Frequent hurricanes and tropical storms in Florida often leave homes without electricity. Portable generators can be useful when temporary electric power is needed, but they can also be dangerous causing carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from
toxic exhaust, electric shock or electrocution and fires. Thousands of Florida families have purchased portable generators to temporarily supply power to their homes until their electricity is restored after a storm.
Consumers may not realize that many generators produce and emit carbon monoxide exhaust similar to an automobile engine. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), “[e]very year, people die in incidents related to portable generator use. Most of the incidents associated with portable generators reported to CPSC involve carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used indoors or in partially-enclosed spaces.”
The CPSC received 222 reports of deaths related to carbon monoxide poisoning associated with portable generators in the six year period from 2000 through 2005. They noted that many of these deaths “occur following severe weather events that typically cause power outages” The CPSC provided a recommendation for a product warning label to be affixed to portable generators after determining that current warning labels on generators are ambiguous and do not adequately advise the user on how to avoid the hazard of carbon monoxide poisoning. The CPSC also noted that improving warning labels alone may be insufficient as a sole means of addressing the carbon monoxide poisoning hazard. The CPSC is considering additional regulatory and non-regulatory alternatives which could help to further reduce the number of carbon monoxide related deaths and injuries associated with the use of portable generators.
The following generator safety tips were contained in the CPSC Safety Alert:
Avoiding Carbon Monoxide Hazards
Never use a generator in enclosed or partially-enclosed spaces. Generators can produce high levels of CO very quickly. When you use a portable generator, remember that you cannot smell or see CO. Even if you can’t smell exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed to CO.
If you start feel sick, dizzy or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air RIGHT AWAY. DO NOT DELAY. The CO from generators can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death.
NEVER use a generator indoors, including in homes, garages, basements, crawl spaces, and other enclosed or partially-enclosed areas, even with ventilation. Opening
doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO buildup in the home.
Follow the instructions that come with your generator.
Locate the unit outdoors and away from doors, windows, and vents that could allow CO to come indoors.
Install battery-operated CO alarms or plug-in CO alarms with battery back-up in your home, according to the manufacturer’s installation instructions. The CO alarms
should be certified to the requirements of the latest safety standards for CO alarms (UL 2034, IAS 6-96, or CSA 6.19.01).
Test your CO alarms frequently and replace dead batteries.
Avoiding Electrical Hazards
Follow these tips to protect against shock and electrocution.
Keep the generator dry and do not use in rain or wet conditions. To protect from moisture, operate it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Dry your
hands if wet before touching the generator.
Plug appliances directly into the generator. Or, use a heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cord that is rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.
NEVER try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as “backfeeding.” This is an extremely dangerous practice that presents an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbors served by the same utility
transformer. It also bypasses some of the built-in household circuit protection devices.
If you must connect the generator to the house wiring to power appliances, have a qualified electrician install the appropriate equipment in accordance with local electrical codes. Or, check with your utility company to see if it can install an appropriate
power transfer switch.
For power outages, permanently installed stationary generators are better suited for providing backup power to the home. Even a properly connected portable generator can become overloaded. This may result in overheating or stressing the generator components, possibly leading to a generator failure.
Avoiding Fire Hazards
Follow these tips to prevent fires.
Never store fuel for your generator in the home. Gasoline, propane, kerosene, and other flammable liquids should be stored outside of living areas in properly-labeled, non-glass safety containers. Do not store them near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas
water heater in a garage. If the fuel is spilled or the container is not sealed properly, invisible vapors from the fuel can travel along the ground and can be ignited by the appliance’s pilot light or by arcs from electric switches in the appliance.
Before refueling the generator, turn it off and let it cool down. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.