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Back-up Generator Safety  Smart Choices Archive

Back-up Generator Safety

A generator is a useful appliance during storm-related power outages, but be sure to follow these safety precautions.


A back-up generator offers protection from Iowa’s winter storms – and the downed power lines that occasionally accompany those storms. If you have a generator or are thinking about purchasing one, it’s critical to know how to safely use it. Unsafe operation can threaten you, your family, neighbors and even the linemen working to restore power. Moreover, unsafe installation or operation may result in a lawsuit, and your insurance may not cover your liability.

There are two types of generators; operating and requirements are different for each.

1. Portable generators. These have the ability to operate some lights and small appliances that you connect to the unit with a heavy-duty extension cord. Never connect this type of generator to your home’s circuit breaker or fuse box, and situate the generator outside your home to avoid toxic fumes in your home.

2. Permanently installed generators. Must be hard-wired, using a transfer switch, into your home’s electric system. A state or local electrical permit and inspection are required. The transfer switch isolates your home from the neighborhood power lines, and prevents any electricity from feeding backward into the overhead lines.

“Safety for the operators and users of a generating system in the home and utility crews cannot be over-emphasized,” says State of Iowa Chief Electrical Inspector Pat Merrick. He says the lack of a transfer switch on a permanent generator – or wiring a portable generator into a circuit box – can injure or kill linemen working to restore power or neighbors who might be walking near a downed line.

Chief Merrick encourages safe operation of generators to protect your family. Permanently installed generators are much safer to operate once they become a part of your home’s electrical system. Installation by a qualified expert is highly recommended. However, if you use a portable generator, you must take these precautions provided by Chief Merrick and the State Electrical Inspection office:

  • Before purchasing a portable generator, have your electrician or a qualified expert explain operation and what to expect from the use of a generator.
  • After purchase, make sure you understand how the generator works and the manufacturer’s instructions on proper grounding to prevent electric shock. If in doubt, get answers to your questions before using the generator. 
  • Realize that portable generators are only for temporary use, and that you’ll need to set priorities for their use as they won’t run all of your appliances.
  • Set up and operate the generator outside your home to prevent toxic and potentially deadly exhaust from entering your home. In addition, allow the generator to cool before refueling to prevent a fire should the gas tank overflow.
  • Only properly-rated extension cords should be connected to a generator. They should have a three-prong plug capable of grounding and the insulation should be intact.
  • Start the generator first, then connect the extension cord and appliances. That will protect the appliances and also prevent a fuse blowing on the generator. After starting the generator, connect the extension cord to the generator, and plug in and turn on your lights or appliances one item at a time to be sure the generator can handle the load. Realize that your generator most likely won’t be able to power your electric range, furnace, refrigerator or freezer. Also, don’t connect the unit to a well pump, as there is potential for a power surge that may damage the well pump.
  • Children and pets may be curious about the generator, but keep them at a distance to avoid burns from hot engine parts or an electric shock.
  • When the generator is no longer needed, it should be shut down, allowed to cool, and serviced and stored properly for the next time it is needed.
  • As another safety measure when operating a generator, make sure your smoke alarms are functioning properly. The reason: if the generator gets overloaded, it may create a voltage drop, which greatly increases the possibility of starting a fire.

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