Backup Generators Electrical Electrical Monitoring Reliability

Select & Safely Operate Backup Generators

EP Editorial Staff | April 11, 2016

Power Transmission Line. Lightning strike. 3d render

When lightning strikes, backup generators become valuable tools. As with anything else in a plant or job site, safety should be the top priority.

Electrical outages caused by severe storms and disasters can be mere inconvenience or a serious problem. Whatever the origin and extent of an outage, backup generators offer a reliable power source and great peace of mind. As with all things electrical, though, the incorrect use of generators can create potentially hazardous situations—for end-users and electricians, as well as for utility workers who install and maintain power-distribution systems.

The Energy Education Council’s “Safe Electricity Program” recently outlined crucial considerations in selecting and safely operating the right generator for an application. Keep this advice in mind at work and at home.

Decide what needs to be powered.
What appliances, devices, and equipment are essential? Choose a generator size that can handle the full load of the estimated power needed. Note that it takes more power to turn an appliance on—its surge power—than it does when in continuous operation.

Stand-by or portable.
Stand-by generators are permanently wired units installed by a professional electrician. The installation should include a transfer switch that prevents feeding electricity back into overhead lines, which can be deadly for linemen. These generators are fueled by natural gas or propane from existing gas lines and automatically turn on in the event of a power outage.

Portable generators are typically fueled with diesel or gasoline, which must be regularly refilled. Unlike stand-by units, these must be turned on and off manually, and appliances must be directly plugged into the generator with a suitably rated extension cord.

Be aware of local ordinances.
Depending on location, electrical, positioning, or noise, codes may apply to operating or installing backup generators. Local electrical contractors or generator dealers can help with the selection of code-compliant units.

Operate safely.
Once a generator is installed and ready to run, heed these guidelines to ensure safe operation:

  • Thoroughly read and follow all manufacturer instructions to properly ground the generator before turning it on.
  • Do not connect portable generators directly to an electrical system. Doing so could re-energize overhead power lines and endanger the lives of utility linemen working to restore power.
  • There should be nothing plugged into a portable generator before starting it to prevent a surge from damaging the appliance.
  • When running a portable generator, always use properly rated extension cords (length and load) when connecting appliances.
  • Always operate portable generators in a well-ventilated space to avoid
    carbon monoxide poisoning and other harmful fumes. Never operate a generator indoors.
  • Generators can pose an electrical risk when operated in wet conditions. Make sure the generator stays dry during its operation, and never touch electrical equipment with wet hands.
  • Exercise caution around portable generators, which have exposed engine parts that could burn or injure individuals. Keep children and animals away from running generators.
  • Exercise care when refueling portable generators to prevent potential fires
    and spills.
  • Properly shut down portable generators by turning off and unplugging all appliances and equipment they are powering.
  • Remember to perform regular maintenance before and after each use. For portable generators, inspect oil and fuel filters, oil level, spark plugs, and fuel quality. Stand-by generators require less maintenance, but should still be inspected before and after power outages. MT

For more information about choosing and safely operating a backup generator, visit

The Energy Education Council, Urbana-Champaign, IL, is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting electrical safety and energy efficiency. Established in 1952, and headquartered within Univ. of Illinois Extension, the Council serves as a forum for diverse utility and energy organizations to collaborate on the mutually vital issues of efficiency and safety. Learn more at


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