Almost everyone experiences power outages now and then. They are more common during the winter when wind and storms can knock down power lines. Sometimes, an outage does not do more than inconvenience you for a short period. Still, there are times when it can seriously impede your ability to live, particularly if it lasts for an extended period. For example, if it is extremely cold and your only source of heat is from a heater powered by electricity, your only choice may be to leave your house and find some other shelter or find an alternative way to power your home.
Finding shelter elsewhere can be difficult and expensive, so many people purchase backup generators. You can easily buy one at a local big-box store or even order one online. Having a gas or diesel-powered generator can be very helpful in getting you through a power outage. Unfortunately, many people are not as careful as they should be about setting up their backup generators, which can cause serious and even deadly results.
If you do not hook up your generator correctly, you can cause a problem called “back feed.” Here’s the problem: Backup generators are designed to “replace” grid power when the electrical grid is down. If you connect your generator to your main house power incorrectly, your generator can “back-feed” power from your generator to the grid, not just your home. If a utility company worker comes to repair downed power lines, your generator may expose them to electrical current that can cause shock or even electrocution.
How to Correctly Connect a Generator To Avoid Backfeed
Every generator comes with an operation handbook, and all of them explain the importance of connecting the generator correctly before using it. It is universally recommended that homeowners hire a professional electrician to install a generator-specific connection that will prevent back feed problems. This is such an important issue that, in many jurisdictions, it is illegal to install and run a generator in a way that causes back feed. Homeowners can be held civilly or criminally liable should an accident occur due to an incorrectly connected generator.
Whether or not you hire a licensed electrician, here are the two most important considerations every homeowner should observe when connecting a generator.
1. Establish a Fixed Location
To properly connect a generator, a homeowner should first decide where to locate it should it ever be needed. The generator does not have to stay there; it can be stored elsewhere. But the location needs to be identified and kept clear so the generator can be placed in that location whenever it needs to be hooked up. The site also needs to be established so that the appropriate breaker panel and switches are installed in that spot, specifically designed to connect the generator correctly.
Generators must always be located outdoors. They have combustion engines that burn fuel and need an exhaust outlet. If a generator is placed indoors, it emits exhaust into the building. Since generators are more often used in winter when your house is closed up, this means that if you put the generator indoors, you are emitting carbon monoxide into the interior, whether it is in a shop, home, or garage, where ventilation is not sufficient. Death from carbon monoxide poisoning can occur within a matter of minutes, and even if the poisoning is not fatal, it can cause long-term internal tissue and brain damage.
2.Install a Dedicated Electrical Panel and Transfer Switch
Have an electrician create a dedicated panel for the generator to be connected to a home’s electrical system. An essential part of the setup will be a transfer switch. A transfer switch allows the house to be powered by the generator or the grid, but not by both. When the source is switched to the generator, the house becomes disconnected from the grid, and there is no way to backfeed up the line. If power is restored to the grid, the homeowner can return to using that power by switching over to that source, which will disconnect the system from the generator. In other words, the house has two entirely separate electrical circuits: one that works with the grid and one that works with the generator.
The switch can be manual or automatic. With a manual switch, the person setting up the generator must manually throw the switch that designates the power source. An automatic switch automatically transfers whenever one source either loses or gains power. Automatic switches allow seamless transitions between the two sources and are often necessary for hospitals or other critical facilities where a time delay in supplying power can create serious harm.
Incidentally, another advantage of this system is that the separate panel created for the generator source allows the homeowner to select only those circuits that need to be operational in a power outage. For example, the generator panel can include breakers only for things like the refrigerator, stove, oven, water heater, heating system, and some lights. It helps a homeowner know and select the appropriate generator size to power up the designated appliances. It also ensures the generator is not overtaxed by someone turning on the television or having the generator power up some other non-essential item.
Other Problems Caused by Improper Generator Hook-up
Some people who buy generators ignore the instructions because they think they know enough about how they work. Some may want to have one on hand for contingencies but then leave it in a shed or shop until the power goes down, never having prepared for actually having to use them. This is when the most significant danger arises.
Careless homeowners have hooked up generators by hard-wiring them into their home’s main electrical box, plugging them directly into outlets, or wiring them up in random configurations.
Several dangers arise when this happens. For one, an electrical panel has breakers. When an unexpected power surge causes too much current to flow, the panel will “trip a breaker,” shutting off power for a given circuit. This saves the home, the home’s electrical wiring system, and appliances and fixtures from damage.
But when someone plugs a generator directly into an outlet, overloads can cause wires to overheat, leading to fires, explosions, electrical injuries, or electrocution to someone who comes in contact with an appliance or wire. If a generator is not hooked up to a panel with breakers, there is nothing to regulate the power flowing through the house from the generator. There’s also nothing to prevent a power surge from reaching outlets and appliances.
If power is restored to a home where a generator is backfeeding the line, both power sources feed into the home. The strain on the house’s electrical system can quickly lead to fires from overheated wires. In addition, the strain on the generator will likely destroy it; heating it so rapidly that it can ignite the generator’s fuel, causing an explosion.
Back-feed also means that the generator, by sending power to the grid, sends some power to other houses on the “downed” side of the utility line. This exposes neighbors to electrical injuries when they think the power is out. When a generator operates as a “mini power plant” for the home as well as anyone else on the same line, the generator is no longer serving its intended purpose. Instead of enabling a single homeowner to use power for necessary appliances, it may be powering up items the homeowner doesn’t need.
Don’t Put Yourself or Others in Danger
At Safeguard Equipment®, our goal is to reduce the risk of death and injury to people who work around energized lines – from utility workers to first responders, from electricians to firefighters. We design and manufacture personal voltage and current detectors (PVCDs) that warn workers about the presence and location of energized lines – including lines that should be de-energized but aren’t as a result of generator back-feed.
Line workers regularly put their lives at risk to keep the power on, and we are proud to know that our PVCDs have been instrumental in saving lives, including from hazards caused by backfeed. But electrical safety is not just for professionals; it is everyone’s duty.
To find out more about Safeguard Equipment and our state-of-the-art PVCDs, contact us today.