Backup power safely

You may be one of the millions of homeowners with a back-up generator for use when electric service is interrupted. A generator can be a real life saver keeping refrigerators, sump pumps and heaters working during an outage, but do you really know how to operate it safely?

Unsafe operation can threaten the operator, his or her family, neighbors, and even the linemen working to restore power. Moreover, unsafe installation or operation may result in a lawsuit and your insurance may not cover your liability.

Your generator may be portable, which can service some lights and small appliances that are connected with a heavy duty extension cord. They should not be connected to the circuit breaker or fuse box, and should only be operated while they are outside a home.

Or you may have a permanently installed generator, which was wired into your home by a qualified electrician, using a transfer switch. Such a device isolates your home from the neighborhood power lines, and prevents any electricity from feeding backward into the overhead lines.

“Safety for the operators and users of a generating system in the home and utility crews cannot be over-emphasized,” says electrical inspector Mike Ashenfelter. He says the lack of a transfer switch on a permanent generator, or wiring a portable generator into a circuit box, can injure linemen working to restore power or neighbors who might be walking near a downed line.

Ashenfelter encourages safe operation of generators to protect the family that is benefiting from the technology. Make sure you understand how the generator works and how to properly ground it to prevent electric shock. Operate them only outside to prevent toxic and potentially deadly exhaust from entering a home. And he adds that before refueling it, allow the engine to cool, to prevent a fire should the gas tank overflow.

When starting a generator, disconnect all appliances that might be connected to it. That will not only protect them, but prevent a fuse from being blown on the generator. Connect the extension cord and turn on the lights or appliances individually. A portable generator will unlikely be capable of powering an electric range, a furnace, a refrigerator, or a freezer. Its potential power surge may also damage a well pump if it is connected to it.

Children and pets may be curious about the generator, but should be kept at a distance to avoid hot engine parts or the chance for electric shock. Portable generators are only for temporary use, but they can be a helpful tool if used properly and priorities are established for their capacity.

Only properly-rated extension cords should be connected to a generator. They should have a three-prong plug capable for grounding and the insulation should be intact. When the generator is no longer needed, it should be shut down, allowed to cool, and serviced for the next time it is needed.

For more electrical safety information, visit or contact your local electric cooperative.

Molly Hall is the Director of Safe Electricity. E-mail Safe Electricity is a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council