Warren’s Words of Wisdom: Portable Generators and How You Can Die While Using One (and it’s not exhaust)

Recently, I was visiting a crew who was using a small generator to run a drill with a paddle for mixing buckets of grout. They were working outside and it began to rain, but  the crew kept working with the generator, drill and extension cord in the rain. I checked the generator and its warning label, which said not to use in wet weather, so we stopped work and put the generator in a dry spot. But the crew wanted to continue to work with the extension cord and the drill in the rain.

Before they went back to work, I asked them, “How many of you would plug in your drill, go into your shower, turn on the water, and use the drill in the shower?” Of course there weren’t any takers.

“That’s just stupid,” one said.

Well, look at what you’re doing here—it’s the exact same thing. Except instead of being plugged into a house circuit 120 Volt, 15 Amp breaker, you’re plugged into a 120 Volt, 15 Amp breaker on the portable generator. There is no difference, both will kill you equally as quickly and as well. So, we put a GFCI on the generator and then plugged in the extension cord.

The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) we plugged into the generator is the same one we would use at home where we needed protection from a fault condition. Think about this, a 15 Amp circuit breaker will only shut the power off if something causes the circuit to draw over 15 Amps. 15 Amps is equal to 15,000 Milliamps. If you are holding onto the tool with a fault or you’re standing on a damaged extension cord, you are long dead and gone by 10,000 Milliamps, so the 15 Amp circuit breaker will never shut the power off in time to save your life, a GFCI will! The GFCI will shut the power off at less than 5 Milliamps!!

The portable single outlet GFCI we installed on the generator cost $14.00. There are multi-outlet versions that cost a little more, but are handy. I have two in my basement workshop. Everything electrical I operate, whether working on a bare concrete floor, in the garage or outside, is plugged into a GFCI. To me, it’s a simple equation: with a GFCI, I live—without a GFCI, I probably won’t.

This crew will use a GFCI on the portable generator in the future, no matter what the weather is. Construction sites are tough on extension cords.  Getting walked on and banging around in the back of the truck can easily damage the insulation, so a close inspection and use of a GFCI is recommended.

Killer Cords


Bottom Line:

  • Before you plug in, look at your situation. What’s covering your back, a 15 Amp breaker or a GFCI?
  • Portable generators are dangerous. Follow all the warning labels, including grounding; it is very important to ground your portable generator.
  • Inspect your electrical tools and extension cords. Damaged insulation and frayed connections are problems waiting to kill you. Put that electrical or duct tape away!! Have a qualified person do a proper repair or replace with new
  • As always: be SMART, be SAFE!!

House GFCI


Single Portable GFCI


Multi-Outlet GFCI


Here is a great article on extension cords and GFCI’s:  https://ohsonline.com/Articles/2016/07/01/Five-Simple-Extension-Cord-Rules-to-Improve-Work-Site-Safety.aspx

About Connecticut T2 Center

The Training & Technical Assistance Center at UCONN provides education and technical assistance to members of Connecticut's Transportation and Public Safety Community, including municipal public works directors, street and road maintenance superintendents and staff, city and town engineers, Connecticut Department of Transportation employees, transportation planners and law enforcement professionals serving as legal traffic authorities. We are Connecticut's LTAP Center
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