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How To Take The Electrocution Risk Out of Portable Generators

By Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Portable generators -- small combustion engines that turn a turbine to provide power on demand – are lifesavers during power outages from storms and other acts of God.  But this portable lifesaver power source can turn into a killer by causing shocks or electrocution if you don’t set it up and use it correctly.

I’m lucky I wasn’t a death-by-electrocution statistic when I set up my new portable generator for the first time.  Not only did I run the generator on grass saturated by the storm that knocked out our power, but my hands were wet every time I touched the machine, tempting fate to take me now.

Apparently, many generator virgins do it wrong.

PPL Electric Utilities, which provides power to central and eastern Pennsylvania, says that only a “small percentage of portable generators are hooked up correctly.”

“If installed and operated correctly, use of standby or portable electric generators poses little danger, but improper installation or use could be dangerous to you and threaten the lives of your family, friends, neighbors and electric utility crews trying to restore service,” the power company says.

The last thing you want to do is fry yourself or others when making toast during a power outage.  The following electrical “do’s and don’ts” will help you use and operate a portable generator safely while you enjoy the power it provides.

Portable Generator Do’s

  • Do protect your generator from moisture – rain, snow, dew – by attaching a canopy like a GenTent, placing it under a tarp or in an open-sided structure.
  • Do dry hands before touching a generator.
  • Do hire an electrician to install a transfer switch that prevents “back feed” by breaking the electricity path between power lines and your main electrical panel.
  • If you cannot use a transfer switch, do connect appliances to your generator with heavy-duty extension cords designed for outdoor use. Make sure the cords are in good repair and at least 20 feet long to reach generators placed far away from your house to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Do, if necessary, ground your generator per manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Do use a portable generator equipped with ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets to prevent electrocutions and shocks.
  • Do turn off all connected appliances before turning your generator on or off.

Portable Generator Don’ts
·        Don’t place a portable generator on wet, uneven ground. If you must operate the generator in the rain, make sure it’s fully covered with a GenTent  and find a stable surface for the generator.
·        Don’t pinch extension cords when they pass under or through doors and windows.
·        Don’t overload generators.
·        Don’t place a portable generator where there is a risk of flooding.

Portable Generator Never-Evers

  •  Never try to power the entire house by connecting the generator directly to wiring by plugging it into a wall outlet. This “back-feeding” not only can harm you, but can cause electrical fires in your wall. It also poses danger to electrical workers and neighbors using the same utility transformer.
  • Never stand in water when setting up or operating a portable generator.
  • Never operate a generator in a plastic tent or cardboard box, which can burn and start a fire.

Use your portable generator correctly and it will provide emergency power for years. Use it incorrectly, and the machine will outlive you.
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  4. Great tips! I'm an electrician and find that a lot of people don't understand just how important it is for water and anything electrical to stay away from each other. But there are a lot of options for using a generator even when it's wet and you've covered them all.

    Do you like the GenTent better than a homemade enclosure?

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