Energy Adviser: Safety key when using generators in outage

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It's like someone pulled the plug. There's no light, heat, Internet connection or entertainment. You're faced with food loss and, if you're on a well, no running water. Fortunately, extended power outages don't occur often in Clark County. Nevertheless, many want the security of a standby electrical system for peace of mind. But when using standby generators, safety is important.

A standby, or auxiliary, generator is a unit burning fossil fuels to generate electrical power for your home during an outage. There are two types: permanent and portable.

Permanent generators come in two sizes: whole- and partial-house systems. Both are wired into your home's electrical system and switch power on within seconds of a disruption.

At around $15,000 to more than $20,000, a whole-house unit lacks sufficient return-on-investment to consider in our area given the low number and short duration of power outages. They are better suited for hurricane battered coast lines.

The partial-house generator sits outside your home. It generates up to 20,000 watts of electricity — just enough to power a room or two of your home, such as your kitchen and living room. At several thousand dollars, these systems only offer a modestly better return-on-investment.

A portable generator is more cost-effective and practical solution for Southwest Washington. They are widely available and cost just few hundred to a thousand dollars, depending on their capacity. Like the other generators, their combustion engines consume fossil fuels and can be noisy to operate.

Portable generators provide up to 7,000 watts of electricity, not enough to power your entire home. "Use portable generators to power appliances on as needed basis — run the refrigerator for a while, then the stove, then the freezer," said Michael Getman, safety manager at Clark Public Utilities.

Your generator's wattage should be slightly greater than the entire simultaneous load. If you just want to run your TV, fridge, coffee pot and a DVD player, a generator putting out about 2,000 watts should be enough. If you want to power your furnace, a well pump and fridge, then you'll want a more powerful 5,000 watt unit.

Safety is critical

If you install a permanent generator directly into your home's system, it's crucial for safety that you also spend about $500 to have a licensed electrician install a transfer switch in your electrical panel. During an outage, this switch is used to cut your home's connection to Clark Public Utilities' electric system completely before you start the generator.

"This switch is a crucial safety feature preventing generators from feeding electricity back into the utility power grid and electrocuting utility workers repairing the system," Getman said.

When using a portable generator, use an outside extension cord with its amperage rated for your appliances to connect the generator directly to the appliance you want to power. The amperage rating is noted on the cord. Appliances also note their wattage and amperage ratings. Never plug a generator into an outlet in your home, it can send current backward onto "dead" power lines and injure or kill utility workers.

Running on fossil fuels means generators emit carbon monoxide. So never operate one in a garage or any enclosed space. Use them outdoors well away from the house. Locate your generator away from doors, windows or vents that could permit exhaust to enter your home.

Place your generator in a dry location and clear three or four feet around its sides to allow adequate ventilation and cooling. If necessary, shelter it from rain with a canopy.

And never refuel your generator while it runs, because any spills may spark a fire.

If you experience a power outage, call the Clark Public Utilities PowerLine, 360-992-8000 to report it and get updates. Or check the online outage map at ClarkPublicUtilities.com.


Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.