The deaths of four young people in Byron late last week from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning was rare for the state of Maine. We don’t often see such poisonings when homeowners use generators for auxiliary power, as that group did to get a refrigerator running in an off-grid cabin, according to state toxicologist Dr. Andy Smith.
But all too often, people succumb to the colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by generators when the power goes out during a storm, he said. Even if you know not to run one inside, plenty of homeowners trying to be safe with generators get overtaken by fumes, Smith said.
Think it’s safe to run your generator in the garage with the door open? Or outside but close to the house? Don’t do it — even if you’ve done it before, Smith warns.
Generators spit out an alarming amount of carbon monoxide. Just one can produce the same amount as 100 cars, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“Imagine that you have tubes going to the exhaust of 100 cars,” Smith said. “Would you want all those tubes to empty into your garage? Or would you want them all sitting just outside your window?”
The direction of the wind and how your house breathes on any given day can significantly affect the buildup of carbon monoxide inside, he said. Dangerously high concentrations can accumulate within minutes.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” Smith said. “Maybe nine times out of 10 you can operate it in your garage and not have any issues if you’ve got the exhaust pointing out and it’s right at that doorway. But what about that one time where it doesn’t work out because of the wind direction and the way your house is pulling in air?”
Maine has recorded severe poisonings from homeowners refueling generators in poorly ventilated areas, after doors or bulkheads accidentally close, or when people leave doors slightly open to let in an extension cord, Smith said.
After a spate of carbon monoxide poisonings during the ice storm of 1998, Smith and some of his colleagues estimated the risk of poisoning if a generator is operated in an attached structure, like a garage, compared to outside. They found a 19-fold increase in risk.
Generators aren’t going anywhere. So where should we put them? It’s not a simple answer.
“Generators have these two messages on them: One the one hand ‘operate with adequate ventilation or only operate outside,’ and then right next to that it will often tell you ‘but only use in dry conditions so you don’t get electrocuted,'” Smith said.
If you’re keeping it dry, you might have a ventilation problem. If it’s in an area that’s well ventilated, it might be exposed to the elements.
Make a plan for using your generator
Smith’s suggestion: Make a plan to shelter your generator — before it’s dark and stormy outside.
— Never use a generator inside, even in an attached structure like a garage or barn.
— Place generators at least 15 feet from your house. Make sure you have a long enough extension cord that’s in good condition.
— Point the exhaust away from your home and any windows, doors or vents.
— Keep generators dry to avoid the risk of electrocution and cool to prevent overheating.
— Install generators according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Improperly installed generators can put electrical line and emergency workers at risk by back feeding and energizing power lines without warning. Relay switches shut off the power coming from the road to avoid that hazard.
— Decide if you will leave your generator in its shelter or shed or drag it out each time a storm hits.
— Never refuel a generator while it’s running.
— Install carbon monoxide detectors powered by batteries or with a battery backup. (Only about 60 percent of Maine residences have CO detectors.)
Find other good safety tips here.
You can hire professionals to install and safely shelter your generator. Not everyone can or wants to spend money for that though, so I searched around for tips on how to build a generator shed yourself. I didn’t find much from official sources. Anyone successfully done this yourself? Feel free to tell me how in the comments.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
Also know the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, which could be your only warning if you don’t have a working detector. But be aware that if you’re sleeping or intoxicated, you can die without experiencing any signs.
— Headache, dizziness, weakness
— Upset stomach, vomiting
— Chest pain
Up to 40 percent of carbon monoxide poisoning survivors may experience neurological complications, such as memory loss, dementia, a Parkinson’s-like syndrome, or even psychosis, according to Maine CDC.
While generators are a major culprit in carbon monoxide poisonings, cars, small engines, stoves, fireplaces, grills and furnaces also produce the dangerous gas.