Bradenton, FL – Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
No more feeling powerless this hurricane season.
You’re feeling mighty proud of yourself. You bought a portable generator. Good for you. You’re ready for anything Mother Nature hurls at you.
But are you really? Unless you know what hazards to avoid, you could have just bought you and your family a trip to the hospital or the morgue.
Portable generators also produce a silent killer – carbon monoxide gas. You can’t see it, taste it or smell it. The symptoms – lightheadedness, nausea, fatigue and headache – easily can be confused with the flu and ignored until it’s too late.
Consider these incidents from last hurricane season:
A man who lived in Ashley Lake Park apartments, west of Boynton Beach, Fla., almost died after reportedly inhaling carbon monoxide gas from an industrial-size generator in the parking lot. When his mother went to check on him, he was gasping for air and foaming at the mouth. Fire officials said they found three times the toxic level of carbon monoxide inside the apartment. The case is now in litigation.
In Hypoluxo, Fla., a family of three left a generator running on their apartment’s back patio and ended up in the hospital.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., a man fell asleep inside a room and was overcome with carbon monoxide poisoning blamed on fumes from a generator running outside his building. The man could have died if he stayed in the building, officials said.
And, a 68-year-old man died in a fire that destroyed his Collier County, trailer where he was using a generator. State officials couldn’t be sure if the cause of death was the carbon monoxide or the resulting fire.
State and local safety officials are concerned that new owners will leave the generators in their boxes until a hurricane is headed our way and be too hassled to study how to use them properly.
“With an increase in sales, we would be very concerned that people will not heed the warnings,” says Scott Wolfson, spokesperson for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “We cannot be any clearer in our message to consumers who are going to use the generators that they should be set up outside, away from the house, away from air intakes and in a dry area.”
Wolfson describes carbon monoxide poisoning as one of the most dangerous types of poisonings because it renders the victim unable to make life-saving decisions. “You begin to feel dizzy,” he says. “You get nauseous. You get incoherent. If you become unconscious and carbon monoxide keeps pouring into your home, that’s how deaths occur.”
In 2003, the latest year the consumer commission’s statistics are available, 36 people nationwide died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by generators.
If you or a family member experiences headache or dizziness in the hours after a generator has started running, Wolfson suggests moving outside to fresh air to see if the symptoms clear. If they don’t or if you have any doubts, he recommends getting immediate medical attention.
Safety experts from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Underwriter’s Laboratories and Florida fire officials agree that it’s mandatory to buy a carbon monoxide detector with battery backup if you are using a generator.
Last year, Florida fire officials said, many folks put their portable generators in their garages because they feared they would be stolen.
“There is a general misconception that if you use it in the garage with the door open or inside with the window open, it is not a risk,” says Kevin Dunn, industrial hygienist with the Air Pollution and Respiratory Health Branch of the National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta. “These devices put out more carbon monoxide than a car.”
John Drengenberg, an engineer and consumer affairs manager for UL, agrees.
“When you have a generator running in your garage, it’s the same as running your car in the garage. Unfortunately, that is one of the major mechanisms for suicide in the United States. It is common knowledge that carbon monoxide can put you into a coma and eventually kill you.”
Drengenberg says statistics he has seen show that you can also be in danger if you or your neighbor puts a generator close to an air intake for a fan or an open window.
OK, so you put it outside. But where? No one can agree on a number of feet that’s safe. Estimates range from 5 to 25 feet.
“You are dealing with a gas, you are dealing with changing wind directions and varying weather conditions,” says Capt. Don DeLucia, public information officer for the Palm Beach County, Fla., Fire Rescue. “A gas like this would hug the ground and can go under doors and through windows.”
DeLucia suggests doing what he did for his generator – place it in a well-ventilated shed away from the house. Another solution is the mini generator tents available at some Briggs & Stratton dealers, but you have to wait until the winds die down before putting them up.
Finding a shelter is also a good idea because generators are not supposed to be exposed to the rain and you don’t want to keep running outside to unplug and bring the generator into your garage when the feeder bands of rain keep coming after the hurricane.
“Consider the generator like an extension cord or an outlet on the outside of the house,” says Briggs & Stratton’s Kruger. “You wouldn’t want an extension cord in water or an uncovered outlet on the outside of the house in the middle of a rainstorm.”
Main risk: Carbon monoxide poisoning, a colorless, odorless gas that can make you sick or kill you. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue.
Other risks: Fire resulting from gasoline storage in improper containers or storage near some older gas water heaters. Electrocution or shock from improper hookup to the home’s electrical system. Before refueling, turn the generator off and allow it to cool or the hot engine parts could ignite the fuel.
Where to put it: Don’t put it in your garage, on your patio or anywhere where fumes can easily enter the house through a door or open window. Set the generator up away from the house in a dry, open space, such as in a shed with good ventilation.
What else to buy now: A carbon monoxide detector with a battery backup, gasoline containers with a UL seal and heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cords.
How to prepare: Get out your generator, read the instruction booklet and do a dry run to see how it works and where you are going to put it. Add a fuel stabilizer to make sure the gasoline remains fresh until you need to use the generator.