Safety & Preparedness Expo - 4

Selena Palma and Brandilynn Armenti from LT Generators at the City of Malibu's Safety & Preparedness Expo.

In an effort to suppress wildfires—and the possibility of more liability lawsuits—Southern California Edison has announced it will proceed with its Public Safety Power Shutoff procedure, which will cut off power to Malibu and other areas in the event of extremely hazardous fire conditions. The mandatory outage would eliminate the possibility of blowing branches and fronds engaging with energized electrical equipment and ignite a blaze.

The likely possibility of a mandatory outage has many Malibu residents considering the purchase of a generator to provide essential electricity in an emergency, but Malibu City officials are warning: “Not so fast.” There are many hazards to consider before using a generator that may not be worth risking your safety.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble, quickly,” the City of Malibu’s environmental sustainability director, Craig George, told The Malibu Times

Generators have been touted as a great solution to forced power outages, but over the next two weeks, The Malibu Times will go into detail about generator safety and the pros and cons of installing your own electric generator, as part of the 2018 Fire Guide series.  

Two types of generators

George described two common types of generators on the market.

One is a fixed generator, designed to permanently connect to the electrical system of your house. If the power goes out, an automatic switch turns the generator on and delivers electricity to your home on a preset program of which circuits would be energized. It could be all circuits or just those selected to aid in an emergency. That system requires a permit from the City of Malibu or, if you live outside city limits, a permit from Los Angeles County or your city’s jurisdiction, depending on where you reside. 

Fixed generators are powered either by gas, natural gas or diesel—most are natural gas. Some are designed just to keep essentials on. Some are designed to energize an entire structure. 

“The cost of the permit is dependent on the size of the generator and how complex it is,” according to George, who added the city issues plenty of these permits.

The other kind of generator that can be risky, according to city officials, is the type sold at hardware stores, big-box supply stores or even online. The danger of these over-the-counter generators, George said, comes from the fuel source and the work it takes to keep them running.

“The problem with those is you have to keep feeding gas into them,” the environmental sustainability director said. “There are gas vapors. There’s gas storage that a homeowner would have to have and the most dangerous part is you have to connect it to the electrical components of your house.” 

For most people, the skill required to make these generators function safely is above their abilities.

“Unless a homeowner is very knowledgeable about the electrical system, they could even ruin the electrical system or kill themselves, electrocuting themselves trying to do that,” George described. “So, we would not encourage people to connect a portable generator to their home electrical system. When we issue a permit for a generator, it’s issued to an electrical contractor who has designed it and supplied all the information to the city so we know somebody who knows what they’re doing is installing and connecting it. A homeowner doesn’t need a permit to purchase a generator. Anybody can. But how do you connect it? I don’t think the majority of homeowners know how to do that.” 

The primary risks of using a generator are carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electric shock or electrocution and fire. Follow the directions supplied with the generator. To avoid electrocution, keep the generator dry and do not use in rain or wet conditions.

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