Many people assume they can pick up a portable generator at the local home improvment store and be prepared to power their home during the aftermath of an earthquake or other disaster. They also often assume that this will give them enough power to match their usual comfort levels. But there are a number of practical and important safety issues to consider.
What is the right capacity? Quite frankly, thinking a portable generator is going to supply everything as normal is overly optimistic. Even if a homeowner selects and plans to limit usage to certain critical “loads” such as perhaps running essential medical devices and/or refrigeration, the generator capacity must be able to handle both peak and non-peak operations. Refrigerators in particular typically need many times more power to cycle the motor on than to keep it running. If too much load is required in relation to the generator capacity, it can also cause damage to your appliances. In fact a close analysis of what a family expects will often demonstrate that they need generator capacity that is much, much larger than they anticipated. In some cases it can even mean needing a non-portable and permanent installation, and that can get exceedingly expensive. Furthermore, such installations may require special permits from the AQMD, which at this time are essentially impossible to obtain due to air quality regulations.
Fuel and maintenance. One practicality is the question of how to fuel the generator. Laws and regulations generally prohibit storage of more than five gallons of fuel in a residential property. Then consider that the expected duration of some disaster events in Southern California exceed two weeks or more. A mere five gallons of stored fuel would be used up quickly, and there won’t be good options for obtaining additional fuel. Most gas stations will be closed as pumps require power to operate. Fuel also degrades rapidly in storage, and has to be rotated very frequently which is something many families have trouble accomplishing on a regular basis. Also, unless a generator is ran and provided maintenance several times a year, there’s a good chance certain parts will deteriorate in storage and it may not perform when needed.
Electrocution dangers. It is known from past disasters that the improper use by homeowners of generators has resulted in fatalities to utility workers, and caused subsequent additional damage and delays to the efforts to restore power to entire neighborhoods. In fact electrocution is the fifth leading cause of occupational death. There is also the potential for serious shock danger to individuals who forget or ignore the basics of safety around sources of electricity.
Carbon monoxide. There have also been many citizen deaths in past disasters from carbon monoxide poisoning related to bad positioning of generators. Carbon monoxide (CO) is odorless and colorless, and is therefore also known as a “silent killer”. Generally a portable generator must be at least 15 feet from a structure for safety. One recent report even suggested that as much as 30 feet of distance may be required, depending on the property layout, in order to avoid the potential for CO poisoning. A highly visible generator and/or the noise from one might increase your security risks as well.
Other considerations: In a short-term disaster such as a day or two, and with very judicious use and low loads (e.g. powering on and off periodically just long enough to preserve the food in the refrigerator), a generator might be beneficial, as long as you are very aware of and attentive to the safety issues. A qualified electrical contractor may also be of assistance in estimating the anticipated load levels and obtaining a generator with the most appropriate capacity that is feasible. They may also recommend the proper placement and use of a generator for maximum safety.