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Safety Tips from the Heart of America Metro Fire Chiefs Council

Generator Usage and Safety: Preventing Disasters at Home

Purchasing a Generator

If you choose to buy a generator, make sure you get one that is listed with the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) or Factory Mutual (FM). Look at the labels on lighting, appliances and equipment you plan to connect to the generator to determine the amount of power that will be needed to operate the equipment.

For lighting, the wattage of the light bulb indicates the power needed. Appliances and equipment usually have labels indicating power requirements on them. Choose a generator that produces more power than will be drawn by the combination of lighting, appliances and equipment you plan to connect to the generator including the initial surge when it is turned on. If your generator does not produce adequate power for all your needs, plan to stagger the operating times.

If you can not determine the amount of power that is needed, ask an electrician to determine that for you (if your equipment draws more power than the generator can produce, you may blow a fuse on the generator or damage the connected equipment).

Using a Generator

Under no circumstances should portable generators be used indoors, including inside a garage.

Many deaths result from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning associated with portable generators. The most common improper placements of portable generators that result in injury or death are in crawl spaces, basements and attached garages (within or in close proximity to the home).  Adequate ventilation is necessary and proper refueling practices, as described in the owner’s manual, must be used.  Always follow the directions supplied with the generator.

It’s an excellent idea to install one or more CO alarms inside your home (follow manufacturer’s installation directions). If CO gas from the generator enters your home and poses a health risk, the alarm will sound warning you. Many home fires and deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning have occurred from using a generator improperly.

Be sure to let the generator cool down before refueling

Store fuel for the generator in an approved safety can. Use the type of fuel recommended in the instructions or on the label on the generator. Local laws may restrict the amount of fuel you may store or the storage location. Ask your local fire department for additional information about local regulations.  Fuel for the generator should always be stored out of doors, in a locked shed or other protected area. Do not store fuel in a garage, basement or anywhere inside a home, since vapors can be released that may cause illness and are a potential fire or explosion hazard.

Do not hook up a generator directly to your home’s wiring

The safest thing to do is connect the equipment you want to power directly to the outlets on the generator. There are several reasons why hooking up a generator to your home’s electrical service is not a wise idea.

Home-use (non-industrial) generators do not supply enough amperage to supply sufficient power for today’s homes (that is, to run a furnace, lighting, appliances and other electronic equipment). Unless your home’s power supply was installed with a disconnect to the main power feeding lines, power you put into your home from a generator could backfeed into the main line and cause problems for the electrical utility company, your neighbors or yourself.

Backfeeding is supplying electrical power from a generator at the residence into the incoming utility lines. This occurs when the necessary equipment used to isolate the generator from the incoming power lines is not installed. Improper connection methods not only endanger the building occupants but pose a serious hazard to electric utility workers as well. The National Electrical Code®, published by the National Fire Protection Association, is a nationally recognized standard for safe electrical installations. The NEC® does permit an interface between the normal power source (generally the electric utility) and an alternate power source (such as a standby or portable generator) provided that the proper transfer equipment that prevents backfeeding is used.

There are a number of products available that will provide either an automatic or manual transfer between two power sources in a manner prescribed by the NEC®. When selecting a product for this function, it should be one that has been evaluated for safe performance by a nationally recognized testing organization such as Underwriters Laboratories. The product must be installed according to the NEC® guidelines, all applicable state and local codes, and the manufacturer’s instructions. Homeowners should only attempt to install such products if they have a thorough knowledge of safe electrical installation practices for this type of equipment. Otherwise a qualified electrician should be contacted. 

If you have additional questions, please consult a licensed electrician, your local fire department or your community’s building safety or engineering department. This information was developed with technical advice from the National Fire Protection Association (publisher of the National Electric Code®).


Floyd Peoples, Chief Fire Marshal, Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department, 816-784-9100
Heart of America Metro Fire Chiefs Council, 9550 W. 95th St., Overland Park, Kan. 66212