Portable generators can save you in a power outage, but they can also be harmful if they aren’t used properly. Generators typically burn gasoline or another fossil fuel, and they create two potentially harmful propertiers: carbon monoxide (CO) and electricity. There are three cardinal rules to follow for proper use of an electrical generator:
- Run portable generators only where they can be fully ventilated.
- Use the electrical power produced by a generator as directed.
- Use proper practices when refueling a generator.
How Portable Generators Work
A portable generator works by converting mechanical energy to electrical energy—the same way that a utility power plant does it, except on a smaller scale. All generators create an electrical field by spinning a shaft that rotates wire coils (armature) between the north and south poles of magnets. In the case of a portable generator, the spinning motion of the coils is created by a combustion engine that turns the armature shaft, much like a gas lawnmower spins a blade.
The motion of the wire coils inside a bank of magnets energizes the electrons in the wires and creates electricity that can be harnessed to feed plug-in outlets on the generator. A portable generator includes an alternator that creates a 120-volt alternating (AC) current that can be used by standard appliances and tools.
Proper Practices for Using a Generator
A portable generator is ready to use if you follow certain practices.
Run Generators Outdoors
All portable generators burn fossil fuels and create carbon monoxide, a deadly colorless and odorless gas. For this reason, portable generators must be fully ventilated at all times when they are running. Do not run a generator indoors or even in a garage unless the garage can be completely open for ventilation, which generally means opening multiple doors to provide cross-ventilation. Think of it this way: If a space isn’t for running a gas lawnmower or a car, it also isn't equipped for a portable generator.
Use the Right Extension Cords
Because you’re running your generator outdoors, you’ll most likely need extension cords to bring power into the house. However, it’s important to note that not all extension cords are equal. Just like the wiring in your home’s walls, cords have a limited capacity for carrying electricity. Heavy-duty cords with thick wires can handle more electricity than thinner cords with lighter-gauge wire. Length is another factor—a 25-foot cord offers a slightly higher capacity than a 100-foot cord with the same wire size. Using an undersized cord can overheat the cord, melt the cord insulation or plugs, and create a potential fire or shock hazard.
The rule here is to use cords that can handle the electrical demand, or load, of the appliance of the device that is plugged into the cord. Electrical load is measured in watts. To run a 3,000-watt space heater, the cord must be rated for more than 3,000 watts.
However, extension cords are typically rated in amps (amperage) rather than watts. Fortunately, amps, watts, and volts exist in a mathematical relationship that makes it is easy to determine the wattage rating. The formula is: Wattage = Volts x Amps.
In addition to using the right size cord for the electrical load, always use grounded, or three-prong, extension cords with a portable generator. Grounded cords provide an equipped path for electricity to follow in the event of a short circuit or other electrical hazards.
Never Back-feed a Household Circuit
Back-feeding a household circuit is the extremely dangerous practice of connecting a generator to an electrical outlet with a modified extension cord that has two male (pronged) plug ends. This energizes the entire circuit via the outlet, creating a serious fire hazard, as well as a deadly shock hazard for utility workers working on power lines in the area. In the event of a power outage, utility workers generally assume that all affected households have no power. However, if a single homeowner is back-feeding a generator into their home's wiring, it introduces an unauthorized power source into the system, putting the workers at risk of electric shock.
The best way to provide power to household outlets and hard-wired appliances is to use a manual transfer switch installed by an electrician. These switches cost around $1,200 to $1,500, including installation, and they allow you to power a few select household circuits with a portable generator.
Another way to use a generator to power appliances is to run properly rated extension cords directly from the appliances to the generator plug-ins. There is also a code-allowed method that uses a special input port and interlock device that prevents power from extending past the main breaker and putting anyone at risk.
Turn off a Generator Before Refueling
Never add gas to a generator while it is running or when it is hot. Gasoline spilled onto a hot engine can ignite, creating an instantaneous fire and possibly an explosion. Before refueling a generator, turn off the motor and let it cool down completely, which may take 15 minutes or so. Going without power for 15 minutes won’t kill anyone, but a gas fire or explosion certainly can.