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When the lights go out, portable generators outputting sufficient wattage can electrically power lights, small cooking appliances, even your refrigerator, but they can also kill.

Spurred by increased blackouts, brownouts and other power shortages in recent years, the popularity of portable generators has grown, but so have the number of deaths.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) late last week said reports of portable power generator-related carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning deaths doubled in recent years to an average of 38 in 2002 and 2003 compared to an average of 19 in 2000 and 2001.

Along with emergency power comes great responsibility.

"If you use a gasoline-powered generator, set it up outside in a dry area, away from air intakes to the home," said CPSC Chairman Hal Stratton.

"Opening doors and windows or operating fans to ventilate will not prevent CO build-up in the home. Even with a CO alarm, you should never use a gasoline-powered generator inside your home or in a garage," he added.

The CPSC found:

  • Almost 70 percent of deaths related to portable power generators occur at home, often with the generator operating in the basement, crawl space, garage or enclosed carport of owners seeking convenience without considering safety.
  • About 40 percent of all portable generator related deaths occurred during the winter months when homeowners often need an extra power boost due to weather related outages.
  • About 26 percent of fatal generator incidents involved more than one death.
  • Adults ages 25 and older accounted for about 80 percent of CO poisoning deaths associated with portable generators and most of them were male.

"Virtually all of these CO poisoning deaths could have been prevented by keeping the generator away from the home or attached garage," Stratton said.

Generators are most often fueled by highly combustible gasoline or diesel fuel.

In addition to operating them to avoid harm from deadly carbon monoxide, there are other considerations that come with owning one.

  • Not only should you not operate a generator in an enclosed space, you should keep them outdoors, away from windows and downwind from your home.
  • Operate the generator in a well-ventilated, dry area, protected from direct exposure to rain and snow, preferably under a canopy or other open structure.
  • Do not use fuel around ignition sources, such as a water heater, cook stove or the generator (except to get it started) which heats up as it operates.
  • A propane gas-fired generator with its own fuel line can avoid the storage problems of liquid fuel, but it could require special permits to install the tanks. Zoning regulations may prohibit the use of propane.
  • Store fuel in appropriate metal containers away from wood, plastic and other flammables. Don't stockpile your fuel, but rotate it with fresh fuel every few months as you burn through it with test-runs to help maintain the generator and be sure it's in top operating condition. The engines are built to run and you'll have to test-operate them for 15 minutes or so every week to make sure they will work when needed.
  • Given the noise associated with portable generators (90 to 95 decibels -- much like the sound level of heavy traffic) you may want to alert you neighbors before starting up or advise them of some preset test run schedule. However, be prepared for neighbors who won't tolerate frequent high-noise levels and may appeal to local officials about you violating noise or "right to peaceful enjoyment of your home" ordinances.
  • Service the generator once a year by changing the oil and filters and by checking for pest damage and any other wear and tear. Your manual provides detailed information about your generator's installation, its use, servicing and fuel. Read it. Learn it. Know it.
  • Choose the generator with sufficient power based on what equipment you'll need to operate when the lights go out. Choose an underpowered generator and you'll burn out the motor trying to power appliances that need more juice.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension of Virginia State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute offers additional tips on selecting portable generators.

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