Portable generator safety is vital during storms

With Hurricane Katrina threatening South Mississippi, it’s vital that anyone planning on using a portable generator in the event of power outages know how to do so safely. That knowledge could save a life.

“While generators can provide a great service during long outages, they can be extremely dangerous if used the wrong way,” said company spokesman Kurt Brautigam. “If a generator is improperly used or connected, it can cause serious harm to the occupants of the home where it’s being used or to others outside the residence.”

One of the worst-possible practices, Brautigam said, is when an owner attempts to connect a portable generator directly into a home’s wiring. Most portable generators are not designed for such usage. If improperly installed or used, the energy produced by the generator can flow into the home or out onto the distribution line – an occurrence known as backfeeding.

“The possibility of backfeeding poses severe danger to the homeowner and/or the public,” Brautigam said. “Backfed electricity can flow into nearby distribution lines that are thought by utility workers or others to be de-energized or into a neighboring home that shares a transformer. Either of these situations could cause electrocution of innocent people.”

Because of such safety hazards, it is important that small portable generator owners always follow the manufacturer’s operating, maintenance and inspection guidelines. Mississippi Power customers are encouraged to call the company if they have any questions.

“When severe weather begins to threaten the area, our customer service center has an increase in calls regarding generator use, which is fine,” said Brautigam. “Customers sometimes ask about whether they should pull their meter to run the whole house on the generator. The answer to that is absolutely not—no one except authorized Mississippi Power personnel should ever remove a meter from a home, and normally that’s not how the generator in question is supposed to be used anyway.

“We can’t stress this issue enough, as more and more customers are buying portable generators. Anyone who uses a generator needs to do so safely, for their own sake as well as the sake of those employees who are working on lines during a storm restoration.”

Tips for safely using portable generators

• NEVER try to power the house wiring by plugging a portable generator into a wall outlet, a practice which can cause “backfeeding.” This is an extremely dangerous practice that 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.

• Plug appliances directly into the generator. Or, use a heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cord that is rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.

• NEVER use a generator inside a home. A generator emits carbon monoxide when in use and could cause poisoning. Also, make sure that the generator is not near an outside vent that could filter the carbon monoxide back into the home.

• Keep the generator dry and do not use in rainy or wet conditions. To protect from moisture, operate it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Dry your hands, if wet, before touching the generator.

• For potentially long power outages, permanently installed stationary generators are better suited for providing backup power to the home. Even a properly connected portable generator can become overloaded. This may result in overheating or stressing the generator components, possibly leading to a generator failure.

• If you must connect the generator to the house wiring to power appliances, have a qualified electrician install the appropriate equipment in accordance with local electrical codes. A licensed electrician can install an appropriate power transfer switch that would prevent feedback onto the distribution system.