Emergency Power Generator Safetyby Howard Watkins
In the last hour before a hurricane there is always a panic rush to purchase the last remaining portable gasoline emergency generator. Thousands of emergency generators are sold over the counter to well meaning homeowners who are not aware of the consequences of an improper installation. Too often after the hurricane you hear of a lineman being killed by an improperly installed generator back feeding the utility lines.
Improperly installed generators can pose serious dangers to you, your family and Power line construction crews.
In the aftermath of a disaster there are circumstances that circumvent conventional safety procedures. The utility companies rely heavily on independent construction firms to quickly restore utility lines. Private contractor employees are sometimes less familiars with the territory and the established utility company procedures. On top of everything else there is the stress caused by working long hours in inclement conditions and the pressure to restore power to thousands of customers some of whom are in dire need.
As an electrician I am often sought out on the day of the hurricane for free consultation on the installation of emergency generators. I say free because no-one ever expects to pay for professional advise unless it's from a doctor or lawyer. I often have strangers come to my home at odd hours for advise about electrical installations or problems. Of course in the Deep South this kind of hospitality is usually expected and I am always willing to offer free advise where safety is concerned.
I discourage connecting portable generators directly into the building's wiring system. But if one insists, I always recommend the use of a double throw transfer switch to prevent the generator from back feeding the utility lines. I even recommend some competent contractors who are qualified and licensed to make a proper and safe installation. My last words are always a warning of the criminal charges and the liability for endangering the life of electrical utility workers. I'm aware that in most cases my advice is not taken seriously where safety is concerned. The generator should be properly installed before an emergency exist rather than the hour just before or after the next hurricane.
If you insist on connecting a generator to the existing wiring system of your home or business you must use a double throw transfer switch. The Transfer switch is essential for the protection of linemen who are working to restore power. You can be held liable for the loss of life or property damage caused by back feeding the utility lines. A transfer switch or relay is also required by municipal and building codes.
Here are some additional safety tips for installing and using portable emergency generators.
1- Read, understand and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
2- Never operates the generator indoors or in a closed space. Avoid a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning and ignition of fumes caused by fuel evaporation.
3- Don't overload the generator. Overloading can cause damage to the generator as well as creating a fire hazard.
4- To avoid electrical shock the generator must be properly grounded. The best place to ground your generator is by the grounding connection of the electrical service. This may be a ground rod or a cold water pipe. Only a qualified electrician should make any connection inside the electrical service panel. Don't open any existing ground connections.
5- All electric connections must comply with the National Electrical Code. You may be liable for damage to property or injury to people that may result from an improperly installed or operation of an emergency generator.
6- Never never feed power from your generator into a wall outlet. A fire hazard exists if the branch circuit is not large enough to handle the entire load. Usually it is not. Than there is the hazard of having an energized male plug end. Above all if the wiring is not isolated the generator will back feed the utility lines.
7- Operation in wet weather or under potentially wet conditions may cause electrical shock or electrocution. Avoid contact with the generator if you are wet or standing in water.
8- Check cords running from your generator to make sure they are in good condition, rated for outdoor use and are the proper wire gauge size for the appliance load.
9- Do not store fuel indoors or refuel your generator while it's running.
As I am writing this piece in the aftermath of hurricane Emily the news reports a lineman in Georgia killed by a back fed utility line.