Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Stay Safe When the Lights Go Out

These may not be energy-saving tips, but they are life-saving tips coming at a perfect time. Now that most of the country has experienced at least one winter storm, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to talk about portable generators. Not exactly sexy stuff, but important nonetheless.

Each year, people die because they used a portable generator incorrectly. Generators operated in a closed space, a basement, garage, carport or crawlspace, can kill. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, generators caused 228 carbon monoxide deaths between 1990 and 2003, the most recent years studied. About 40 percent of these deaths occurred during winter. Almost 70 percent occurred at home. About 26 percent of those incidents resulted in multiple deaths. About 80 percent of the deaths were of adults older than 24. About 72 percent were men.

These deaths could have been prevented.

Never use a generator indoors.
A portable generator’s exhausts carbon monoxide. CO is deadly. It is colorless and odorless, which means you can be overcome quickly if you use a generator indoors. You can’t prevent the build-up of CO by running a generator inside and opening doors and windows or operating fans. The CO won’t dissipate.

Only use a generator outside where exhaust fumes can’t seep into the house. Only use a generator in a well-ventilated, dry area. Keep it away from air intakes, so that CO can’t be vented into your home. Keep the generator dry; protect it from rain and snow.

Install carbon monoxide detectors.
Check your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors monthly. If you don’t have any, buy and install according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Don't connect a generator directly to your home's wiring.
This can be deadly, because the generator can backfeed into power lines connected to your home. Utility transformers can increase this lower voltage to thousands, sending it along lines and potentially killing utility workers. The backfeed can also cause expensive damage to utility equipment and your generator.

If you want your generator hard-wired, have a licensed electrician install it with an approved cut-off switch that will automatically disconnect your home from the power grid when the generator is being used. Also, check with your utility before hard-wiring your generator.

Don't plug a generator into an electrical outlet because it can still backfeed into utility lines. Instead, plug it into a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated power cord, then plug appliances into the power cord. Make sure the cord has a sufficient wire gauge to handle the electrical load.

Don't overload the generator.
Generators have a power rating. They can only power a limited number of appliances or equipment. Make sure the total wattage of all the appliances you want to power is less than the output rating of the generator. Overloading the generator can cause a fire in the power cord and damage to the plugged-in items.

Properly ground the generator to avoid electrical shocks.
Your owner’s manual will give you steps to ground the generator correctly.

Follow the manufacturer's directions.
Before using the generator for the first time, read the owner's manual. Keep it handy for reference.

Carefully store gas.
Keep gas in approved, non-glass safety containers. Don't store it in the garage if you have any fuel-burning appliance like a water heater in there. Gas vapor is heavier than air and can seep along the floor, where it can be ignited by a pilot light or spark. So, obviously, extinguish all flames and don’t smoke when using gas or the generator. Shut off the generator before refueling. First, turn off all equipment you are powering with the generator, then shut it down too. Keep a fully charged fire extinguisher near the generator.

Be wary of burns.
Many generator parts, such as the muffler, get hot during operation. These parts are hot enough to burn you, so stay clear and keep children and pets away at all times.

See more interesting energy news in Gateway Energy's SmartWatch newsletter.
In the January 2011 issue, we tell you how to take an energy diet. We feature the Vornado Vortex Heater as our product of the month and give you an update on the future of the energy market. Subscribe to SmartWatch today.