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How to safely use a generator if you lost power during the winter storms

By Kristen Rogers, CNN

(CNN) — As winter storms track across the central and eastern United States, more than 40 million people are under a severe storm threat — with at least thousands of them having lost power.

“When a storm hits and the power goes out for an extended period of time, people are going to either buy a portable generator to power their home or pull out the one they already have,” Nicolette Nye, a spokesperson for the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, told CNN in 2021.

But there are risks: Incorrectly using a generator can lead to dangerous consequences, such as electric shock or electrocution, fire, or carbon monoxide poisoning from engine exhaust, according to the US Consumer Product and Safety Commission.

Since storms began occurring in late December, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention “has received 16 reports of probable carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from eight separate incidents, all related to improper generator usage,” according to the office of state Gov. Janet Mills.

If you’re without power and thinking of using a portable generator, here are seven tips for doing it safely.

1. Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced when a fossil fuel — coal, crude oil or natural gas — is burned by furnaces, portable heaters or generators, vehicles, stoves, grills, gas ranges, or fireplaces. Depending on a generator’s power capacity, it can emit as much carbon monoxide as a hundred idling cars, according to the Maine governor’s office.

Breathing in too much carbon monoxide can cause symptoms including headache, upset stomach, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depending on how much you inhale and your health status, you could also faint or die.

Installing and testing a battery-operated carbon monoxide monitor with a digital readout that shows CO concentration level is a critical method for knowing levels of carbon monoxide exposure, Nye said.

READ MORE: 25 ways to stay warm this winter that won’t break the bank

A battery-operated smoke detector might indicate whether it’s also equipped with a carbon monoxide monitor. Levels higher than one to 70 parts per million can cause symptoms.

Since carbon monoxide sinks, having a monitor in your basement is important. But the possibility of exposure on every floor means you should have monitors in the main living areas and in or near bedrooms so you can be awoken by an alarm while sleeping.

2. Disconnect your normal source of power

Even if you’ve lost electricity, you still need to disconnect your normal source of power by turning the main breaker or fuse off before plugging the generator into a household circuit, the CDC advised.

If you don’t, “the electrical current could reverse, go back through the circuit to the outside power grid, and energize power lines or electrical systems in other buildings to at or near their original voltage without the knowledge of utility or other workers,” the CDC warned.

This back-feed could electrocute utility workers or people in neighboring buildings, said Paul Hope, a home and appliances writer at Consumer Reports, in a previous interview.

3. Know where and how to position them

Generators are for outdoor use only, far away from any physical structures. The National Weather Service said you should keep a generator at least 20 feet (6 meters) away from doors, windows and vents, and never run one inside a home or garage, even if doors and windows are open.

A very common scenario that leads to deaths, Hope said, is when rainy weather prompts people to put generators in their garage and maybe prop their garage door open, driving exhaust into the home.

“It’s very often, that sort of desperate circumstance in the immediate aftermath of the storm — people who have not used the generator ever maybe have no idea that it’s as dangerous as it is or thinking the warning is overstated. And it really isn’t,” he said.

Also, make sure your generator is properly grounded to help prevent shocks and electrocutions, which you can do by referring to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s guidelines.

4. Keep the generator dry

Operating a generator in dry environments and on dry surfaces is also important for preventing dangers, according to OSHA. If you are wet or standing in water, dry yourself and/or move out of the water before operating the generator.

If the weather is rainy, you can use a canopy-like structure to protect the generator from water.

5. Plug equipment directly into the generator

To plug equipment such as refrigerators or laptop chargers directly into the generator, “use heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cords that are in good working condition and have a wire gauge that can handle the electric load of any connected appliances,” the US energy department office advised.

The owner’s manual of your generator should indicate what gauge you need, Hope said. When you’re shopping, know “the lower the (gauge) number, the thicker the cord and the thicker the cord, the more electricity it can carry safely,” he added.

Don’t plug one extension cord into another. If you use a thin, flimsy cord, you could send too much electricity through and start a fire.

And remember: Outdoor-rated and thicker extension cords are made to be protected from the elements, but the generator itself still should stay dry.

6. Take care of your fuel

If you need to store fuel, consider how much you can store and for how long, since gasoline or diesel fuel saved for more than a month may need additional chemicals added to remain usable.

Check with your generator’s supplier or manufacturer’s instructions for guidance, or buy fuel stabilizer from a hardware store or gas station, which will allow you to store it for 18 to 24 more months, Hope said. Store fuel in containers approved by the American National Standards Institute or OSHA in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place, away from all potential heat sources.

Before refueling, turn off the generator and let it cool. If the generator is hot when you’re refueling it, any gas that spills on the outside could ignite, Nye said.

Additionally, “if there’s a really big storm, like the recent hurricane, and the gas stations themselves don’t have power, it becomes really crucial to prioritize what it is you want to power,” Hope said. “Things like medical equipment, typically refrigeration, phone chargers, laptops, anything you might need to communicate for safety — those are all really great things to power.”

7. Inspect and maintain your generator regularly

Caring for your generator involves regularly inspecting above-ground storage tanks, pipes and valves for cracks and leaks, according to the US energy department. If anything is damaged, immediately replace it.

If the generator is in good shape, keep fresh fuel in the tank and run the generator intermittently so it will be ready when emergencies happen.

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