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Safety after the storm -- operating portable generators

Whether an ice storm downs power lines or lightning takes an electrical transformer offline, electricity is often one of the initial modern conveniences to fail during severe weather. In response, many people use portable generators to weather the inconvenience until power is restored.

While a portable generator can solve some of the stress of managing a storm's aftermath, consumers need to operate them with caution. Portable generators often are powered by gasoline. As the gasoline burns to fuel the generator, it emits carbon monoxide (CO) into the air. If the generator isn't properly positioned, consumers risk CO poisoning.

UL, a global safety organization, recommends placing the portable generator as far away from the home as possible. Never use it in the house, a garage or near doors and windows. Being mindful of these guidelines helps ensure that the CO produced by the generator will not find its way into the home where it potentially endangers occupants.

"The danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators is a true threat during storm season," said John Drengenberg, UL's Consumer Affairs Director. "But if you take the proper precautions, you can use a generator safely."

Consumers also should:

  • Install CO alarms in the home -- Because carbon monoxide is odorless and cannot be seen, these alarms are your only "warning" that poisonous gases may be in your home.
  • Use proper electrical connections, such as UL-Listed outdoor extension cords, when connecting the generator to run power back to the house. Also, note the maximum wattage a generator produces and never exceed that amount with the appliances you plug in. Appliances should have their wattage listed on the product.
  • Limit gasoline storage and look for the UL Mark on gasoline containers -- Gasoline expands when heated, producing fumes that can be ignited by the smallest spark. The more gas on hand, the more fumes in the air and the greater the risk of a fire starting from even a light switch or static electricity.

Stringent UL requirements for portable generators now include heavy rain and corrosion tests and GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) protection against electric shock. UL standards enable generator manufacturers to have their products evaluated against these requirements. Generators that meet these standards carry the UL Mark.