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The portable generator prevents a great deal of hardship during power outages. Many households, in the hurricane prone regions, use these devices. As handy as they are, generators can also turn deadly if misused.

Typical portable generator

Portable generators are stand-alone devices, used to produce temporary electrical power. This varies greatly from a permanently installed generator. With a portable unit, there are three primary sources for potential problems; Fire, exhaust gas and electrical shock.

Electrical shock hazards

Permanently installed power units have several safety-features built in. There is an automatic disconnect-switch, which isolates the generator from the power grid. Connecting output from a portable-generator to household wiring is dangerous. Power will flow out to the grid and create a hazard for people working with the power lines.

Another issue is grounding. We ground the home system, because the Power Company grounds the grid. Grounding helps prevent lightning from damaging equipment. A system of grounds also helps prevent short circuits from charging things plugged into the circuit.

Adding an improper ground can create a shock hazard

Portable generators vary in the way manufacturers wire them. The frame of the generator may act as the ground. They do not connect such a system to the earth. Putting a ground on a generator, not designed to use it, can create a shock hazard. Adding a ground will provide a path for current to flow, when a short circuit occurs. Unless the generator manufacturer states to ground the unit, it should not be.

The only safe way to connect an electrical device is with a properly rated extension cord or directly plugging it into the generator. A cord should be the three-wire type, and rated for the amperage used. With the proper cord, all power is kept, between the device being operated and the power source.

The gauge (also gage) of the wire determines capacity of an extension cord. Heavier wire has a lower gauge number and can carry more electricity. A ten-gauge extension cord is much larger than an eighteen-gauge.

lower gauge number indicates a larger wire size 

Length also affects the amounts of current a cord can carry. We need a much heavier extension to transport electricity over a longer distance. A typical 18-gauge extension cord, will safely carry 10 amps, for twenty-five-feet. With a seventy-five-foot cord, the maximum load is five amps. We would need A sixteen-gauge cord to transport the same load, for seventy-five feet.

Watts are sometimes used to rate electrical devices, rather than amps. For instance, a lighting fixture may contain three 75 watt bulbs. To learn the amperage, the voltage on the system divides the total watts. Three 75 watt bulbs, equal a 225-watt draw. Divide the watts by the voltage, to determine slightly over a two-amp draw. Three of these fixtures would equal more than six amps.

The capacity of the generator must also be considered. A five-thousand watt generator, can produce about 45 amps at 110 volts. Exceeding the maximum will damage the generator and the powered devices.

Exhaust gasses from portable generators

Gasoline engines produce carbon monoxide when they run. This is an odorless and colorless gas that is poisonous. Because exhaust gas is hot, it will rise and can collect. We must take great care in selecting a place for a portable generator.

Fumes can enter a home through the eave vents

Engines should never be placed under the eaves, around windows, doors or under a carport. Builders vent the eaves of a house, and the hot exhaust can enter the attic. As the gas cools it may settle into the living area, creating a fatal situation. Never allow a generator to run under any part of the roof of a home. With an attached garage, the same danger of exhaust gas exists.

A battery-powered carbon monoxide detector is a very good investment, for anyone that uses a portable generator. This simple device warns occupants of carbon monoxide in an area.

Inexpensive generator cover built with PVC

Leaving a portable generator in the rain is also a bad idea. Companies sell generator shelters or they are inexpensive to construct. Below there are plans for a very simple shelter, built with PVC pipe fittings and a plastic tarp. When constructing a cover, allow enough room, over and above the generator, for heat to dissipate.  This design is naturally wind resistant, and inexpensive metal landscaping stakes can be used to anchor it to the ground.  Most generators will direct exhaust toward the rear of the motor.  If your model blows exhaust for the side, an inexpensive shield can be fashioned with sheet metal. 

leave adequate room for ventilation


Store any gasoline away from the home and in a covered area. Keep gasoline and the generator separated by at least ten feet. Fill the fuel tank after allowing the motor to cool and then remove fuel from the area. A funnel should be kept to avoid any spills. A fire extinguisher is also a very good idea.

Place container on the ground when filling

When filling containers with fuel, be certain the container is on the ground. Do not attempt to fill a container sitting in a vehicle or one being held by hand. Liquid flowing into a container can generate static electricity. This could create a spark and is far less likely with the gas-can on the ground.

Buying only the fuel that the generator will need is best. Gasoline deteriorates when stored and presents a hazard when kept. For tips on storing your generator after use, please see our Detailed Topic, Storing and Un-storing Portable Generators.


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