How to use a portable generator safely

Portable generators are handy and affordable. However, there are some downsides. Here’s how to keep yourself safe while keeping the power on.

Portable generators are handy and affordable. However, there are some downsides. Here’s how to keep yourself safe while keeping the power on.

You survived the storm preparation rush and the hurricane itself. Great!

Now, with all due respect, don’t do something foolish and become a storm statistic.

Let’s start with portable generators. We’ve been buying enough gasoline for these things to fuel an Apollo 11 anniversary ride to the moon. We get it. Being without power for hours, days and even weeks after a storm like Hurricane Dorian, which is still aiming at Florida’s east coast, is no fun.

From 2005 to 2017, more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning while using portable generators, according to the most recent data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Consumer Reports said.

According to Consumer Reports, “a single portable generator emits hundreds of times more carbon monoxide than an idling car.”

The problem? The resulting deadly gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless, so you won’t know you’re being poisoned.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends only using generators that have built-in sensors that trigger an automatic shutoff if the carbon monoxide builds up in an enclosed space.

But you shouldn’t use generators in enclosed spaces to begin with.

Generator safety tips

The Department of Health in Broward County recommends these precautions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Never use a generator indoors. This means not inside your home. Not in your garage. Not in a crawl space. And not in a shed even if it has ventilation. “Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent carbon monoxide build-up in the home,” the health department said.

Always locate the generator unit outdoors on a dry surface. Keep it away from doors, windows, vents, and air conditioning equipment because carbon monoxide can be pulled indoors.

Your generator came with instructions. Follow them.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s grounding requirements for portable and vehicle-mounted generators say that if the frame is not designed to serve as grounding, a grounding electrode, such as a ground rod, is required. When the unit is connected through a transfer switch to a structure, it must be connected to a grounding electrode system, such as a driven ground rod.

Charcoal, gas barbecue grills

Do not burn charcoal or gas grills inside a house. Don’t operate them in a garage, tent or even in a fireplace (Yes, some Florida homes have fireplaces). And the Department of Health adds you should not use charcoal or gas grills inside a vehicle — which would seem to go without saying. But this is Florida. And slow as traffic is, some of us might get a sudden hankering for S’mores on Florida’s Turnpike.

Why all of these warnings regarding grills? Same as the generators: carbon monoxide poisoning.

Install battery-operated, or plug-in carbon monoxide alarms (if using the latter, opt for one with battery back-up), the Broward health department recommends. Use these in your home for a measure of safety.

Test your carbon monoxide alarms often to make sure the batteries are still good.

Feeling sick?

Even if you took these precautions (and if you didn’t) and you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, “get to fresh air RIGHT AWAY. DO NOT DELAY,” the Broward Health Deparment said. (The caps are there’s for emphasis because this is really important.)

Call 911 immediately if you spot someone who has collapsed or is not breathing. You can also then call the Florida Poison Information Center at 800-222-1222.

For more information, visit

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Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.

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