Even a Little Power Comes With Great Responsibility

The scene gives us nightmares:

A line worker is working high in the air on de-energized power lines during an outage. A customer in the area turns on their generator, but it doesn’t have safeguards in place. Electricity comes shooting into our lines from that generator, injuring or killing the worker.

This almost happened recently during a storm. Fortunately, our backup system worked, and the worker was not hurt. But thinking about what might have happened makes us shudder.

Using Generators Safely
Generators can be a handy source of power if an outage occurs. But generators can be dangerous. Electricity from a generator running into our electrical lines is known as “backfeeding.” The best way to prevent backfeeding is to have a licensed electrician install a transfer switch. “Please let us know you have a generator, and plan to use it in the event of an outage, so our crews can be aware of it,” asks Ty Hillebrand, Central Lincoln’s Director of Engineering and Operations. “Customers are welcome to email us at info@clpud.org or call us Mondays-Thursdays 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 877-265-3211 to notify us.”

image of a generator transfer switch
Generators should not be tied directly to a main electrical panel without a licensed electrician installing a transfer switch, which will prevent dangerous backfeeding.

Generators, often powered by gasoline, usually generate between 3,000 and 7,000 watts—enough to power a refrigerator, a few lights or small appliances, and charge cell phones. But if generators aren’t used properly, they can not only endanger line workers, but the owner’s home or family members.

“Installing a generator isn’t simple, and wiring one to your home or business requires a green tag from an electrical inspector,” Ty says. “If damage or injury occurs to our equipment or employees and we find that a generator was installed without a proper permit, the owner will be held liable.”

Another way to avoid backfeeding is to use a generator that has outlets, and plugging appliances directly into the generator. “Figure out what you want to power up,” suggests Steve Alexanderson, Central Lincoln’s Senior Engineer – Electrical. “Maybe a freezer or some lights, but please be careful—you’ll need to use extension cords rated for that use. And extension cords create hazards of their own. They can be tripping hazards, and because they can get too hot if they’re used wrong, they’re fire hazards as well.”

Generators burn fuel to create electricity, producing carbon monoxide, which
has no smell. When inhaled, carbon monoxide can cause people and pets
to lose consciousness and suffocate, so generators must be used outside, and at least 20 feet away from buildings, windows, doors, and vents. The Electrical Safety Foundation International found that over a twenty-year period, nearly 80% of carbon monoxide deaths were related to generator use, and 26% of fatalities related to generator use happened when a generator was used inside an attached garage or shed.