The Hidden Dangers of Generators
Minimizing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The Derecho storm that assaulted the Midwest on August 10, 2020, caused over $3 Billion in lost corn and soy crops. This was approximately 1/3 of the total corn and soy crops in Iowa according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture. It also left millions of dollars of damage in its wake as it crossed multiple communities and left thousands of people without power.
Many of us have come to take electricity for granted. We rely heavily on our various computer systems for the internet and electronics that provide news, entertainment, and means to work remotely. We use electricity to meet our lighting needs, power our refrigeration systems, and our air conditioners (a necessity in Iowa in August). Power is even used to heat the water we use for bathing, washing clothes, and dishes. For many, loss of power is more than an inconvenience, It can even pose a threat to health.
The electrical utility workers in the hardest affected communities worked around the clock to restore electricity. Electrical companies called in help from as far away as Canada. The teams feverishly worked to get as many of their customer’s power as quickly (and safely) as they could.
Iowans are often seen as patient and love to live “Iowa Nice”, but many citizens became impatient with what they saw as slow progress. Home standby generators and portable backup generators seemed like the optimal short-term solution to our need for backup power. Unfortunately, improper and placement of these machines can lead to a trip to the hospital or even death, as reported in Marshall County by Unity Point Health.
The Threat of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless gas so detection without a proper detector can be difficult. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that early symptoms of CO poisoning from breathing CO are headache, dizziness, weakness, chest pain, and confusion.
When exposed to higher levels over long periods of time often leads to unconsciousness, occasionally causes permanent brain damage, and can be deadly. Depending on the length and amount of exposure, recovery time for survivors can be very lengthy. It is important to note that people can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms.
Minimizing CO Exposure from Portable Generators
Experts warn that there are some very simple steps that can be taken by those operating generators to minimize exposure to Carbon Monoxide. Here are 3 tips to stay safe!
1. Physical Placement of the Generator
Only use generators in outdoor locations. Generators should have at least 20 feet of space between the generator and the doors, windows, and other openings of your home or business (including garages). Never use a generator inside your home, garage, or business- even if windows and doors are left open.
2. Use Battery-Operated or Battery back-up CO Detectors
Early detection of dangerous levels of CO is critical in keeping yourself and others safe. Use CO detectors near every sleeping area in your home and, while using a generator, near the wall that is closest to the generator. Make sure to check the CO detectors regularly to be sure they are functioning properly. Modern smoke detectors are sometimes equipped with a built-in carbon monoxide detector, so check to see if yours does, and be sure to test the batteries often.
3. Know the Signs of Poisoning and When to Seek Help
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can be confusing as they have often been described as “flu-like”. Watch for the symptoms in yourself and those around you. If you have been running a portable generator and have begun to experience any of the following symptoms, seek immediate medical assistance by calling 9-1-1 or the Iowa Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222.
- chest pain
- upset stomach
One Last Tip- Avoid Back-Feeding
It’s important to fully read and understand your generator’s owner’s manual before operating the machine. Serious or fatal injury can occur when the power company reconnects your service if proper precautions are not followed while connecting and disconnecting your generator.
Be sure to shut down your main disconnect (turn off your main breaker) to the house so that the generator does not back-feed into the main power systems. Failure to do this can result in dangerous back-feeding of power and can severely injure technicians working on downed lines.
The safest practice is to use a manual transfer switch to power your home with a portable generator. This isolates your home’s electrical system from the utility lines before connecting power from the generator. The manual transfer switch also protects the generator from a sudden power surge when the utility company restores power.