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Published 24th July 2006, 2:32pm

If there is one thing that the past few years have taught us is that a portable generator is essential. But despite their usefulness, generators can be hazardous - indeed, life threatening -- if used improperly.

The following safety tips are being provided to assist residents with the proper use of their generators:

Generator Use

Most deaths and injuries associated with portable generators are from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning; other risks may include electric shock and fire.

Carbon Monoxide Hazards:

Generator exhaust can produce high levels of CO fumes very quickly. You cannot smell or see CO, so even if you do not smell exhaust fumes, you may be exposed. If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air immediately. The CO from generators can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death. If you experience serious symptoms, get medical attention right away and inform medical staff that CO poisoning is suspected. If the symptoms occurred while indoors, call the fire department to determine if it is safe to re-enter the building.

Safety tips to protect against CO poisoning:

  • Follow the instructions that come with your generator.
  • NEVER use a generator indoors or in partially enclosed spaces, including homes, garages, basements, crawl spaces, and other enclosed or partially enclosed areas -- even when ventilated. Open doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO build up.
  • Locate the unit outdoors and away from doors, windows, and vents that could allow fumes to enter buildings.
  • Install battery-operated or plug-in CO alarms with battery back, according to manufacturer's installation instructions, and test CO alarm batteries frequently.

Electrical Hazard:

Follow these tips to protect against shock and electrocution:

  • Keep the generator dry and do not use in rain or wet conditions. To protect from moisture, operate on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Make sure hands are dry before touching the generator.
  • 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 cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.
  • Never try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as "back feeding." This extremely dangerous practice presents an electrocution risk to utility workers as well as neighbours served by the same utility transformer. It also bypasses some of the built-in household circuit protection devices. If you must connect the generator through the house wiring to power appliances, use a qualified electrician to install the appropriate equipment in accordance with local electrical codes. Or ask your utility company to install an appropriate power transfer switch.

Fire Hazards:

Follow these fire prevention tips:

  • Never store fuel for your generator in your house. Gasoline, propane, kerosene, and other flammable liquids should be stored outside of living areas in properly labelled, non-glass safety containers.
  • Do not store fuel containers near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas water heater in a garage. If the fuel is spilled or the container is not sealed properly, invisible vapours from the fuel can travel along the ground and be ignited by the appliance's pilot light or by arcs from electric switches in the appliance.
  • Before refuelling the generator, turn it off and let it cool down. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.