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Power Outage Survival: Generator Safety Tips That Can Save Your Life

By Laura Lee, AccuWeather Staff Writer
February 13, 2014; 5:12 AM ET
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It is important to be aware of the dangers associated with operating a generator and knowing how powerful they are could change the way people think about them. Andrew Smith, Toxicologist for the State of Maine, has been helping to track carbon monoxide poisoning since 2008. Of about 100 carbon monoxide poisoning cases in Maine that occurred in a home since mid-2008, 33 percent of those were generator related.

"I think many people are surprised when they learn that a generator can produce as much carbon monoxide as one hundred idling cars and you certainly wouldn't want to leave 100 automobiles idling in your garage, or you wouldn't want to have 100 automobiles idling just outside a window or a door to your house, that would be sort of common sense but that is in fact what is happening when you are operating a generator," said Smith.

Carbon monoxide is also a tasteless and odorless gas and therefore cannot be detected without the use of a carbon monoxide detector.

Another danger is that people may not give much thought on how to operate a generator until they actually need to use it.

"I think there are a number of challenges that people face when they are trying to operate a generator safely in part due to the messages on the generators themselves," Smith said. "So you have one message on the generator which is either use with adequate ventilation or never use inside or only use outside, but then there is this other message which is only use in dry conditions to prevent electrocution."

These warnings can be confusing, especially during the power outage itself. As Smith explained, if you wait until the weather is poor and it is dark to try to figure out how to follow both of these directions it could be problematic.

"I think some people end up making a wrong decision which is to operate them inside a garage or a closed shed or some other structure to keep them dry not recognizing the risks they put themselves at for carbon monoxide poisioning," said Smith.

Tyler Charpentier, 19, adds gasoline to his generator, Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, in Bowdoin, Maine.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Generator Safety Tips

Pick a Safe Location

Smith recommended finding a location where the generator can be operated more than 15 feet away from any windows or doors before the storm so that you have adequate time to do so.

"Find a way to operate the generator dry in this location so they are not tempted to move it into the garage, the shed, a porch, during wet weather," Smith said.

In addition, Smith suggested checking ahead of time to make sure that you have a long enough extension cord of the right type to reach from the place where you plug it in to where you intend to operate the generator.

Operate Outside Only

Since generators produce such dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide they should not be used indoors under any circumstance.

"We know people out there have used their generators at the entrance of their garages often with the exhaust pointing outside maybe with the door partly closed down, or on a porch or some other sort of enclosed shelter next to the home. What these people need to realize is that they are playing a lethal game of chance when they're doing this, and they have been lucky so far," said Smith.

The area may seem ventilated, but the only safe area for a generator is outside.

"The weather conditions or wind directions can change quickly and it doesn't take long for carbon monoxide to build up to dangerous levels without anyone noticing because, remember, it is an odorless tasteless gas," explained Smith.

Check Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Another important safety measure to remember is to check that you have working carbon monoxide detectors and to keep back-up batteries on hand for when they run out.

"I think carbon monoxide detectors are an important safety device. The thing to remember is, they really sort of are your secondary prevention, if you will. The primary prevention is to make sure you know how to operate your generator safely and you're operating it safely. But every home really should have a carbon monoxide detector outside every area where there is sleeping quarters," Smith said.

Smith also suggests when shopping for carbon monoxide detectors to check that the detector has the Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) mark on it to ensure that it has been certified for the UL standard for performance.

Preform Regular Maintenance Inspections

Not only should you check your detectors, but if your generator was installed professionally you should be checking it periodically as well to make sure it is exhausting properly, Smith explained.

Another thing many people may not realize is that the generator can produce backfeed if it is not installed or plugged in properly. Smith explained it is important to "understand how to keep the generator from creating backfeed into the power line to protect the power line workers from electrical shock."

In order to prevent backfeed, permanent generators should not be connected directly to the wiring of your house or to an outdoor outlet. According to the Central Maine Power, a transfer switch should be installed to ensure that your household wiring is not connected to the utility grid and your generator at the same time.

Meanwhile, portable generators are also not intended to be connected to your household wiring, but by extension cord to the items you want to power.

Know Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Lastly, be aware of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning which are "headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting," Smith said. "If you suspect that you have carbon monoxide poisoning either because of symptoms or because of your alarm going off then you should immediately get out of your home, you should call your 911, and not re-enter the home until someone has come and cleared it for safety."

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