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Illinois Country Living

Ken Macken
Ken Macken, Manger of Safety and Loss Control for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

Safety & Health:

All I Wanted for Christmas was a Generator
Keep the lights on with safe use of backup generators

Every time I see a friend or family member who has a home generator, I think to myself how fortunate and prepared they are in the event a bad storm knocks out their power. I’ve even thought about looking into the purchase of a generator for my own home in Chatham, Ill. It would be so handy to step outside, fire up my instant source of electricity, go back inside and be the electrical hero for my family.

Some co-op members should consider a backup generator if there’s a medical situation that requires electricity, or if there’s a business need that justifies having a backup generator.

I really do want to be the hero of my family when the power goes out, but I have come to realize that there’s much more to backup generators than most of us realize. You want to size the generator to meet your needs and not kill your budget. But most importantly, there are safe practices you must observe before putting a generator into service at your home, farm or business.

I wanted to share some of the key facts I found out about generators this winter so the next time you or I are tempted to rush out and make that purchase, we’ll have more knowledge in this area.

One of the most important things to keep in mind about a generator is that they produce carbon monoxide (CO) in their exhaust, which could easily asphyxiate an entire family should the fumes enter the house through a window or open vent. The CO gas, a byproduct of combustion, is invisible and odorless and can linger for some time in confined spaces, easily overcoming an unsuspecting homeowner.

According to a study of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a typical 5.5-kilowatt generator can produce as much carbon monoxide gas as six idling cars. In fact, after a recent hurricane season, the CDC and the Florida Department of Health reported 160 hospitalizations and at least five deaths attributed to the improper use and ventilation of home generators.

Jack Campbell, a mechanical engineer, warns consumers to never operate a generator inside the home or under a porch or carport. He says best operation of the generator is done when it’s more than 10 feet away from the home, and the exhaust of the generator is pointing away from the home. If you have gas appliances in your home you should’ve already installed a carbon monoxide detector. But don’t create a hazard with your generator, assuming your detector will save you.

Campbell says he’s seen some horrendous “hookups” and misuse of power cords when used with generators, which can all lead to some serious safety issues.

The ideal situation, if you are thinking about a generator, is to have a licensed electrician look at your home, access your emergency power needs and make recommendations.

Part of your plans should include having a licensed electrician install a double pole, double throw transfer switch for your generator. This can be costly, but also is the safest way to operate your generator. The double switch is used to prevent the flow of electricity back onto your co-op’s power lines. The switch is used to isolate your homes electrical system from the co-op’s power lines while your generator is in use, preventing a dangerous back feed situation. It will also protect your generator from damage.

Also, to prevent the possibility of electrical shock, keep cords from sitting in water or puddles. If you have electrical cords that are damaged or are missing an outer jacket, replace those immediately.

Lastly, proper use and storage of fuel is essential! Do not store fuel in the house and do not add fuel while the generator is running. Clean up any spilled gas before restarting the generator.

A generator can really be a life-saver during an ice outage, like several of our co-ops experienced this year, but it can also create a life-threatening hazard if not used properly.

As always, if you have any questions about generators, don’t hesitate to contact your local electric cooperative. Be safe, and have confidence that your co-op linemen will do their best to keep those lights on.

For More Information:

Ken Macken is Manger of Safety and Loss Control for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, 217-241-7933.


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Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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