Generator Safety Tips That Will Get You Through a Storm, and Maybe Save Your Life
More than 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning and thousands were injured while using portable generators from 2005 to 2017
In the aftermath of a storm, a generator is an invaluable piece of equipment that can, at the very least, help your life begin to feel normal again.
But because you probably rarely rely on a generator, it’s easy to overlook the basic safety measures that should be routine with such equipment. It’s also easy to get preoccupied by the cleanup work that lies ahead, so you may even be tempted to run a generator in a living space if most of your house is severely water damaged and cannot be saved.
That is never an option.
Generator misuse leads to deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, injuries from close calls, and burns—all of which happen too often during power outages and storms. The biggest problem, according to reports from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, is CO poisoning. Portable generators can produce deadly levels of carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas.
Consumer Reports only recommends portable generators that pass our CO Safety Technology test.
Whether you buy a new generator that implements these new safety standards or you're running an older model without an auto shutoff, we still advise consumers to follow the safety advice that follows.
Generator Safety Tips
Never run a generator in an enclosed space or indoors. Most generator-related injuries and deaths involve CO poisoning from generators used indoors or in partially enclosed spaces. That includes the basement or garage, spaces that can capture deadly levels of carbon monoxide. Always place the generator at least 20 feet from the house with the engine exhaust directed away from windows and doors.
And if you’re using a generator to keep the lights on during a cleanup effort, “use a working, battery-operated carbon monoxide detector at the same time,” says Ken Boyce, principal designated engineer manager at UL. A carbon monoxide alarm provides one more layer of defense against making an innocent but potentially deadly mistake.
Don’t run a portable generator in the rain. You can buy tents for generators—that keep them shielded but still well-ventilated—online and at home centers and hardware stores.
Before refueling, turn off a gas-powered generator and let it cool. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts can ignite. Allowing the engine to cool also reduces the risks of burns while refueling.
Stock up on extra gasoline and store it properly. When you think you’ll need to use the generator for an extended time, you’ll want extra fuel on hand. Just be sure to store gas only in an ANSI-approved container in a cool, well-ventilated place. Adding stabilizer to the gas in the can will help it last longer, but don’t store gasoline near any potential sources of heat or fire, or inside the house.
Buy a generator with built-in CO safety technology. Many new generators have a device that detects dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and turns off the machine when levels climb too high. CR tests for this safety feature and now recommends only generators with this potentially life-saving technology.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that high levels of carbon monoxide can kill you within 5 minutes. A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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