How To Safely Use A Portable Generator

gasoline portable generator

If you've ever been in a bad thunderstorm and have lost power, you know what it's like to want your electricity back on as soon as possible. You might have even gone to your local big box and invested in a portable generator.

These machines are not meant to run your whole house. They are a temporary fix to help people through storms and allow them to be a little more comfortable while their power is out.

They make life easier and can save tons of money in lost groceries and time. Let's face it; if you can see and cook even when the power's out, life is a whole lot better. If your power goes out in the winter, being able to run a small heater can be a lifesaver.

Unfortunately, people can get creative with these generators without understanding their dangers, and this thinking out of the box causes around 70 deaths per year. These statistics make it one of the deadliest products consumer products available.

Our task today is to teach you how to safely use a portable generator so that you can enjoy your life when the lights go out. Read on to stay safe and comfortable while using your generator.

What Kind of Hazards Do Portable Generators Pose?

The majority of portable generator deaths in the U.S. result from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a clear odorless and tasteless gas that emits from generator exhaust, and the amount of CO that generators emit is the same as nearly 100 cars. 

A common misconception about running generators is that they can operate anywhere as long as it is outside. This isn't the case. Here are some ways that CO poisoning can happen when a generator is outdoors:

Operation in a Garage

Most people think that running a generator with an open garage door is a perfectly safe situation. It can be safe, but the exception is wind direction and air pressure. If those conditions aren't optimal, CO can build up in the area quickly and poison the occupants.

Operation in a garage is a "better safe than sorry" situation: why risk CO poisoning?

Operation Near an Open Window or Door

CO can travel into a home through a window easily and build up inside the house. Keeping a door cracked to allow extension cords inside also allows CO inside. CO doesn't dissipate and can linger inside for hours after the generator is off.

Operation in Any Enclosed Structure

Operating a portable generator indoors will cause sickness and death. Even if the generator is running on a porch or covered patio, the considerable amount of CO in the exhaust builds up around the machine and causes a hazardous environment.

Electrical Accidents

Generators have warning stickers on them that read "operate with adequate ventilation" and "Only use in dry conditions."

These instructions pose a problem because portable generators operate during power outages, which often happen in stormy weather and wet conditions. Everyone knows that water and electricity don't mix, and generators pose a risk of electrocution and shock when exposed to moisture.

Water isn't the only way that generators can cause electrical danger. There are specific ways the generator should connect to anything in the house, and an indoor outlet isn't one of them.

If the power is restored and the generator is plugged into a home outlet, the surge will feed back into the power grid and can electrocute power workers and neighbors. It also bypasses your home's circuit protection features.


Your portable generator runs on flammable fuel. Propane, diesel fuel, and gasoline all present the possibility of catching fire. A common mistake that users make is to refuel the generator while it is still hot. Gasoline spilled on hot components ignites easily.

Where Can I Find Out How to Safely Use a Portable Generator?

Right here. We'll provide information about how to choose, set up, connect, use, and store your portable generator so that you can get through power outages with confidence and security.

Choose The Right Generator

Before you purchase a generator, calculate the wattage you need. Typically, a generator should be able to power a bathroom, a couple of lights, your refrigerator, your furnace, and your well pump. If you have a sump pump, you should figure that in as well.

If you're in a hot climate, you may wish to power a window air conditioner as well. Calculating all of this is tricky, but there are online resources to help you with that.

Buy Your Generator When You Don't Need It

Once you have calculated your electrical needs, go ahead and make the purchase. If you wait until your power is out, you may make a mistake in connecting or using it. Buy one, test it, and have it ready for when you need effortless backup power.

Read The Instructions and Follow Them

You will find that some of the warnings in the instruction booklet are similar to what you are reading here. You can't be too safe, so heed them.

Protect Yourself and Your Generator

To reiterate: never run your generator indoors. Indoors means in your house, on your porch, near a window, or in your garage, even with the door open. Basements are out as well. 

If you can't get them wet, and you need to run them during inclement weather, what are you to do? Buy or build a running generator enclosure. Depending on what you want, you can choose a generator tent or make a doghouse-style cover with a vent. There are also DIY solutions using PVC pipe and tarps.

Your solution must have these features:

1. The electrical outlets and sensitive areas must be protected from moisture;

2. The enclosure must have adequate ventilation to remove CO and prevent overheating;

3. The enclosure must be sturdy enough to handle rough weather including high winds; and

4. The housing must be portable.

When you have your generator protection in place, make sure the whole apparatus is at least 10 feet away from your house.

Purchase a Power Cord

Make sure your power cord is rated correctly for the generator wattage. It also needs to be suitable for outdoor use. An alternative is to use a generator cord and a transfer switch. A third option is to install an interlock device.

If you think a transfer switch or interlock device is the way to go, you'll need to hire an electrician to install them. You can do this if you are a professional electrician or have previous electrical training.

Never Backfeed

We mentioned backfeeding earlier, but this is what people do (and it is NOT a good idea). They create an extension cord with prongs on both ends and plug it into an interior electrical outlet. Everything on that circuit is then powered.

If they do not throw the main breaker on the service panel, the electricity goes back out to the grid and the transformer, and the high voltage can kill or injure a utility worker trying to repair the lines.

Cool Refuel

Never refuel the generator when it's hot. The generator will cool off quickly, and it's worth it to not start a fire by spilling your fuel of choice on red-hot elements.

Also, don't store your fuel near the generator. It may be convenient, but it's not worth the risk when you're dealing with your power outage.

Store and Treat Your Fuel Well

Use a fuel stabilizer if you're using gasoline so that it doesn't degrade rapidly. Purchase a good quality gas can with safety features like an integral spout. 

Some Final Considerations

Portable generators are a terrific invention and do much to ease the hardship of power outages. Even when you use the utmost care, accidents happen, so a few more precautions can keep you and your family as safe as possible.

Install a carbon monoxide detector in your house. This small investment can save your life, and your family's in case CO contaminates your living area.

Make sure your hands are dry when operating your generator.

Check your power cords for damage before you use them.

Following the manufacturer's instructions and heeding the information in this article will give you the best possible portable generator experience. 

If you're a DIY type, check out our other articles on how to do things. The site contains helpful, up-to-date information and tips. In an age where information changes all the time, it is a reliable source of useful information.


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