Storm Center > After the Storm: The Real Dangers of Portable Generators
After the Storm: The Real Dangers of Portable Generators
After a storm like Hurricane Ida, widespread power outages and high summer temperatures often lead people to turn to portable generators to keep air circulating and refrigerators running. And while stand-alone generators have become a mainstay of hurricane emergency kits across the Gulf Coast, if not used safely, they can cause injuries, and all-too-often, death.
In fact, improper use of gas generators is one of the leading dangers after a storm passes. The equipment carries several hazards, including electric shock and fire, but most generator-related fatalities are caused by carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that builds up quickly in enclosed spaces. If levels are high enough, it can be deadly in as little as five minutes.
According to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, between 2005 and 2017, more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning while using portable generators. After Hurricane Laura devastated Lake Charles in 2020, 14 of the 28 deaths – almost all of which happened after the storm had passed – were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe use of emergency generators.
Basic safety measures for using a generator
- Follow all manufacturer instructions for proper setup and operation, making sure to use proper extension cords and NEVER plug the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as backfeeding.
- Generators should be placed AT LEAST 20 feet from a building, away from doors, windows and vents – including dryer vents, common in many homes. Make sure the generator has three to four feet of clear space on all sides and above it to ensure adequate ventilation.
- NEVER use a generator indoors – homes, businesses, garages, basements, crawl spaces, attics and any partially-enclosed areas are off limits. Even with ventilation, generators can produce high levels of carbon monoxide very quickly.
- Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms in your home or business; test alarms frequently and replace dead batteries.
- Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, so even though you may not smell or see exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent carbon monoxide build-up in your home or business.
- If you start to feel sick, dizzy or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air RIGHT AWAY. DO NOT DELAY. The toxic fumes from generators can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death. If you experience serious symptoms, get medical attention immediately. Inform medical staff that carbon monoxide poisoning is suspected.
- If you experience symptoms while indoors, have someone call the fire department to determine when it is safe to re-enter the building.
- Do not use a generator in a wet area. This can cause shock or electrocution.
- Do not fuel your generator when it is running. Spilling gas on a hot engine can cause a fire.
Additional generator safety resources:
- CDC Carbon Monoxide - Generator Safety Fact Sheet
- FEMA Generator Safety Video
- OSHA Alert: Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning While Working with Portable Generators