The do's and don'ts of home generator safety

February 11, 2022

Check out our list to learn the essential do's and don'ts of home generator safety!

Two men operating a home generator.

February of 2021 was a wake up call for some as we watched the entire state lose power and in some places, that power stayed out for days on end while snow storm after snow storm pounded into our homes. It was for that reason that many Texans said, "Never again" and began researching options for a home generator.

Unlike many modern appliances, home generators, such as gasoline, propane, or natural gas-powered generators, aren't simply plug and play; they require an in-depth understanding of their functionality as well as your home's power needs. Furthermore, while improper use and maintenance might cause your dryer to catch on fire, most appliances aren't dangerous - but generators can be. 

If you are one of the many Texans that have invested in a generator as part of your emergency preparedness plan, then it is important to understand how to safely use it. That's why we've put together this list of the most important do's and don'ts of home generator safety. Read on!

The dangers of home generators

Although electric appliances of all kinds can theoretically short out and cause a fire, the consequences for improper appliance use are generally minor. If you fail to turn off your refrigerator's ice maker, you might find your freezer filled with cubes. If you don't close your dishwasher door all the way, you may have some standing water in the kitchen. However, if you fail to properly use your home generator, the consequences could be dire, and even deadly. 

The primary dangers of home generator use are electrocution, fire hazards, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Generators come in all shapes and sizes, but almost all of them produce and distribute significant quantities of electricity - enough to be seriously dangerous if you aren't careful when plugging cables in. Additionally, if you incorrectly plug appliances into your generator, or if you fuel it improperly, fires are possible. But perhaps the most common and deadly danger is the carbon monoxide output they generate. 

Carbon monoxide, known by its chemical name CO, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable gas and is most commonly created by simple thermal combustion, like burning wood or running a gas-powered generator. It doesn't matter what type of fuel you burn or what device or method you use to burn it, some amount of CO will be created as a result and released into the air.

When inhaled, CO is absorbed by blood cells and combines with the hemoglobin, which prevents your blood cells from carrying oxygen to the rest of the body. The symptoms of CO poisoning are somewhat similar to flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain, confusion, and loss of consciousness.

Depending on the levels of CO you are exposed to, death can happen within minutes. According to the CDC, accidental CO poisoning is responsible for at least 430 deaths and 50,000 emergency room visits in the U.S. each year.

Fortunately, CO poisoning and the other dangers associated with generators are entirely preventable. 

The DO'S of home generator safety

In order to make sure your home generator is functional and that you are safe when operating it, let's look at a few critical safety considerations you'll want to take.

DO: Pick the right size for the power requirements you have.

If you find yourself in the middle of a power outage, what appliances, devices, or electronics do you absolutely need? Going without power for a few hours is usually not a big deal, but if hours turn into days, having an emergency generator can be invaluable. However, they are not a magic solution - different generators have different power production capabilities, and you'll need to make sure you know what your power needs are before buying a generator to cover them. 

Of course, most of us don't often think about the exact numbers when it comes to our electricity needs. So, you're probably asking yourself, "How big of a generator do I need to run my whole house?" or "How do I calculate what size generator I need?" In short, it depends on what you're trying to power, and a good ballpark way to think about that is in terms of watts. 

Smaller generators produce fewer watts, and therefore are only able to power devices with lower wattage requirements. A midsized generator may have up to 3,500 watts, which could power a fridge (700W), laptop (200W), 5-10 lights (250W), smartphone charger (20W), and even a home security system (100W). However, the same generator could only power one space heater (1,500W) for comparison. A much larger "standby" generator, on the other hand, could provide up to 20,000 watts, which could effectively power everything in your home. 

To figure out what kind of generator you need, start by taking a list of the appliances you want to power and adding their respective wattages together. It's important to remember that many appliances, like a fridge, may use as much as three times their running wattage when they start up. For this reason, you'll want to take note of the appliances that have additional starting wattage requirements and factor that into your total. 

If you need further assistance making sure that you get the right generator, it is best to contact a professional electrician or a company that specializes in generator installation. For more information on understanding electricity as it relates to generators, check out this helpful article.

DO: Make sure you're using the correct type of fuel for your generator. 

Generators can use one, or even multiple, sources of fuel, such as gasoline, diesel, propane, natural gas, and even solar energy. It is absolutely essential for both your safety and the functioning of the generator that you know which specific fuel source your generator uses. 

Although you more than likely researched the fuel source when purchasing the generator, it never hurts to consult the operational manual just to be on the safe side. 

DO: Make sure your generator is cool before refueling. 

As you can probably imagine, a generator is going to get quite hot when running. They are, after all, basically just an engine. If fuel is spilled anywhere onto the hotter parts of the machinery, it could ignite the fuel and start a fire. That's why it is important to make sure that your generator has had time to cool before refueling it. 

For gasoline-based generators especially, this does unfortunately mean that you need to stop the generator before refueling.

DO: Install CO alarms in your home.

As we have mentioned, the CO that a generator produces can be very dangerous, especially because it is odorless and colorless. The exhaust from a generator may smell because it is more than just CO, but that doesn't mean that there isn't CO outside of the exhaust; it is possible to accumulate CO in areas even if you don't see or smell exhaust, so you shouldn't rely on your senses alone to detect the deadly gas. 

You should, however, install CO monitors in your home. With properly placed and maintained CO detectors, you'll be alerted in the event that some amount of CO creeps into your home. As we'll discuss shortly, your generator should not be in a place where its exhaust can get into your home, but it's not always easy to predict how far the wind may be able to carry it, so a CO alarm is a must. In fact, even if you don't have a generator, having a CO detector is a good idea!

If your CO alarm goes off, evacuate the area for a wide open space with fresh air until you can identify and eliminate the source and ensure the area is clear.

DO: Alternate usage of certain appliances and devices plugged into the generator to prevent overloading.

If you're running a generator that has a smaller wattage capacity than the sum total of your appliances, you may need to consider alternating between devices to prevent overloading your generator. This is especially true if any number of your devices or appliances have a higher starting wattage requirement. 

DO: Keep enough fuel on hand.

Although the main metric used to rate and classify generators is their wattage capacity, it's also important to understand how long they can maintain that and how much fuel it takes to do so. This will, of course, vary based on your specific model and the type of fuel it uses. 

Make sure to consult your user manual or manufacturer to get a good understanding the average rate of fuel consumption for your generator and store fuel accordingly. The amount of fuel you'll want to store depends on the consumption requirements, but also the amount of space you have to safely store it. 

When storing fuel, make sure you understand how to safely do so. For example, gasoline should be stored in specific containers, and only lasts for several months before it begins to degrade and break down although you can use additives to extend the shelf life. Diesel can be stored for around a year, and propane can last indefinitely if kept under proper conditions.

DO: Always consult your owner's handbook or operating manual when in doubt. 

There are far too many varieties, brands, and models of home generators to adequately cover everything there is to know about any given generator. Each will have their own power capacities, operational requirements and practices, maintenance procedures, and safety considerations. While it has been mentioned here previously, and likely will be mentioned again, it bears repeating - when in doubt, take the safest route and consult your owner's manual, manufacturer, or supplier!

The DON'TS of home generator safety

Now that we've covered some of the most important generator safety considerations you'll want to take, let's look at some things you absolutely DO NOT want to do when operating a generator at home! 

DON'T: Operate a generator in the rain, when wet, or near water.

As you likely already know, electricity and water don't mix. Or perhaps more accurately, they mix very well - and that is the problem. Water may not be the best conductor of electricity, but it's enough to be dangerous.

Generators are likely to have all sorts of plugs and cables in and around them, and if it is raining or otherwise wet, it is possible to short out the electronics, which can be dangerous to both the generator and to you.

Make sure that your generator is kept in a place where water can't affect the electrical components, such as an open outdoor canopy or tarp somewhere away from your home. 

DON'T: Operate a generator indoors or in a closed space.

As previously mentioned, CO poisoning is a real danger when operating a home generator. The exhaust created by combustion engines produces CO, and when kept in a closed, confined, or poorly-ventilated area, it can quickly accumulate. 

That is why you should never - NEVER - run a generator indoors or in a garage, even if the door is open! When placing a generator, make sure it is at least 15 feet away from the structure.

If you're operating or situated near a running generator and you feel faint, light-headed, nauseous, or weak, get away from it as quickly as possible and find fresh air. Stay there and contact emergency medical services as soon as possible. 

DON'T: Operate a generator near doors, windows, fans, or vents.

In addition to keeping your generator 15 feet away from your home, make sure that there are no open doors or windows anywhere near it. Additionally, look out for any fans or intake vents around your home that could suck up the exhaust and dangerous CO - your generator shouldn't be running anywhere near these, either.

DON'T: Try to power the house by plugging the generator into a wall outlet.

Some generators can be installed directly to your house and will take over in the event of a power outage. However, the process of installing such a system is complex and hazardous if done incorrectly - it is not as simple as plugging it into an electrical panel or a wall outlet. In fact, connecting a generator to your home via a wall outlet can cause backfeeding, which can potentially destroy appliances, cause fires, and spill over into the rest of the electrical grid creating seriously hazardous conditions for utility workers. 

In order to safely install a generator directly into a home, special equipment and procedures are needed to prevent electrical backfeeding, and only a trained electrician should take on the such a task. Unless your generator has been professionally integrated into your home's electrical system, you'll need to plug appliances directly into the generator or use an extension cord that is rated in watts and amps to the collective load of the appliances.

DON'T: Forget to perform routine check ups and maintenance on your generator.

Emergency home generators are just that: for emergencies. This means that if everything goes right, you'll hopefully never have a need for it. However, that does not mean that you should forget about it.

Just like a car that you don't drive often, generators still need some sort of care. Depending on the type, you may need to service parts, change fluids, or even run it for a short time just to make sure it's working and that it will work when you really need it.

Of course, routine maintenance is going to look different depending on what you have. If a company helped install it, call or otherwise consult them for advice and best practices for upkeep. And, yes - don't forget to check that manual!

DON'T: Forget to ensure your generator is properly covered by your insurance.

If you've spent any time looking into home generators for emergency use, or if you've already purchased one, then you know just how expensive they can be. They are a practical expenditure and an investment in you and your family's safety, so it's important to make sure that you have some level of financial protection in the event that something happens to it.

Fortunately, generators may fall under the home appliance and equipment coverage of your existing home insurance policy. As always, specific policy coverages and details will vary from carrier to carrier, so be sure to reach out to your agent or carrier for more information.

A home generator.

Is your emergency home generator covered by your home insurance policy? With Germania's new Equipment Breakdown Coverage, it is! Contact your local Germania authorized agent to learn more!

To learn more about our home insurance and other insurance products, request a free quote online today!  

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.

Roadside Assistance

We’re here for you, 24/7/365.


File a Claim

File a claim online, by phone or by contacting your agent.


Find An Agent

Find a Repair Shop