Unfortunately, portable generators have been a life safety problem for years, especially when storms knock out power for extended periods of time, particularly during hurricanes or snowstorms. I recently heard that close to 15 million people in residences and business are without power in Florida. Many of these people will inevitably turn to portable, gas-powered generators for power as they begin to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Each year, many people are killed or injured by carbon monoxide due to improper placement and use of portable generators. People often purchase generators without knowing the associated risks and end up using them improperly or wiring them incorrectly. A tragic incident occurred in Orange County, Florida, where a running generator was reportedly the likely cause of death of three family members. The incident also injured four others, who are recovering from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. A first responder on the scene, for instance, was immediately overcome by the CO fumes. Additionally, in Palm City Florida, a woman was taken to a hospital likely due to CO poisoning. A running generator was discovered inside the garage. The generator’s fumes had filled the garage, the attic, and other portions of the woman’s home. NFPA 1, Fire Code, contains requirements for portable generators in Section 11.7.2 which address use, location, and fueling. Combined, these requirements help ensure the safety of those using the generators as well as those located in the building in which the generator is providing power. The code provides the following requirements for portable generators:
Portable generators must never be run or fueled indoors (or on balconies or on roofs) unless the room has the proper fire protection and ventilation required in the building code.
Fueling from a container is permitted only when the engine is shut down and the engine surface temperature is below the auto ignition temperature of the fuel.
The exhaust of the generator must be directed at least five feet in any direction away from any openings or air intakes and also away from the building.
Wiring should never be directly tied into the distribution panel, where it could potentially feed back into the electrical distribution system, endangering electrical company workers who are restoring power. A properly installed transfer switch should be provided.
The requirements in NFPA 1 prescribe minimum requirements necessary to establish a reasonable level of fire and life safety as well as property protection from the hazards created by fire, explosion, and dangerous conditions. Additional resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide additional information on CO exposure and generator use. The CDC recommends that portable generators be located at least 20 feet from any window, door, or vent. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also provides additional safety information in addition to their recommendation of locating portable generators at least 20 feet away from the house and any open window or vent. NFPA also offers a generator safety tip sheet and other resources.
Thank you for reading, stay safe!