5 generator mistakes that can leave you in the dark or worse

Consumer Reports News: November 12, 2012 04:38 PM

Of the dozens of deaths attributed to Hurricane Sandy, many were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from generators being run in garages, basements, porches and other enclosed or partially enclosed spaces. Unfortunately, the rush to power a home without lights, heat or a running refrigerator, can leave little time to protect yourself and your home from the generator itself. Before the next emergency, here are five known hazards you can prevent.

Running the generator too close to the home. If you have a stationary generator, it should have been professionally installed as far away from the home as its instructions and local codes require. But for a portable, the threat from carbon monoxide—an odorless, invisible gas—can be deadly. Keep it away from any doors and windows. Never run it in a garage, even if the doors are open. Instructions for a portable generator warn you not to run it in the rain. To protect it from moisture, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends operating it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure.

Overusing extension cords. When a storm hits, many supplies become hard to find, extension cords included. This means that for a brand-new generator, you have to rely on cords that might be years old—and unsafe for what you're connecting. If your generator has a 220-volt outlet, have your electrician install a transfer switch with an outdoor power inlet—meaning one safe connection rather than multiple questionable ones. But if your generator is small and lacks a 220-volt outlet, your only possible connections are through extension cords. Stock up on 12-gauge cords, which can handle most 110-volt appliances.

Connecting directly to your service panel. Anything hard-wired to your service panel, such as ranges and heating/cooling systems, have no plugs you could connect to the generator. So the temptation may arise to connect the generator right to the service panel. The danger? When the power comes back, the excess could flow backwards up the line and endanger utility workers.

Shrugging off fuel considerations. Ideally, you'd think about available fuel before buying a generator—and envision the blocked roads, closed gas stations, gas rationing, and other problems some people are still experiencing after Sandy. So whether your generator uses gasoline, diesel fuel, or propane, you need to have plenty on hand at the first sign of a storm. (For a stationary unit using natural gas, you should be fine.) Most portables use roughly 8 to 22 gallons of gasoline a day, compared with four to eight 20-pound tanks of propane for portable models. A 250-gallon propane tank for stationary units can run 8 to 15 days. Before refueling a gasoline unit, however, you'll need to turn it off and let it cool. Splashing gas on the hot exhaust, near the spark plug, or elsewhere on a running generator could easily start a fire.

Neglecting the maintenance. Your owner's manual will tell you how often to change the oil and which to use—including instructions for doing so after the first few hours of operation. If your generator uses gasoline, mix in stabilizer before fueling and avoid long-term storage of fuel. (Every six months you can pour unused gasoline into your car's gas tank and start with with fresh stabilized fuel.) Skipping routine maintenance won't ruin your generator but the lack of attention may mean it won't start or seizes up. And no power means that sump pumps can't drain a flooded basement. If you have a well, you'll have no water for showers or toilets. During the winter, pipes can freeze and burst. And you can lose a refrigerator full of food.

Thinking about buying a generator? Before you start shopping, check out our buying advice for generators. Then see our Ratings of 11 portable and three stationary models.

Ed Perratore

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