Brush up on generator hazards and discover generator safety tips that could save a life.
Portable generators provide the power you need when you’re far from an outlet or the power goes out. But generator hazards are real. For example, each year, approximately 70 people die from generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Practice portable generator safety with these generator safety tips.
Are generators safe?
Portable generators are safe when used properly. Most of them are used without incident, but each year, 2,800 people on average develop carbon monoxide poisoning from generators. In most cases, deaths result from placing a generator inside a living area, basement, garage, shed or other enclosed or partially enclosed space.
The three main generator hazards and how to avoid them
No matter what type of portable generator you’re using, the main hazards are the same: carbon monoxide poisoning, electrocution and fire. Diesel generator safety, propane generator safety and gas generator safety, therefore, involve the same precautions.
Generator carbon monoxide safety
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced by the incomplete combustion of fuel. Since no engine is 100% efficient, carbon monoxide is a byproduct of all engines that use fossil fuels, including most generator engines. When humans inhale carbon monoxide, the gas replaces oxygen in the body, which can lead to death within five minutes.
To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, adhere to these best practices.
- Read the instruction manual and follow it.
- Place your generator outdoors in a well-ventilated area - never inside the home or in a basement, garage or shed, even with the windows or the garage door open.
- Position the generator at least 20 feet away from windows, doors and vents, and point the exhaust away from them.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors in your home and test them regularly. Use portable carbon monoxide detectors at remote sites.
- Choose a generator with a built-in carbon monoxide detector. These generators turn off if dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide are detected.
Electrocution is another potential hazard of portable generators, especially if they get wet. To guard against electrocution, follow these tips.
- Don’t operate a generator in the rain or on a wet surface.
- Buy a generator canopy that protects the generator from rain while allowing sufficient ventilation to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Cover the generator when it’s not in use.
- Never plug a generator into a regular wall outlet.
- If you want to connect the generator to your home’s electrical panel, install a generator safety switch, also known as a generator transfer safety switch. Otherwise, plug appliances and electronics directly into the generator unless an extension cord is absolutely necessary.
- Use only heavy-duty extension cords to connect appliances to the generator if direct plug-in isn’t an option. Make sure they are rated for outdoor use and the amps or watts the appliances will use. Check cords for damage before use.
- Don’t use a portable generator that has a damaged frame. The frame grounds a portable generator and is an important safety feature.
Generator fire safety
Like any fuel-powered appliance, generators carry a fire risk. Minimize the risk with these precautions.
- Never refuel a generator while it’s running. Instead, turn it off and allow it to cool for at least 10 minutes before adding more fuel.
- Store fuel away from the generator. If there’s a fuel spill, move the generator to a new location.
- Store fuel only in approved containers. Follow all local laws regarding fuel storage.
- Never store fuel in your home.
- Use only the fuel recommended on the generator label and in the owner’s manual.
- Keep the generator away from dry grass or other flammable material.
Generator safety FAQs
Learning answers to frequently asked questions can help you use a generator safely.
Do all generators produce carbon monoxide?
All generators can, in theory, produce carbon monoxide, though a portable generator powered by natural gas will not produce it if the engine is operating properly. Gasoline-powered portable generators produce the most carbon monoxide, while diesel and propane-powered generators produce less. No matter what type of generator you’re using, it’s important to follow all safety precautions.
Is it safe to leave a generator unattended?
It’s safe to leave a generator unattended provided there is no rain in the forecast and you’ve placed it outdoors. Be sure the generator is on a flat area that’s clear of debris. If your generator has wheel locks, activate them before you leave it.
Is it safe to run a generator in the rain?
Running a generator in the rain increases the risk of electrocution and is strongly discouraged. Protect a generator from the rain by purchasing a generator canopy that keeps water out while allowing for proper ventilation.
How to make a generator safe for electronics
Generators can produce electrical surges that may damage electronic devices such as phones and computers. Using an inverter generator may help protect your electronics since they deliver a more consistent power supply. If you’re using a standard, non-inverter generator, plug a surge protector into the generator before powering delicate devices.
Generators can be a convenience or a critical asset when you lack access to grid power. They can be complex and you should always consult with an expert regarding the specific circumstances, applicable rules and regulations related to your site and to your situation.
Like any piece of equipment, they require some operator knowledge, but understanding generator hazards and keeping these precautions in mind can help you run a generator safely, whether you need to power lights and appliances in your home, electronics or appliances on a camping trip or power tools on a jobsite.