Don’t get poisoned! How to run a generator safely if you lose power
Five people died in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy due to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.
Another 400 were treated for exposure in the two weeks after — up from 14 in the two weeks before.
As residents plan to use portable power generators if they lose electricity during this week's serious snowstorm, we could see poisonings again.
“CO poisoning is called the 'silent killer' because it gives no warning – you can’t see it and you can’t smell it," New Jersey Health Commissioner Cathleen D. Bennett has said.
The New Jersey Poison Control Center told New Jersey 101.5 last winter it was worried about the increased risk of poisonings because of power outages during snowstorms.
"We want to get the word out that if you lose, power and use a generator make sure you keep the generator at least 25 feet from the house to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning," Bruce Ruck said in a message to New Jersey 101.5. "Make sure all heating vents, dryer vents, etc. are clear of snow."
State officials make several recommendations about safe operation of generators and other equipment that poses CO risks:
- Have a working carbon monoxide alarm near sleeping areas in addition to conventional working smoke alarm.
- Exercise extreme caution when using a gas-powered generator. Plugging it into a household electrical outlet can result in backfeeding and produce an electrocution hazard.
- Never use a grill, camp stove or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal burning device inside their home, basement, garage or even outside near an open window. The use of these devices can also cause dangerous levels of CO to build in a home.
- If you suspect CO poisoning: Call 911 immediately if anyone is having trouble breathing or unconscious. Exist the home or other enclosed space. From a safe area, call the NJ Poison Experts at 800-222-1222 for immediate treatment advice.
Tips specifically for operating a generator:
- Never run a generator within a basement, garage or any enclosed or partially enclosed structure because the accumulation of carbon monoxide can be fatal
- Never position a generator close to windows and doors
- Use battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms. Test and change the batteries regularly
- Never connect a generator directly to home wiring unless your home has been wired for generator use. This can cause backfeeding along power lines and electrocute anyone coming in contact with them, including line workers making repairs
- Always plug appliances directly into generators
- Use heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cords. Make sure extension cords are free of cuts or tears and the plug has three prongs.
- Ensure your generator is properly grounded
- Never overload a generator. A portable generator should only be used when necessary to power essential equipment or appliances
- Turn off all equipment powered by a generator before shutting it down
- Keep the generator dry. Operate it on a dry surface under an open structure
- Always have a fully charged fire extinguisher nearby
- Never fuel a generator while it is operating and wait until it is cool to the touch
- Read and adhere to the manufacturer's instructions for safe operation
This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated in reference to December 2020's first big snowstorm.