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How to Plan for a Power Outage and Use Generators Safely

10/04/2023

Plan | Stay Safe • Earthquakes | Extreme Heat | Floods | Hurricanes | Lightning | Tornadoes | Winter Storms

Nearly every home is susceptible to power outages caused by disasters. Some disruptions last for days, even weeks. Electrical power loss can create unhealthy and unsafe living conditions or building damage.

Taking steps to prepare before a power outage is the best way to maintain your family’s comfort and avoid danger, costly losses, or damage to your home. Learning how to protect food, prevent mold growth, safely use generators, prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and avoid house fires when power returns are all essential parts of your power outage preparedness plan.

Evaluate and secure different backup power options ranging from small backup batteries and solar charging options to portable or standby generators with an automatic switch.

Before a Power Outage

Prepare for a power outage

  • Keep a disaster supply kit handy with water, nonperishable foods, medicine, printed copies of essential documents, baby supplies, pet food, and more.
  • Maintain a supply of cash as ATMs may not operate, and businesses and restaurants may be unable to accept debit or credit cards.
  • Maintain a supply of flashlights, batteries, hand-crank cell phone chargers, battery, and solar-powered radios.
  • Identify an alternative power supply for any family members who are dependent on electric medical equipment.
  • Consider purchasing a portable generator and learn how to use and ventilate it safely before an outage occurs.
  • Consider purchasing and installing a standby home generator with an automatic switch.
  • Keep your landscape trimmed and clear of dead or weak branches to prevent power loss from downed trees and limbs.

Consider evacuation needs

  • Keep your gas tank full or nearly full at all times as gas stations rely on electricity to power their pumps. If you use your car to charge your devices, never leave it running inside a garage, partially-enclosed space, or near a home.
  • If your garage door opener is electric, know how to locate and use the manual release lever. Understand that you may need help to lift the garage door due to weight. If you ordinarily enter your home through the garage, make sure you have an alternate way and key to enter if the garage door won’t open.
  • Learn about state or local emergency plans detailing the closest cooling and warming shelters. If the temperature is extremely hot or cold outside and the power outage is expected to last for a long time, consider relocating temporarily to a site with heating or air conditioning.

Protect electronics

  • Back up your computer files and operating systems regularly. Consider extra batteries and a power converter for your laptop.
  • Turn off all appliances and electronic devices when they’re not in use to protect them from power surges.
  • Use a high-quality surge protector for all high-value electronics. If you use a computer frequently, consult your local computer equipment dealer about an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
  • If your telephone requires electricity, such as a cordless phone or answering machine, plan alternate communication options, including a regular telephone handset, cell phone, radio, or pager.
  • Ask remote service providers if they have backup power systems and how long those systems will operate. Some voicemail systems and remote computer dial-up servers may not work if power is out in their location, even if your power is uninterrupted.

Plan for people with disabilities

  • If you need electricity to operate medical equipment in your home, plan with your doctor, health care provider or local emergency management office.
  • Charge devices and extra batteries to maintain power to your equipment during electric outages.
  • Contact your power company if you use oxygen or mechanical ventilation. Find out what you can expect in a power outage.
  • Sign up for automatic power company alerts to stay aware of planned or unplanned power outages and power restoration.
  • Plan how you will maintain power during an outage if you cannot be without it. Consider using a backup battery, a generator, solar energy or other alternate electrical resources. Consider how you will keep your medications refrigerated.

During and After a Power Outage

  • Keep your use of electricity minimal by practicing energy conservation measures to help power companies avoid imposing rolling blackouts.
  • Use sewage check valves and backflow preventers on your home to guard against contamination. Electrical power loss can have many secondary effects, including compromised water and sewage systems.
  • Use flashlights and rechargeable lamps instead of candles during a power outage. Candles present a fire risk when first responders may be unable to reach you.
  • Turn off any electrical equipment that was in use before the power outage, but leave one light on to alert you when power resumes.
  • Check on elderly neighbors, friends, or relatives who may need assistance if the weather is severe during the outage.
  • During a power outage, resist the temptation to call 911 for information. Use radios, online news sources, or social media channels for updates.
  • Be careful when driving through intersections as traffic lights may not be working.
  • Once your power is restored, wait a few minutes before turning on major appliances to avoid problems caused by a sharp increase in demand.

Practice food and water safety

During or after a power outage or disaster, your food may no longer be safe to eat. Take precautions to prevent food spoilage, and know when you should dispose of refrigerated food. Food that has not been refrigerated can spoil quickly and cause severe health problems, so you should take all steps to keep it safe. Here’s how the following steps to extend the shelf life of your refrigerated food:

  • Turn your refrigerator or freezer to the coldest setting before the power goes out.
  • Keep a supply of nonperishable foods, medicine, baby supplies, and pet food on hand.
  • Prepare one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days.
  • Fill plastic containers with water, leaving about an inch of space in the container, and store them in your refrigerator or freezer as space allows. Storing this water will help keep food cold during a power outage.
  • Keep one or more coolers with ample ice to keep your food cold in case a power outage is prolonged. Avoid storing perishable foods above 40℉ for more than two hours.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. If the door is closed, items in a refrigerator will keep for up to four hours. If the door is closed, items in a full freezer will stay frozen for about two days, and in a half-full freezer for about one day.
  • Use a refrigerator thermometer to check temperature. For proper food storage, refrigerated or frozen foods should be kept at 40° F or below. Discard any perishable refrigerated foods that have been above 40° F for more than two hours.
  • Discard any food with an unusual odor, color, or texture. Remember: "When in doubt, throw it out."
  • Food exposed to wildfire can be unsafe from the heat of the fire, smoke fumes, and chemicals used to fight fire.

How to Safely Use a Generator

You can also make your home resilient to power loss by using a combination of power generation options from basic to sophisticated. Then you can provide backup power for lighting, food preservation, limited air conditioning, prevention of mold growth on interior finishes, and much more.

Consult a licensed, professional electrician to evaluate your generator purchase options. Two kinds of generators can generate emergency power in your home: permanently installed standby or “whole house” generators, and temporary, portable generators.

Ensure your generator is properly ventilated. Improperly ventilated generators can cause deadly carbon monoxide fumes to build up. The fumes are odorless and are often fatal.

  • Understand the primary hazards to avoid when using a generator: carbon monoxide
  • (CO) poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electric shock/electrocution, and fire.
  • Follow manufacturer instructions before using a generator to learn about safe usage like proper grounding.
  • Consult relevant federal, state, and local regulations to see if you need a permit.
  • Before you operate your generator, disconnect the regular source of power to your home. Hire a qualified electrician to install the correct equipment that meets local electrical codes, or ask your utility company to install an appropriate power transfer switch.
  • Use gas-powered generators only in well-ventilated outdoor areas. Always operate the generator outdoors and away from open windows and doors. NEVER operate it inside, including the basement, enclosed patio, or garage.
  • Store fuel for the generator in an approved safety can. Use the type of fuel recommended in the instructions or on the generator label.
  • Ask your local fire department if local laws restrict the amount of fuel you may store at your location. Store the fuel outside of living areas in a locked shed or other protected area. To guard against accidental fire, do not store it near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas water heater in a garage.
  • Inspect and maintain your generator regularly. Consider a maintenance contract that provides at least one service visit per year. Keep fresh fuel in the tank, and periodically run the generator to test performance.
  • Regularly monitor above-ground storage tanks, pipes, and valves for cracks and leaks and make any needed repairs immediately. Meet any regulatory requirements for tanks.
  • Keep the generator dry to avoid electrocution.
  • Be sure to turn the generator off and let it cool down before refueling. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.
  • Regularly start your generator even when there is not a power outage to ensure that it is working properly.

How to Install and Use a Portable Generator

  • Install electric carbon monoxide detectors with battery backups on each floor of your home, including outside each bedroom.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and use a portable generator only when needed for essential equipment.
  • Plug appliances directly into the generator, or use a heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cord that is rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.
  • Adopt an installed transfer switch or connect appliances directly to the generator.
  • Only connect individual appliances to portable generators and never plug a generator into wall outlets. Plugging generators into the home’s electrical system can feed electricity back into the power lines. Known as “backfeeding,” this practice puts utility workers, your neighbors, and your family at risk of electrocution.
  • Keep generators, gasoline-powered equipment and tools, grills, camp stoves, and charcoal-burning devices outdoors and away from doors, windows, and vents that could permit deadly carbon monoxide to come indoors.
  • Keep generators outside and at least 15 feet away from open windows so exhaust does not enter your or your neighbor’s home.
  • Never place a generator in your garage.
  • Keep the generator dry by operating it only on dry surfaces and when your hands are dry. Do not use the generator in wet or rainy conditions.
  • Store fuel for your generator in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place outside your house. Keep any fuel-burning appliances in specially designed containers, and fuel your generator outside.
  • Be sure to turn off and cool down your generator before refueling.

How to Install and Use a Standby Generator

  • Consult a licensed professional to assist with your selection and installation of a standby generator.
  • Choose a generator that is listed and approved by Underwriter's Laboratories or a similar standards organization. Some jurisdictions require "air quality permits," so consult a licensed electrician to identify the requirements in your area.
  • Install the generator outdoors near the incoming gas service, near the main electrical panel, or on a flat, level mounting area.
  • The recommended distance from your home to the generator depends on state and local building codes. A minimum of 20 feet is recommended.
  • Position the generator so that the exhaust does not blow on plants or other combustible materials. No plants, shrubs, or other ignitable materials are allowed within 1.2 meters (4 feet) of the exhaust end of the generator set.
  • Do not install the generator where exhaust gas could accumulate, seep inside, or draft into a building. Furnace and other similar intakes must be at least 10 feet from the exhaust end of the generator set.
  • Do not use the generator near open doors and windows.
  • Do not place the generator set near patios, decks, play areas, or animal shelters.
  • Do not install the composite mounting pad directly on grass, wood, or other combustible materials.
  • Clear all ignitable materials, including plants and shrubs, building materials, and lawn furniture from an area at least 4 feet beyond the exhaust end of the generator.
  • In flood hazard areas, place the generator and its control systems above the highest expected flood level.
  • In high wind areas, securely mount the generator to a concrete pad according to the mounting instructions in the installation manual.

Turning the power back on

Before your turn the power back on

  • Hire a licensed electrician to inspect your equipment before returning it to service if you have standing water or if any of your electrical components are, or were, submerged in water. Carefully evaluate your circuit breaker box to ensure it is not compromised or wet. Replace any wiring that came into contact with salt water.
  • Disconnect cord-connected appliances from their outlets until they have been inspected, repaired, and are certified by a qualified professional as safe for use.
  • Circuits with permanently affixed appliances like dishwashers should remain off until the circuits and appliances are certified as safe by a qualified professional.
  • Heating and mechanical equipment should be inspected by a qualified professional before returning to use if it has been in contact with any water.
  • Failing to inspect and certify appliances, equipment, and systems as safe to use can result in life-threatening shock or electrocution and destroy the equipment as well.

How to turn the power back on

  • If you are unfamiliar with your home’s electrical systems, contact your power company or a qualified electrician to make your home safe from electrical hazards.
  • Follow your power company’s advice and precautions.
  • Watch for loose or downed power lines and tree limbs or debris as they may hide an electrical hazard. Treat loose or downed power lines as if they are energized, and report them to the power company, police, or fire department immediately. Warn others of the loose or downed power lines.
  • Do not enter a wet or flooded area or building if the power is on.
  • If your exterior electrical service equipment has been flooded, have the local power company remove their metering equipment before you enter the building. Explosion, electrocution, or fire can occur if power is restored to flooded metering equipment.
  • Turn off electricity at the main breaker or fuse box, even if your community’s power is off. Do not turn the power off or on at the breaker box if you must stand in water to do so; call an electrician. After confirming that the power is off, leave it off until a licensed electrician can inspect and repair the electrical wiring or equipment and a building inspector approves the work.
  • Do not go into a flooded basement unless you are sure the electricity is off.
  • Do not connect generators used to power a house until after all compromised wiring has been disconnected or replaced.

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