Running a generator can be dangerous : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Running a generator can be dangerous

Wednesday May 12, 1999

By Catherine Trevison of The Oregonian staff

Before people started worrying about power disruptions from millennium bugs in computers, Parkrose Hardware rented generators and sold just a few small ones each year -- to people building far from a power supply, suffering through an ice storm or camping with all their electric luxuries in tow.

But about 18 months ago, in response to customer requests, the store stocked up. So far this year, Parkrose is selling about seven generators each month, said Michael Nelson, director of operations for the store at 10625 N.E. Sandy Blvd.

It carries more than a dozen models -- most of them suited for the chores of a modern household such as drying hair, toasting bread or microwaving dinner. It has 40 in stock and more in the pipeline.

Interest in generators is increasing because some people are worried about experts' warnings of intermittent, unpredictable blackouts or brownouts around the nation caused by the millennium bug: a glitch in the way that computers ate programmed to read dates. Some computers may malfunction when the year 2000 arrives because they could read the two-digit year designation of 00 as 1900.

But in a report April 30 to the U.S. Department of Energy, a national power industry group said tests show that power companies have eliminated about 75 percent of Y2K-related problems.

"The bottom line is that for the typical person or business in North America, the supply of electricity will be like that on any other New Year's Day," said Michehl R. Gent, the president of the North American Electric Reliability Council.

However, power companies such as Portland General Electric say that because each part of the power industry depends on other parts, they can't guarantee uninterrupted power. So people continue to buy generators -- some to make sure they'll have hot food in the microwave and cold food in the refrigerator, and others to make sure that their home business can keep operating or that an aged relative's home life-support system will still work.

Don't Just plug them in The surge of new generator ownership worries even those experts who encourage preparedness because they can be unsafe in the hands of the ill-informed.

There are two main dangers.

One is that homeowners will buy generators and simply plug them into a wall outlet, without installing a bypass panel.

"It's stupidity, and it happens all the time," Nelson said. Portland General Electric warns never to do this. The surge of electricity can ruin a home's wiring and start a fire, PGE said. But the biggest worry is that the power generated at a home will feed back into the utility lines outside. If a lineman starts working on the lines, thinking they are dead, the electricity could seriously injure or kill him. A bypass panel can take power from either the utility lines or from the generator and feed it to the circuit breaker panel. If there's a power problem, the homeowner can run a single extension cord from the generator to the bypass panel, and flip on the essential circuits -- such as the lights or the refrigerator. When the bypass panel is on, "it can't physically feed back out to the power line," Nelson said. Homeowners also could simply plug the appliances they want to power into extension cords and run them to the generator, bypassing the home's wiring system. Another danger is that people will operate generators in their basements or garages, giving themselves carbon monoxide poisoning. Generators are powered by gasoline and must be run outside the house, Nelson warned. Generator suppliers are so swamped by demand, much of it from Central America and other areas without power because of natural disasters, that they tell Nelson a new order today would take at least nine months to fill. The store spent a year waiting for its recent shipment of six versatile generators that can operate on several types of fuel. Some retailers say it is difficult to determine how much interest there is in Y2K preparedness. Tom Jenne, president and owner of Stark Street Lawn and Garden, said one of his generator suppliers sent out an allocation sheet last month, limiting the number of generators each retailer can order. Jenne must decide whether to order those in his ration. "I really think we're going to come to the end of the year, and there's not going to be a whole lot of spike," Jenne said. On the other hand, "you'd hate to get stuck short without product to sell." Most of the people who are buying generators at Parkrose Hardware have legitimate reasons to want backup power, Nelson said. Some live on rural roads and are tired of being the last house to get power restored after an ice storm. Some have home businesses that rely on computers for communication. Some need power to get water from their well. The turn of the century is giving them a deadline to get prepared, Nelson said. "I don't believe I've sold one generator simply because a person is Y2K paranoid, " Nelson said. The rental department may be another story, though; several of the store's rental generators already have been reserved for Dec. 31.

-- Norm (, May 13, 1999


You might want to schedule regular generator checks if you do have one....our nursing home had a scheduled outage last nite for transformer repairs...we could hear our generator purring away but no power to the building...supposidely it had been running fine the day before in anticipation of this--had to scurry with residents on IV pumps and O2 concentrators...all had been plugged into red emergency outlets but they didn't work. FUN.

-- MUTTI (windance, May 13, 1999.

I'll add noise and storage of gasoline as my biggest concerns. Living in suburbia (Blech!), it would be fairly hostile to have a generator blaring away very much - and it invites guests. I'm going more for the "Better Homes and Garbage" look if things get rough.

Also, the gas-powered ones eat too much gas (I can't afford diesel). A few gallons an hour, if I recall!

Fortunately, I live at Nuclear "Ground Zero", and BJ Clinton has kindly invited an attack, so I don't have to worry about these things.

-- Anonymous99 (, May 13, 1999.

The dangers of running a generator are only a problem if the generator is running. So, No Problemo, since the utilities tell us they're all set!

-- Brooks (, May 13, 1999.

My neighbor is an old man who survives because he has an electric powered oxegen generator running 24/7. I figured him into my fuel allowance knowing that I would have to run at least 12/7 for as long as it takes to get him O2 from some other source.

NOT having a generator would be deadly for him if the power goes off for more than 72 hours (his back up tank limit). After talking with the representatives of my utility, I have boosted my fuel estimates. They offered no reason for confidence for many reasons. Not the least of which is that they have cut staff back drasticly in the last few years and closed one of their most reliable coal fired plants. Money talks...

-- Art Welling (, May 13, 1999.

Re those that are on oxygen concentrators. You can and need to request more O2 back up. He no doubt is running at 2 liters and you need to get a large cylinder for him. An *H* or a*G* cylinder. If in the hassle/riots or whatever post y2k and your regular supplier doesn't show up, welding O2 will do just fine.


-- Taz (Tassie, May 13, 1999.


Running a generator can be dangerous? Doesn't have to be but can be. So many people on this site feel that they will need to do these things for the first time. It is kind of you to keep reminding them of the dangers. They are not stupid. People usually don't die of stupidity. It is usually from inexperience.


-- Z1X4Y7 (, May 13, 1999.

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