FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. - After suffering through extensive power outages last year and in anticipation of more likely to follow, Redding residents Michele Coppola Ames and her husband Andy took nature’s wrath into their own hands and armed themselves with a propane-fueled power generator. They were ready, they thought, for Hurricane Sandy.
Their power went out and the generator kicked on, but two days later their carbon monoxide detector sounded its alarm. Fumes from the newly-installed generator had seeped into their home through a laundry vent and were filling the house.
“The carbon monoxide detector saved our lives,” said Coppola Ames.
They are not alone. Carbon monoxide – widely known as the “silent killer” -- is a highly poisonous, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by gas and charcoal-powered equipment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that carbon monoxide poisoning claims nearly 400 lives and causes more than 20,000 visits to hospital emergency departments annually.
There are steps you can take to avoid risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. According to Connecticut State Fire Marshall Robert Ross, “Installing battery-operated or plug-in carbon monoxide alarms on every floor of the home with battery back-ups and following manufacturer’s installation instruction -- along with frequent battery testing – can save your life.”
Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include fatigue, weakness, chest pains for those with heart disease, shortness of breath upon exertion, nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, lack of coordination, impaired vision, loss of consciousness, and in severe cases, death, according to the CDC website.
But precaution begins before any system is powered up, said Ross. “Often people think of purchasing a generator only days before bad weather is projected to hit,” which he said can lead to hasty and/or faulty installation. Not only do portable generators pose a risk of carbon monoxide exposure but one of fire as well.
In the case of hard-wired systems, “A licensed electrician is a must. Fire can result if installed improperly, or utility wires can be energized, which risks causing fires in the neighborhood or even electrocuting utility repair crews,” said Ross.
But even smaller, gasoline-powered generators, which don’t need to be wired to a home’s electrical circuits, pose no small risk. All generators, said Ross, should be placed a minimum of 15 feet from the building and 15 feet from any doors, windows or vent openings-- with the exhaust facing away from the structure so that it does not face doors, windows or openings.
The number of power outages affecting more than 50,000 customers more than doubled between 2007 and 2012 when compared to the previous five-year period, according to a study at the University of Minnesota. While “big box" stores such as Lowes and Wal-Mart do not release sales information, generator manufacturer Briggs & Stratton “has continued to see an uptick in demand since Hurricane Irene," said Briggs spokesperson Laura Timm.
Severe weather might in fact be the new normal, and so might resorting to portable generators for power. Use them with caution.