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Originally published October 5, 2012 at 11:43 AM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 11:43 AM

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Outage safety tips that may save your life

For those tempted to fire up a portable generator to keep warm, utility companies are urging "extreme caution."

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When it comes to power outages, frigid temperatures aren't much of a threat to utility companies. Neither is snow. But high winds? That's where things start to get a little dicey.

Forecasts calling for gusts of up to 75 mph this weekend in parts of Western Washington are putting local energy providers on outage alert. If trees fall and knock out power, as was the case in the big December 2006 storm, some customers could go without heat during the coldest days of the year.

For those tempted to fire up a portable generator to keep warm, utility companies are urging "extreme caution."

Gregg Milne, a senior safety manager with the Snohomish County Public Utility District, said generators should be used to power "only the most critical items" such as the refrigerator, freezer or lighting.

Problems occur when homeowners try to power up their natural-gas or oil-fired furnace fans with a portable generator. Generators, which often run on gasoline, are not designed to be connected to a home's electrical system, Milne said.

Plugging one into a wall outlet can create "back feed," a hazardous situation in which electricity travels back to outside power lines, he said. This could potentially electrocute a utility worker or anyone who happens to come into contact with a downed wire.

Then there is the threat of deadly carbon-monoxide poisoning. When portable generators are used in a confined space, "they can produce high levels of carbon monoxide within minutes," according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

"You have to operate (generators) very carefully," said Suzanne Hartman, spokeswoman with Seattle City Light. "You can get the fumes into the home. And some people keep them in the garage. Don't do that."

Utility companies also warn people not to bring charcoal or propane heaters indoors — they, too, pose a carbon-monoxide risk.

So what can you do if the lights — and heat — go off?

Hartman suggests some short-term solutions: Wear lots of layers of clothing, close doors to unused rooms and draw the drapes to reduce drafts. Seek out neighbors and friends who may have power or contact your local emergency shelter.

"We want people to be warm and comfortable," Hartman said. "But please don't burn anything fossil-fuel-based inside the home."

Sonia Krishnan: 206- 515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

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