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Summer Safety Series — Latest Power Outages, Spike In Generator Installations Prompts Safety Reminders

Thursday, July 5, 2012

By John Voket

This is the second part in an ongoing series on summertime safety featuring input from local officials.

Newtown and Connecticut dodged a bullet last weekend when storms swirled through the state causing some brief power outages. But news reports of millions without power from South Carolina to New Jersey probably have more than a few local families rethinking whether to purchase or install an electrical generator — whether it is just to keep some lights and the refrigerator on, or to keep the entire household up and running.

Whether it is a small portable unit, or a permanently installed whole-house generator, Newtown Building Inspector John Poeltl wants to be sure that residents are taking safety into consideration when faced with the frustration brought on by temporary or extended power outages.

"We've had more than 100 permits for home generator installations since last September," he told The Newtown Bee .

Mr Poeltl's office experienced an uptick in generator installations beginning shortly after last September's tropical storm, which exploded following the late October snowstorm. The number of permits being pulled for generator installations trended from four to seven in October of 2011, but ballooned to 23 in November, 24 in December, and 27 in January.

And while the number of generator installations trended back down to 16 in February and 14 by March 2012, Mr Poeltl estimates that during the same time hundreds of small to medium portable generators were also acquired. These smaller units are a greater concern for the building official, however, because of factors including carbon monoxide exhaust, the need to use them with long extension cords, as well as posing a hazard if they are "patched" into home electrical systems improperly.

"I think generators are more dangerous to homeowners because of carbon monoxide, than from electrocution or fire, especially with the portables because people want to bring them out of the rain or snow into their garages," the building inspector noted.

Mr Poeltl also knows of several cases where homeowners have attempted to "back feed" generators through their home electrical panel or clothes dryer plugs, which can be a deadly mistake.

"This can cause back feed to the pole and if a UI guy is working on the lines it can electrocute him," Mr Poeltl warned.

When it comes to the whole house units, the local official also pointed out some important guidelines.

"Whole house generator installations are not a 'do-it-yourself' job," he said, "you really need a licensed electrician. And depending on the model, there are clearance requirements from windows and the building itself — again mostly because of carbon monoxide exhaust."

But LP gas-fed generators also have a pressure regulator that must be positioned correctly in the event it trips, Mr Poeltl added.

According to Ed Ingalls of Connecticut Generator Systems, a typical installation for manual generator system, including the generator, installation and wiring, will range in price from $1,400 to $3,500, depending on the wattage. A typical automatic stand-by system will run $4,800 to $8,500, including the natural gas or propane hook up, depending on the size and wattage, most typically, between 7,000 and 10,000 watts.

These standby generators are completely automatic and run on natural gas or propane and will restore power within 15 seconds of a power loss. Portable generators are manually operated and are available in electric start and pull start; manual standby systems run on gasoline only.

The most typical manual wattage is between 4,000 and 7,500 watt.

Connecticut Light & Power offers the following guidelines to help protect homeowners from possible electric shock or worse:

*Never use a generator indoors or in an attached garage. Also, never use a generator in basements, crawl spaces, or other enclosed or partially enclosed areas, even when they are ventilated. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent carbon monoxide buildup. Locate the unit far from doors, windows, and vents that could allow the carbon monoxide to come indoors, which can be deadly.

*Do not connect the generator directly to your home's wiring. Have a qualified electrician connect the generator with a transfer switch so that it is not connected directly to your home wiring. Generators that are improperly installed can feed electricity back into the power lines connected to your home posing a deadly situation for electric line workers who may be working in the area.

*Prevent electrical shock; make sure your generator is properly grounded. Consult your manufacturer's manual for correct grounding procedures.

*Do not overload the generator. Prioritize your needs, and do not operate more appliances and equipment than the generator can handle. A portable electric generator should be used only when necessary, and only to power essential equipment. Overloading your generator can seriously damage your appliances and electronics.

*Read and adhere to the manufacturer's instructions for safe operation. Do not cut corners when it comes to safety; carefully read and observe all instructions in the owner's manual. Also, follow state, local, and national fire and electric codes.

*Turn off all equipment powered by the generator before shutting down your generator.

*Keep children and pets away from electric generators at all times.

*Use the proper power cords. Only use heavy-duty, outdoor-rated power cords with an adequate wire gauge. Overloaded cords can cause fires or equipment damage. Never use extension cords with exposed wires or worn shielding. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears, and that the plug has all three prongs, especially the grounding pin. Make sure the cords from the generator do not present a tripping hazard and protect the cords from getting pinched or crushed if they pass through a window or doorway.

*Remember to turn off the generator while you sleep or if you leave your home.

Anyone with immediate questions about a home generator for emergency backup power may contact Mr Poeltl or the Newtown Building Inspector's office at 203-270-4260.

Keep Heavily Used Generators Running Smoothly With Regular Service

Ed Ingalls of Connecticut Generator Systems believes that anyone who already owned and used generators to get them through the double punch of last fall's storms should be thinking about maintenance before they are needed again.

"Many residential generators ran 24-7 between the August and October storms," said Mr Ingalls. "As a result, oil changes and filters are likely grossly past due."

He said in a recent news release that it is critical to read and get familiar with a generator owner's manual and preventive maintenance procedures. Additionally, Mr Ingalls said homeowners should make sure their generator is performing its scheduled automatic weekly exercise test cycle and all indicator lights are functioning properly.

Other checks should include:

*Monitoring all fluids, including oil, fuel, and lubricants after prolonged use

*Visually inspecting all fuel lines and connections for leaks, kinks, loose connections

*Changing oil and filters after first eight hours of run time, then as per generator specifications

*Making sure generator is clear of debris such as leaves/grass

*Never putting anything on top of a generator

*Not waiting until power outage to find out if your generator still works

*Testing and make certain that your generator is putting out the correct voltage

*Checking for proper natural gas or propane pressure at the generator according to generator specifications

Equally important: Mr Ingalls cautions that warrantees must be filled out properly, and that homeowners must secure proof of registration and warrantee from their installer. It is also vital to follow the warranty guidelines, otherwise it may be voided.

Additionally, Connecticut Light & Power reminds anyone in the market for a generator that they may need a town permit or official inspection for it. This is the case in Newtown.

Also, CL&P recommends enlisting a licensed electrician to install it.

A generator must be connected to home wiring through a special transfer switch to be sure electricity produced by the generator does not back -feed into electric lines, which endangers the lives of workers making repairs.

Moreover, proper installation will prevent a house fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.

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