Historic snowfall and frigid temperatures have left millions of Texans without power, and when you’re forced to your own devices to heat your home, using a generator is a common alternative in lieu of your local electrical grid. But while gas-powered portable generators are a viable alternative source of energy when an electric grid is offline, they must be used properly, as a host of issues can arise—many of which are dangerous and fatal.
If you’re battling the cold amid blackouts (or just need to use a generator in less dire circumstances), here’s a few safety tips to keep in mind.
What is a generator?
A portable generator is basically a mobile, gas-powered engine that can provide an auxiliary option for powering various appliances while an electric grid is inactive. The rigs vary in size and bulk, and offer different options concerning wattage and overall power.
The manufacturer Briggs and Stratton elaborates more on the minutiae:
Portable generators provide electricity by running a gas-powered engine that turns an on-board alternator to generate electrical power. Power outlets on the unit allow you to plug extension cords, electric-powered tools and appliances into it. In general, the more powerful the generator, the more outlet combinations are available.
Unlike standby generator systems, portable generators are not permanently installed, can be easily moved from place-to-place and must be manually started. Portable generators are rated by the amount of power they produce, which are called watts. Typically, the more watts equals the more items you can power up.
There are a multitude of different kinds of generators on the market, and it’s possible to have one power your home so the lights stay on and the refrigerator stays humming. But you won’t be able to do that on your own—you need to have a certified electrician help you do that in accordance with local energy codes.
How to use a generator for basic needs
Using a generator is simpler in theory than in practice, because there’s a number of precautions one must take prior to turning one on.
First, let’s start with fuel and oil. As BobVilla.com explains, make sure you put the appropriate amount of gas in the tank, in accordance with your user manual’s guidelines. There should be a gauge to help you add the right amount. You should fill it up on level ground, however, so you can accurately read the gauge. When it comes to oil, there’s usually a dipstick somewhere on the rig that you can pull up, much like you do when checking the oil in a car. If the oil falls within the upper and lower limits specified on the stick after you wipe it off, dip it back in, and pull it out again, you’ve got the right amount of oil.
Make sure your generator is placed at least 15 feet away from any open windows in your neighborhood, and as a general best practice, keep it 15 feet away from your home and your neighbors’ homes. The Department of Energy recommends using it only on dry surfaces and “under an open, canopy-like structure and make sure your hands are dry before touching the generator. Do not use the generator in rainy or wet conditions.”
Whatever you do—and this is crucially important—make sure you place it outside. Using a portable generator indoors is incredibly dangerous, as carbon monoxide seeps from the apparatus. The toxic gas is odorless and tasteless and causes symptoms such as “headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion,” per the CDC. Never plug a generator into the wall outlet of your home, as this can overwhelm your house’s circuitry and cause a fire.
If you start to feel faint or ill while using a portable generator, turn the device off and get fresh air—far away from the generator—immediately.
Calculating wattage, plugging in appliances, etc.
Make sure you know the wattage limits of your generator and understand how many watts you’re plugging into it with your appliances. Appliances typically have their respective wattages listed, but if you can’t find yours, you can google your models to find out. It’s also a decent idea to err on the side of caution by only plugging in one or two appliances at a time.
Bob Villa explains how to fire up the engine:
Follow your user manual for instructions on turning on the machine. You typically will need to turn the circuit breaker off and turn the fuel valve on before starting it up. Give the machine a few minutes to warm up, then flip the circuit breaker on.
It’s advised to use heavy duty extension cords that can withstand multiple kinds of terrain and high wattage, if necessary. As Safe Electricity explains, always turn your generator on before plugging in your appliances.
Once the generator is running, turn your appliances and lights on one at a time to avoid overloading the unit. Remember, generators are for temporary usage; prioritize your needs.
To turn off your generator, unplug your appliances and then power the rig down. But since every device is different, refer to your user manual for more specific instructions. It’s important to let the rig cool down after using it. And if you don’t foresee powering it up again within the next month, feel free to empty the fuel and oil tanks.