Generators: Friend and Foe


When the lights go out for an extended period, having a backup generator is very comforting. With electricity for at least a portion of your needs, life can come close to normal. Generators used properly are definitely your friend in times of need.

When generators are used incorrectly, they immediately become a foe. They create dangerous situations for you, your neighbors, and co-op line crews…situations that can be deadly.

The most common reason generators take on a deadly bent is that they are connected to the user’s home incorrectly. Even though all generator user manuals say not to do this, a lot of folks simply plug the generator into an outlet in the home, either a regular wall outlet or the heavier dryer outlet. Both are an absolute mistake. For one thing, the entire output of the generator is pushed into a circuit whose wiring and protective devices were never sized to handle that kind of load. Overheating and fires are a real possibility.

But the danger doesn’t end at the risk to the home. Generators will back feed into the power lines. Even throwing the main breaker is not a guarantee that the power won’t make its way into the co-op system. When it does, the first device this electricity encounters is a transformer. These pieces of equipment are two-directional. They take high voltage electricity from your cooperative and reduce it to the voltage your home uses, 240 and 120 volts. When the power comes from your house, the transformer dramatically increases the voltage and sends it further up the line.

The result? Wires that workers or even neighbors thought were dead are now fully energized and have their full lethal potential. Just walking near an energized line on the ground can be fatal to people and pets. Co-op crews realize that generators will be used during a major outage. When they arrive to work on restoration, they can usually hear them running. When they hear them, they employ their training for working on live wires.

But manufacturers have responded to noise complaints by developing much quieter generators. So quiet that now the crews might not hear them. In a case I am familiar with, a tree ripped down a wire, creating an outage. It was a nice quiet Sunday. As the line crew worked to rebuild the line, one of the crew brushed a transformer connection. Electricity flashed through his hand and exited through his bicep. The owner of the home had a whisper model generator, had connected it incorrectly, and put power back into what should have been dead wires. The crew could not hear the generator and a casual brush injured one of them. He was fortunate as it could have just as easily been fatal.

There are only a few ways to connect your generator properly. One, use extension cords (nice heavy ones rated for a sizeable load) to power appliances. Two, have a qualified electrician install a disconnect switch and panel wired for the circuits that you want to power in an outage. The generator plugs into the panel. A third option would be to buy a whole house generator with an automatic disconnect, which also needs to be installed by a qualified electrician.

Generators are a boon when Mother Nature puts the lights out for long periods. Connected properly, that luxury won’t turn deadly. Be sure you can connect your generator the right, the safe, way.