Generator Exhaust is Toxic!

Portable generators are useful when temporary or remote electric power is needed, but they can also pose a health threat to people nearby.  Generators can cause carbon monoxide poisoning from the toxic engine exhaust, electrocution or fire and burns.  Each year, people die in incidents related to portable generator use. Most of the incidents associated with portable generators reported to Consumer Product Safety Commission involve carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used indoors or in partially-enclosed spaces.

Carbon Monoxide Hazards

When used in a confined space, generators can produce high levels of CO within minutes. If using a portable generator, remember that CO is odorless and colorless. Even if you do not smell exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed to CO.

  • NEVER use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or similar areas, even when using fans or opening doors and windows for ventilation. Deadly levels of carbon monoxide can quickly build up in these areas and can linger for hours, even after the generator has shut off.
  • Locate the unit outdoors and far 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 closed spaces.

Electrical Hazards

Generators also pose a risk of electrical shock or electrocution, especially if they are operated in wet conditions.

  • If using a generator during wet conditions, protect the generator from moisture to help avoid the shock/electrocution hazard.  However, do so without operating the generator indoors or near buildings in order to help avoid CO poisoning. Operate the generator under an open, canopy-like structure on a dry surface where water cannot reach it, puddle or drain under it. Dry your hands, if wet, before touching the generator.
  • Connect appliances to the generator using heavy-duty extension cords that are designed for outdoor use. Make sure the wattage rating for each cord exceeds the total wattage of all appliances connected to it. Use extension cords that are long enough to allow the generator to be placed outdoors and far away from windows, doors and vents to the home or to other structures that could be occupied. Check that the entire length of each cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs. Protect the cord from getting pinched or crushed if it passes through a window or doorway.
  • NEVER try to power the house by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as “backfeeding.” This is extremely dangerous and 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.

Fire Hazards

Lastly, generators can pose a fire risk if used incorrectly.  Below are some tips to reduce the risk of fire from a generator.

  • Never store fuel for a 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.
  • Before refueling the generator, turn it off and let it cool down. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.

The information from this article was obtained from the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.