Portable Generator Hazards

Portable generators are useful when you need temporary or remote electric power, but they can also be dangerous.  Every year people die in incidents related to portable generator use.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that between 1999 and 2004 portable generators caused 172 Carbon Monoxide poisoning deaths in the United States.  Mostly from generators used indoors or in partially-enclosed spaces.

Carbon Monoxide Hazards

When used in a confined space, portable generators can produce high levels of Carbon Monoxide within minutes. When using your portable generator, remember that you cannot see or smell Carbon Monoxide. Even if you do not smell exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed to Carbon Monoxide.

To avoid Carbon Monoxide poisoning when using portable generators:

  • Never run portable generators indoors, including garages, basements, crawlspaces, sheds, or any other enclosed area.
  • Locate the unit outdoors and far from doors, windows, and vents that could allow CO to come indoors.
  • Get to fresh air right away if you start to feel dizzy or weak.
  • Install Carbon Monoxide alarms in your home, RV, or any areas where CO may be present.

Electrical Hazards

  • Generators pose a risk of shock and electrocution, especially if they are operated in wet conditions. If you must use a generator when it is wet outside, protect the generator from moisture to help avoid the shock/electrocution hazard, but do so without operating the generator indoors or near openings to any building that can be occupied in order to help avoid the CO hazard. Operate the generator under an open, canopy-like structure on a dry surface where water cannot reach it or puddle or drain under it. Dry your hands, if wet, before touching the generator.
  • Connect appliances to the generator using heavy-duty extension cords that are specifically designed for outdoor use. Make sure the wattage rating for each cord exceeds the total wattage of all appliances connected to it. Use extension cords that are long enough to allow the generator to be placed outdoors and far away from windows, doors and vents to the home or to other structures that could be occupied. Check that the entire length of each cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs. Protect the cord from getting pinched or crushed if it passes through a window or doorway.
  • NEVER try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as “backfeeding.” This is extremely dangerous and presents an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbors served by the same utility transformer. It also bypasses some of the built-in household circuit protection devices.

Fire Hazards

  • Never store fuel for your generator in the home. Gasoline, propane, kerosene, and other flammable liquids should be stored outside of living areas in properly-labeled, non-glass safety containers. Do not store them near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas water heater in a garage.
  • Before refueling the generator, turn it off and let it cool down. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.

Protect Yourself and Your Family

With a little knowledge and adherence to a few basic precautions, these types of accidents can be prevented.  Always follow the manufacturer's instructions when using your portable generator.

For more information

CDC Fact Sheet on Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.

Article adapted from a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission fact sheet on carbon monoxide and generator use.