Safe Installation of Backup Generators
A backup generator can be a real life saver or killer

Ken Macken Manager of Safety and Loss Control
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

“Sorry…we’re all sold out.” These are words that became very familiar to those shopping for generators in stores in central and southern Illinois during December’s ice storm. This ice storm caused one of the worst power outages to hit this area in many years.

So what do you do when your electricity goes out? Many people powered up the generator they already had or they were lucky enough to find a store that still had them for sale. This brings a ­situation of good news-bad news. The good news is that most electric cooperatives welcome the safe use of backup generators by co-op members. Some electric cooperatives even have generators for sale. The bad news is that there have been serious ­injuries and even fatalities because of the improper use of generators.

If you have already purchased a generator, or are thinking about it, we want you to know and take proper safety steps before operating an electric generator in your home or business.

First and foremost, properly connecting a ­generator into the electrical system is a critical step for safe use. A transfer safety switch to prevent a flow of electricity back through the lines must be used with your generator. This prevents “back feed” of electricity through lines that may be having work done on them. It is our recommendation that you have a licensed professional electrician install your standby generator.

Another consideration of safely using a generator is the fact that a generator emits deadly exhaust fumes that can enter living spaces if placed too closely to the living ­environment. Always keep the ­generator outside in a dry protected area.

Known as the silent killer, carbon monoxide is an odorless, ­colorless gas produced by incomplete burning of fuel, such as propane, kerosene, gasoline, oil, natural gas, wood and ­charcoal. Several tragic deaths have been caused by carbon monoxide already this year. A new Illinois law calls for homes to be protected with carbon monoxide detectors. Although this is not required in all-electric homes with detached garages, it still might be a good idea if you might ever need to use supplemental heat or a generator.

A few other reminders about using a generator safely include:

  • Turn off the generator and allow it to cool before refueling.
  • Before shutting down a generator, turn off and unplug all appliances and equipment being ­powered by the generator.
  • Read and follow all manufacturer’s operating ­instructions.
  • Make sure the generator is wired properly with proper grounding.
  • Know the rating of the generator and do not overload it.
  • Always use properly rated power cords designed and rated for heavier, outdoor use to connect ­appliances.
  • Never plug a portable electric generator into a wall outlet or connect directly to a home's ­wiring. As stated earlier this could energize ­utility power lines and injure you or workers down the line. Back feed also has the potential of damaging the generator or appliances in the home.
  • Place the generator as far away from the home as possible, and never in the house, a garage or near doors and windows. Being mindful of these guidelines helps ensure that the carbon ­monoxide generated will not be pulled into the home where it can poison and kill.

Linemen from across Illinois and sur­rounding states worked long hours in dangerous and cold conditions to repair miles of line downed by the terrible December ice storm. We are proud of their dedication. We are grateful that, except for a few scrapes and bruises, no one was hurt seriously. Please, please, please make sure you keep your ­family safe during the next extended power outage. One will surely come again someday.

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Ken Macken, Manager of Safety and Loss Control for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives,, 217‑241-7933.