Winter Storm of 2021: Generators in short supply during winter storm

Generators were still on shipping pallets and going fast at Lowes. (Photo: UCBJ/Michelle Price)

By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor

Quest for power/heat could turn dangerous with improper use

COOKEVILLE – This week as the temperatures dropped and electric infrastructure began to fail, there was a mad rush for generators and portable fuel-based heaters. While seeming like a life saver at the moment, these tools, when used incorrectly, can be dangerous or even deadly.

Generators were in great demand this week with many retailers selling out as quickly as trucks could resupply them. Lowe’s sold more than 300 generators on Tuesday and was selling out multiple deliveries as soon as they arrived the remainder of the week. Other retailers, such as Tractor Supply and Harbor Freight, were also selling out of their generator inventory as soon as it was replenished. 

Cookeville Electric Director Carl Haney advised that anyone using a generator exercise extreme caution to avoid “back-feeding” the grid.

In normal operation, a 13,000-volt transmission line serves the road. At each house a transformer will reduce that energy and send power to your house through two 120-volt wires totaling 240 volts to serve all the household’s power needs.

If a generator is connected to the home’s wiring, the main breaker needs to be in the off position to avoid “back-feeding” the system. This is where the generator’s power travels from your house to the transformer, which operates in reverse and amplifies the wattage feeding large amounts of power to a line that is assumed to be powerless. 

This is extremely dangerous to linemen working to restore power to the area and to anyone else in the area who could come into contact with a downed line that is now “live” and deadly to the touch. Linemen have even been seriously injured and killed by energy surges in lines that were supposed to be de-energized. 

Only a licensed electrician should connect a generator to a main electrical panel by installing the proper equipment according to code. Also, make sure the electrician installs an approved disconnect switch, so you can safely disconnect your home’s wiring from the utility system before using the generator.

It is also recommended that you never plug the generator into the wall. Instead, use a heavy-duty extension cord to plug appliances into your portable generator. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin. 

Carbon monoxide is another risk for both generators and portable fuel-based heaters. Putnam County Fire Chief Tom Brown recommends that whenever you are using generators or kerosene/propane heaters that you use a carbon monoxide detector to protect yourself from the gas building up slowly without being noticed.

Cookeville Fire Chief Daryl Blair stressed that generators should be properly ventilated outside, and don’t try to overload it by running extension cords to more than what they are capable of running. He added that to avoid creating a fire hazard, you need to be extremely careful when refueling kerosene heaters.

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Michelle Price is the managing editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal and can be reached via email. Send an email.

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