators in wet, damp or muddy areas. Place your generator preferably on a flat, plain surface, under a canopy. Make sure that puddles can’t form under the generator.
  • If you cannot provide a canopy, never use your generator in rain or snow.
  • Do not plug devices directly into the generator. Use a heavy-duty extender instead.
  • Never plug your generator directly into a power socket, as this may result in backfeeding. Do so through your home circuit, using a transfer switch.
  • Your generator must be ON before (un)plugging appliances in. (Start it and stop it without any load connected to it)
  • Do not overload your generator. Always account for the starting wattages of your appliances. (To calculate your load properly, use our free wattage calculator).
  • Never use a damaged cord to plug anything into your generator.

Further tips

The major risks aside, I am left with some commonsense recommendations, which I feel must be listed here, to make this article complete. While these points may seem redundant, they can be as crucial as any of the above listed.

Here are some final safety tips.

  • Do not let children near your generator.
  • Do not leave fuel in the generator’s fuel tank for long periods of time.
  • If installing a generator as your home backup through the home circuit board, use services of licensed technicians.
  • If you travel into high altitudes and back, make sure to rejet your carburetor accordingly.
  • Regular maintenance is the key to enjoying your generator safely and extends its longevity. Do not neglect it!
  • Always use portable generators according to their user manual!

Do you have safety tips that are not mentioned above? Let us know in the comments below.

Paul

Paul

Founder of generatorbible.com. Early retired from the OPE industry, living in South Carolina. He now mostly spends his time traveling and taking care of his wife and grand-children.

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