How to Safely Use a Stand-By Generator During a Power Outage
A permanent standby generator comes on automatically to keep your appliances running during a power outage.
By Fran Donegan
Emergency generators provide the electrical power needed to keep the lights on, the furnace humming, and the well pump working during a power outage. However, many homeowners fail to use their generators effectively. These tips will help you understand how generators work so that you can use them in a safe, energy-efficient way.
The Transfer of Power
When the power goes out, many people fire up their portable generators and run cables into the house to plug in appliances. However, heating and cooling units, well pumps, and other essential services are usually wired directly into the home’s electrical system, so you cannot plug them in to a generator. For true connectivity between the generator and your house, you need a transfer switch.
A transfer switch acts as an interface between the generator and the home’s electrical system. It is a separate electrical panel that is connected to the home’s main electrical panel. An electrician wires the circuits on the transfer switch to the circuits on the main panel. When triggered, the circuits on the transfer switch supply power to the circuits in your home. This allows heating and cooling units, well pumps, and other important appliances to run as long as the generator can supply power.
Transfer switches also provide an important safety function. When switched on, it separates your house from the electrical grid, preventing “backfeeding” to the electrical grid. Backfeeding means electricity created from your generator moves onto nearby power lines. If that electricity finds its way onto the grid, it could injure people working on power lines.
Transfer switches come in several configurations so that you can match the number of circuits you need to keep onto the switch. Some switches power up specific circuits that you pick, while others supply all the power needed for an average-size house — as long as your generator supplies enough power. Consult with an electrician to install the switch you need.
Matching Switches to Generators
There are two types of generators: portable and permanent (or standby). They work in much the same manner, although standby units are usually larger and can supply more power. Many
Portable generators are safest to use when they’re connected to a transfer switch.
standby units can connect to a natural gas line, so there is no need to add fuel to the generator during a long-lasting power outage. There are two broad categories of generator transfer switches:
- Manual switches are used primarily with portable generators. Once you start the generator, you connect it to an outdoor electrical receptacle that is installed in an exterior wall of the house. The receptacle is connected to the transfer switch. Once the transfer switch is engaged, the generator starts to supply power to the wired circuits.
- Automatic switches are used with permanent, or standby, generators. They are usually part of the generator installation package. When the units sense a power failure, the switch disconnects from the grid and powers the home’s circuits.
Safe Generator Use
Generators should always be operated outdoors. Never wheel a generator into the house. Permanent standby generators are usually governed by the building codes and setback requirements that pertain to any construction project. Refer to the manufacturer’s information on placement. Most codes require that generators be located at least 5 feet away from any opening in the house, including windows, doors and even dryer vents.
Generators can be lifesavers when the power goes out. Matching your home to the right generator and transfer switch provides seamless, safe electricity when the main grid is compromised.
Fran Donegan writes home-related content for numerous digital and print publications. He is the author of the books Pools and Spas and PaintYour Home. To see a wide selection of transfer switches and electric panels like Fran described, please visit The Home Depot’s website.
This article is editorial content that has been contributed to our site at our request and is published for the benefit of our readers. We have not been compensated for its placement.
Companies: The Home Depot