Pitfalls of Buying a Portable Generator

By Shyam Sane

Since the cost of portable generators has declined in recent years ( under $800 ), the demand and use of such generators has increased substantially during the recent seasonal storms such as Laura, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast recently.

This article has been prepared as the result of the personal experience of realization of  the troubles one can get into  for himself and  his family if one plans to install a portable generator on an impulse without proper planning, but just thinking that  emergency power for some essential electrical appliances like refrigerators/entertainment center and a few lights in the house, which can keep the wife happy  during  the possible electrical outage expected during such storms.

Surely, the manufacturers of popular portable generators such as Honda, Westinghouse, Yamaha, etc. provide more than  adequate safety warnings and instructions in the operating manuals and on the box containing the generator,  but how many people take the time to read and clearly understand the safety instructions on an equipment box? Many times it gets overlooked, right? Its  just human nature.

In this case, I purchased a generator on an impulse, thinking of  installing  the generator  close to the electrical fuse box, located in the garage, to connect the generator into selected electrical zones and get the emergency power to a few appliances during an outage. Fortunately,  the generator did not get installed in time for  Hurricane Laura when  it was expected to arrive in the Houston area because a certified electrician was not available to perform  the electrical wiring hook-up associated with the generator. 

Now I had time to do some planning. I consulted my friends, who happened to have substantial experience working  in local refineries, analyzing safety hazards associated with installation of any new equipment in refinery and chemical plants. The group of friends quickly analyzed the topic of installation of  the portable generator at home.

The group identified the following pitfalls and dangers:

1) first & foremost, most people know that an electrical  generator creates exhaust that contains very  deadly and poisonous Carbon Monoxide gas due to incomplete combustion of the fuel used for the generator. One cannot smell Carbon Monoxide and it has no color, but a person will die within a few minutes if  the generator exhaust is not ventilated to the atmosphere quickly. 

Placing the generator in garage, with three sides closed of the garage, and expecting the exhaust gas to go out from the open garage door is not a good idea because the garage door can be inadvertently closed by someone while generator is running,   you are sure to create  a gas chamber in the garage that will be capable of killing a person very quickly, if one happen to enter the garage. 

2)  The fuel tank capacity (gasoline ) can provide  about 6-8 hours of fuel for  the generator run.  Therefore, fuel will have to be added in the generator frequently. When gasoline is added to the generator, one must shut down the generator and allow it to cool down completely. Adding gasoline to the generator when it is hot can flash the explosive gasoline, erupting in a fire. Also, overfilling the generator tank, causing gasoline getting on the generator surfaces, will also create fires.

The generator gets very hot during the operation. Therefore, it will burn any body parts, if someone inadvertently touches the generator.

3) One needs to install Carbon Monoxide detectors and alarms for warning around the location of the generator to be on the safe side.

4)  Electrocution & shock exposure: The wiring and associated electrical panel box components used for connection of the Generator into the fuse box must meet the residential Electrical Code.  It must be installed by Certified Electrician. A non-specification material and a possible error caused in making the electrical connection can electrocute and shock someone if it is faulty.  The faulty electrical connection may even backfeed utility lines to the house along with a neighbor’s electrical System.

Safe  Start & Shut Down procedures for the generator during electrical outages must be developed by a qualified electrician and  associated training given to the home owner and operator responsible to run the generator to prevent any accidents.

5) More than likely, the emergency generator operation will take place maybe only a couple  of times a year when it is pitch dark everywhere. With  darkness and all manual dangerous  steps (no automation provided on the generator), one has to perform as described above can cause additional safety problems of tripping/falling down hazards, etc.  Therefore, plenty of battery-operated lights must be available in the area to prevent accidents. Since this is a very infrequent operation, chances of missteps are very high.

6)  The generator operation is very noisy and can be up to 80 decibels of noise level generated. Therefore, ear plugs must be worn to work around the generator to prevent damage to hearing. Also,  you must ensure the selected location for  the placement  of the generator does not present noise pollution to occupants of the home and neighbors.

7) In addition, please ensure that no windows/doors/vents are located for your and neighbor’s home where Carbon Monoxide can enter.

8) The portable generator will require periodic maintenance to ensure it is operable when needed.   

It was  very clear to me from the above Safety Analysis that a small benefit of getting power to operate a few appliances for a very short  period of time during an electrical outage presents  very risky and unsafe condition by operation  of a  portable generator at home, where the risk definitely outweighs very small benefits and adds accidents that are just be waiting to happen!

An additional observation during the above exercise being if you have frequent  electrical outages where you live, you may want to consider installation of  a Generac type electrical generator that is designed for an outdoor installation. This system comes with a built-in Automatic Control System, where the generator will safely start-up and shut-down  automatically upon electrical outages, providing power to your entire home, whether you are at home or out of town. You will always get an uninterrupted power supply.

In this case, the fuel for the generator can be from the natural gas utility line provided to the house, that along with the entire installation of the generator will have to be performed by professionals, who are experts in the field. Unfortunately, such a Emergency Power System will come with a pretty hefty price tag.

Shyam Sane is a retired engineer living in Sugar Land.