For pt. 1 about generator safety in the 2018 Fire Guide, click here.
As Santa Ana winds pick up this season, The Malibu Times Fire Guide continues with the second half of a story on generator safety.
Guidelines suggest keeping a generator 15 feet away from your home and running it outside to avoid CO poisoning. In wet weather conditions it may be used in a garage, but only with the door completely open for ventilation and the exhaust fumes pointed away from your home, although your neighbors may complain if the exhaust is directed their way.
Generators should not be operated in the rain and never indoors as gas is flammable—fuel can overflow into a hot engine and cause an explosion.
“You definitely want an automatic stand-by generator,” according to Lenny Tedeski, who owns LTGenerators.com. “If you lose power, the generator comes on within 20-30 seconds automatically.” These permanently installed units often require multiple permits from the city for separate trades—electrical, plumbing and building construction permits. Submitted plans are carefully scrutinized for safety. City of Malibu permits generally start at $200, but can run into the thousands depending on many factors including the size, complexity and a contractor’s time submitting plans. Higher fees may be tacked on by contractors if they visit the planning department multiple times due to revisions the city may request, driving the cost up further.
Fixed generators typically run on natural gas, diesel or propane.
Portable generators that run on gasoline mean homeowners typically store fuel on their property. Because gasoline is highly flammable, Malibu city leaders are not gung ho about their usage. In addition, stored gasoline has a shelf life of roughly two years before it gets stale.
Susan Dueñas, the City of Malibu’s public safety manager, agreed on the dangers of typical hardware store generators.
“It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “If you have the financial resources to have a fixed, hard-wired generator attached to your house that’s put in by a certified installer and inspected—that’s safe. It’s not inexpensive so not everyone will be able to do that. Then you’re left with a generator you can pick up at a home supply store. While it might seem simple to just pick one up and use it, it’s actually not that simple.”
Dueñas went on to caution about the danger of fumes.
“You need to know how to do it right because there have been many cases where people use them improperly and they maybe end up with carbon monoxide poisoning because of the generator’s exhaust if it’s used in an enclosed area, fires from improperly refueling them or storing it in a location that is not good,” Dueñas described.
“Storing fuel—we don’t take that lightly,” she added. “Even for our emergency supplies we keep around town—we have supply bins and we finally decided to not store fuel because it’s too dangerous and the risk is too high. There’s even risks of shocks and electrocution if you’re using it improperly with the power and accidentally energizing other electrical systems.”
The public safety manager went so far as to say perhaps a different plan would be better for those in urgent need of power, following the implementation of so-called “public safety power shut-offs,” (PSPS) or mandatory outages imposed by Southern California Edison.
“I would rather recommend people who are dependent—say, for medical equipment ... if you need power for medical devices or to keep medication refrigerated then you’re going to have to work out a plan. It’s not much different than any other power outage. How do these people normally handle it? Power outages happen. The beauty of the PSPS is you may have two days warning, which is better than when someone hits a pole and you’re suddenly without power. Every case is going to be different. Everyone is going to have to analyze their own situation and figure out their best option. We’re working on what can we do to assist in this.”
Dueñas said the City of Malibu is currently working on a plan for what it can do to assist people with medical needs during a PSPS—speaking during an interview in late September.
“We will look at what we can do to assist people who are medically dependent on power. We believe strongly that personal responsibility is huge for disaster preparedness. We have limitations. We can’t be all things to all people.”
The city’s backup electricity plan will power its emergency operations center that is attached to the senior center. If activated, it may not be able to support power for the senior center as well.
“In some cases, for instance, if we have to manage a fire, we’re going to need the whole room,” Dueñas explained, meaning the senior center would be off limits. It may be different for each PSPS, depending on the situation—which so far has apparently been untested, but appears could be imminent.