By Miriam Raftery
Photo via Fire District 1, Edmonds, Wash. Home destroyed by a portable generator fire
December 6, 2020 (San Diego)—Generators have sparked several wildfires in California, ironically during power outages planned by utility companies to prevent fires. While generators are vital for many homeowners to operate electric well pumps, lights, refrigerators, computers, medical equipment and other necessities during prolonged outages, generators can pose hazards if not not used or maintained properly. Explosions, electric shocks, electrocution, hearing loss from noise, vibration hazards, and carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust are all potential risks from generators.
Last year, three fires caused by generators during power shut-offs by PG&E were reported in Nevada County, CA, Wildfire Today reported. This week, the Bond Fire that has scored over 7,300 acres in Orange County may have been triggered by a faulty domestic generator, according to Reuters. Neighbors have said that a generator exploded when a homeowner without power tried to start up the generator, though fire authorities have not yet confirmed the wildfire’s cause.
The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) have published guidelines on how to use portable generators safely. Below are highlights from the OSHA advice:
Shock and Electrocution
The electricity created by generators has the same hazards as normal utility-supplied electricity. It also has some additional hazards because generator users often bypass the safety devices (such as circuit breakers) that are built into electrical systems.
The following precautions are provided to reduce shock and electrocution hazards
• Never attach a generator directly to the electrical system of a structure (home, office, trailer, etc.) unless a qualified electrician has properly installed the generator with a transfer switch. Attaching a generator directly to a building electrical system without a properly installed transfer switch can energize wiring systems for great distances. This creates a risk of electrocution for utility workers and others in the area
.• Always plug electrical appliances directly into the generator using the manufacturer’s supplied cords or extension cords that are grounded (3-pronged). Inspect the cords to make sure they are fully intact and not damaged, cut or abraded. Never use frayed or damaged extension cords. Ensure the cords are appropriately rated in watts or amps for the intended use. Do not use underrated cords—replace them with appropriately rated cords that use heavier gauge wires. Do not overload a generator; this can lead to overheating which can create a fire hazard.
• Use ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), especially where electrical equipment is used in or around wet or damp locations. GFCIs shut off power when an electrical current is detected outside normal paths. GFCIs and extension cords with built-in GFCI protection can be purchased at hardware stores, do-it-yourself centers, and other locations that sell electrical equipment. Regardless of GFCI use, electrical equipment used in wet and damp locations must be listed and approved for those conditions.
• Make sure a generator is properly grounded and the grounding connections are tight. Consult the manufacturer’s instructions for proper grounding methods
• Keep a generator dry; do not use it in the rain or wet conditions. If needed, protect a generator with a canopy. Never manipulate a generator’s electrical components if you are wet or standing in water.
• Do not use electrical equipment that has been submerged in water. Equipment must be thoroughly dried out and properly evaluated before using. Power off and do not use any electrical equipment that has strange odors or begins smoking.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, toxic gas. Many people have died from CO poisoning because their generator was not adequately ventilated.
• Never use a generator indoors or in enclosed spaces such as garages, crawl spaces, and basements. NOTE: Open windows and doors may NOT prevent CO from building up when a generator is located in an enclosed space.
• Make sure a generator has 3 to 4 feet of clear space on all sides and above it to ensure adequate ventilation.
• Do not use a generator outdoors if its placement near doors, windows, and vents could allow CO to enter and build up in occupied spaces.
• If you or others show symptoms of CO poisoning—dizziness, headaches, nausea, tiredness—get to fresh air immediately and seek medical attention. Do not re-enter the area until it is determined to be safe by trained and properly equipped personnel.
Generators become hot while running and remain hot for long periods after they are stopped. Generator fuels (gasoline, kerosene, etc.) can ignite when spilled on hot engine parts.
• Before refueling, shut down the generator and allow it to cool
.• Gasoline and other generator fuels should be stored and transported in approved containers that are properly designed and marked for their contents, and vented
.• Keep fuel containers away from flame producing and heat generating devices (such as the generator itself, water heaters, cigarettes, lighters, and matches). Do not smoke around fuel containers. Escaping vapors or vapors from spilled materials can travel long distances to ignition sources.
• Do not store generator fuels in your home. Store fuels away from living areas.
Noise and Vibration Hazards
•Generator engines vibrate and create noise. Excessive noise and vibration could cause hearing loss and fatigue that may affect job performance.
• Keep portable generators as far away as possible from work areas and gathering spaces.• Wear hearing protection if this is not possible.