As hurricane season tapers down, it leaves behind tragic stories involving preventable deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning caused by improper use of portable generators.

Despite a 2007 Consumer Product Safety Commission requirement that portable generators include a warning label about the dangers of operating a generator indoors, the number of people accidentally poisoned by carbon monoxide remains high.

About 70 people die every year and many more are sickened, according to the CPSC. In an effort to curtail those numbers and save lives, the CPSC voted 4-1 to publish proposed rules that will drastically limit emissions from multiple classes of spark-ignited engines—those commonly found on portable generators.

"We're glad the CPSC is taking steps to make portable generators safer," says William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. "It's clear that education and warning labels alone aren't enough to protect consumers from carbon monoxide poisoning. Many of these products are simply too dangerous as they're currently designed. We appreciate the CPSC's work and look forward to reviewing the proposed rule in detail to ensure it does everything possible to prevent future tragedies."

What’s Being Proposed
The CPSC proposal requires a significant reduction in the amount of CO that generators can emit per hour—a worthy goal in an appliance that can produce the same hourly emissions as scores of idling cars.

The exact restrictions vary based upon engine size and class, but the resulting shift would mean that when consumers do improperly operate a generator indoors, CO would be released more gradually, potentially giving users a chance to note milder symptoms of CO poisoning—such as headache, nausea, and dizziness—before the gas reaches lethal levels.

According to one test conducted during development of the new rules, the amount of time consumers have to respond to carbon monoxide buildup in a garage with the doors closed (something you should never do) could increase to 96 minutes if manufacturers adopt closed-loop fuel injection and install a small catalyst. In this situation, current models can produce lethal levels of CO in a mere 8 minutes.

How Will New Models Be Affected?
Our product experts anticipate that most manufacturers would meet the new requirement by switching from carburetor systems to fuel injection systems—a transition some have started to make already—which would add about $300 to the cost of a portable generator.

That’s a significant sum considering many of the top-performing models from our most recent generator tests can be had for less than $1,000. But that price is likely to come down as more manufacturers embrace the technology.

In addition to the obvious safety benefits, our experts anticipate that adopting the standard will actually improve performance from many new models featuring fuel injection, most notably easier starts, even with the ethanol-blended fuels found at gas stations, and run-times that could increase by 25 percent while using the same amount of gas. Both are welcome improvements in the aftermath of a storm, when gas station lines can be long and smooth starts are crucial.

Is It Safe to Use an Older Portable Generator?
Unlike most outdoor power equipment, generators are one of those tools you buy and hope never to use. For that reason, our experts anticipate that it will be years before older models go out of rotation. None of the 33 portable models we’ve currently tested are designed to meet the new standard. But most models remain safe—as long as you follow safety guidelines.

That means running the generator at least 15 feet from the house in an unenclosed space, far from doors and windows. Never run a generator in a garage or shed even with the doors open. Don’t let it run in the rain unless it’s covered by a model-specific tent, designed to shield the unit from the elements while still allowing it to vent properly.

Make sure it’s safely connected to a transfer switch on your circuit breaker panel and test that your indoor CO alarms are working. A well-functioning alarm can serve as an early warning system.