Use generators carefully, for safety’s sake and your own

Whew! The winds of winter certainly have made themselves known lately.

Nailing It Down

By Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty

Whew! The winds of winter certainly have made themselves known lately.

In our column last week, we talked about how to report power outages and how to stay safe in windy weather. After that, hundreds of people in Grays Harbor were left without power because of a major windstorm. We’re glad we were able to give you some basics about generator safety, because it looks like more than a few of you needed to rely on generators this past week!

While we aren’t weather forecasters, we’d place our bets that we haven’t seen the last of the windstorms for the season. So, today we will add some more safety tips on operating generators.


Used properly, generators can mean light, heat and comfort during a storm or power outage. They can be true life-savers. However, used improperly, they can be life-takers.

So, if you own a generator, take some time before the lights go out (again) to review the generator’s manufacturer’s directions so that you can plan where to safely position and operate your generator. Even if you’ve already used it this season, giving yourself a refresher on all the safety concerns will be time well spent.

The key, of course, is to take special care to place the unit so that exhaust cannot enter your home and cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

That reminds us to remind you that every home — especially those that might use a generator — needs to have a working carbon monoxide detector. If it has been a while since you checked your carbon monoxide detector, take some time to do that now. While you’re at it, test your smoke alarms.

Any household with a generator connected to the home’s electrical system in any way must ensure that it has a UL-approved transfer switch to isolate the PUD’s equipment from the homeowner’s. This needs to be installed by a qualified electrician or by the homeowner, then checked and permitted by the officiating electrical inspector serving your area.

To be clear: If you plug a lamp or your refrigerator or another appliance into an extension cord that’s plugged directly into the generator, then no switch is required. But if the generator powers an appliance through the home’s electrical power box, you must have an isolation switch installed and inspected.

Without this switch, the generator will “back-feed” active electricity to the transformer, because the lines work both ways. Therefore, someone turning on a generator without such a switch will send energy to the transformer at 120 volts and come out at 7,200 volts — causing injury or even death to PUD crews working on the lines.

In addition to risks of life and limb, an improperly installed generator can be ruined when the PUD personnel fix the outage and the power begins flowing through the lines again.

Once your generator is properly installed, here are some tips from the Federal Emergency Management Association. To prevent a fire, carbon monoxide poisoning or other disaster in your home because of improper generator use, this is what you should do:

• Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

• Always place the generator outside your home, away from doors, windows and vents. One generator can produce as much carbon monoxide — an odorless, colorless gas — as 100 cars! Even using generators inside partially enclosed areas is courting disaster.

• Do your best to keep the generator dry. Place it on a stable, dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure.

• Dry your hands before touching the generator every time.

• Plug appliances directly into the generator or use a heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cord. Ensure the entire cord is free of cuts and tears, and that the plug has all three prongs.

• Never plug the generator into a wall outlet. This can cause utility workers and others using the same transformer to receive an injurious — or even fatal — shock.

• Before refueling your generator, turn it off and let it cool. Never refuel the generator when it is running or hot. (Fuel spilled on the hot engine could burst into flame.)

• Store fuel outside your living area in clearly labeled containers that are not glass. Make sure the containers are kept away from fuel-burning appliances.

• In addition to carbon monoxide detectors, make sure to have a dual-sensor smoke alarm in your home. This device will sound quickly for flames and for a smoky fire that has fumes without flames.

• Prepare an escape plan and practice it twice a year with those who live in your household. Talk with family members about the escape routes — there should be at least two from each bedroom — as well as the predetermined meeting place outside the home.


Not all of us have generators, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t review what to do when the power is out. Next week we’ll have some more tips for preparation and safely living through a power outage.


NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor is always looking for new contractors to bid rehab work. We never discriminate and payment is guaranteed. Call or email us to find out more.

Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is executive director. This is a nonprofit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing for all residents of Grays Harbor County. For questions about home repair, renting, remodeling or buying, call 360-533-7828 or visit 710 E. Market St. in Aberdeen. Our office is fully ADA-compliant.