Follow Five Safety Tips When Using Backup Generators After a Disaster
Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, as well as the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in history, surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to recent accounts, victims of Hurricane Sandy have been streaming into temporary emergency rooms and relief centers complaining of rashes, asthma, and coughing. Some need tetanus shots after mishandling waterlogged boards and getting poked by rusty nails. There's no accurate count of how many people have been made ill by the damp drywall mold, oil tank spills, sewage in floodwater, and debris that Hurricane Sandy left behind. On top of these environmental concerns, emergency rooms and poison control centers have reported cases of carbon monoxide exposure—and in New Jersey, several deaths have been attributed to it—from the misuse of generators to provide power and stoves to provide heat.
In anticipation of the storm or future storms, you or your tenants may have obtained, or considered investing in, backup generators. In fact, two days before the storm surge hit New York City, generators made up eight of the 10 items in the home and kitchen category of Amazon.com’s Movers and Shakers List—a ranking of the online retailer’s best-selling items over the past 24 hours.
Generators offer the convenience of using our everyday devices despite a prolonged power outage. They can even be life-saving in the case of hospitals or elderly persons who depend on oxygen machines. But they can be dangerous if used improperly. So before you fire up a backup generator, there are a few safety tips to keep in mind:
Tip #1: Place outside and strictly follow manufacturer recommendations. If it’s necessary to use a portable generator, manufacturer recommendations and specifications must be strictly followed. And the generator should always be positioned outside the structure. Generators emit carbon monoxide—as much as hundreds of cars, according to the U.S. Product Safety Commission—so portable generators should never be used indoors. Keep the generator as far as possible from windows and out of the rain. This means you’ll have to stay in the dark through the duration of the storm and wait for the downpour to pass before you start the engine.
Tip #2: Allow generator to cool before refueling. Gasoline is flammable and can pose a fire hazard in contact with a hot generator. The National Safety Council recommends allowing the generator to cool for at least two minutes before refueling and always use fresh gasoline. Also, generators should never be operated near combustible materials.
Tip #3: Get your wires straight. The National Fire Protection Association advises having a qualified electrician install a properly rated transfer switch if you plan to connect the generator to the house wiring to power appliances. Otherwise, make sure devices are plugged directly into the generator or a heavy-duty outdoor-rated extension cord. Check all cords for tears or other signs of wear and make sure you’re using a grounded, three-prong plug.
Tip #4: Be mindful of backfeed. This is to prevent electrocutions associated with portable generators plugged into household circuits. The problem of backfeed in electrical energy is a potential risk for electrical energy workers. When using gasoline- and diesel-powered portable generators to supply power to a building, switch the main breaker or fuse on the service panel to the “off” position before starting the generator. This will prevent power lines from being inadvertently energized by backfeed electrical energy from the generators, and help protect utility line workers or other repair workers or people in neighboring buildings from possible electrocution. If you plug the generator into a household circuit without turning the main breaker to the “off” position or removing the main fuse, the electrical current could reverse, go back through the circuit to the outside power grid, and energize power lines or electrical systems in other buildings at or near their original voltage without the knowledge of utility or other workers.
Tip #5: Prioritize the necessities. Though it may be tempting to power your entire office or apartment to stave off the boredom of a prolonged blackout, generators ultimately are designed to power the necessities. Be careful not to overload your generator, as it could damage appliances or cause a fire, according to the California Energy Commission. Be sure the total wattage used is less than the output rating of the generator.