Electric Generators: Disaster Preparedness or Preparing a Disaster?

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog -- http://mncee.org/Innovation-Exchange/ie/

 

Some energy efficiency improvements can create safety concerns, so our quality assurance staff keep up to date on proper ventilation and combustion safety. Normally, we focus on potential problems with the residential appliances our programs promote, but the following statistics caught our eye:

According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report, engine driven tools (including electric generators) cause more non-fire CO deaths annually than gas furnaces, water heaters, and ovens combined. In fact, since 2005, there have been over 72% more CO deaths from engine driven tools (EDTs) than from heating systems.

As we take steps to prepare our homes for power outages, are we actually making our houses less safe during disasters?


Increasingly extreme weather correlates with growth in generator sales

Typically, electric generators are used in the home during power outages. The following CPSC chart shows the growing impact of electric generator usage on CO deaths in the U.S:

deaths-(1).png

The blue line in the graph shows that generator-caused deaths increased by about ten times from 1999 to 2005. Notice that the surge of deaths in 2005 occurred during the year of Hurricane Katrina. One article noted that more electric generators were sold during the 2005 hurricane season than the previous four seasons combined. Similarly, this past fall after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, portable and standby electric generator sales also surged. But are homeowners using these generators properly?


The following CPSC graph shows the number of fatalities that are associated to generators used during power outages:

bar-chart.png

Their report notes that from 1999 to 2011, 84% of non-fire, CO poisoning deaths were associated with an EDT at fixed-structure residences such as single-family homes, apartments, townhouses and mobile homes. Of the EDT-associated fatalities reported from 1999 to 2011, 79% were solely associated with electric generators. According to an article by NIST, a generator can produce a hundred times more CO than is exhausted from a car. As more and more homeowners purchase generators, it is imperative that they understand the dangers and risks.

Educational efforts and opportunities

A few groups have created consumer resources on the proper installation and use of electric generators. NIST has produced a short video on the subject:



and CDC has published the fact sheet Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning After an Emergency. The key takeaways are:

  • do not operate a generator inside the enclosed space,
  • place it outdoors, more than 20 feet away from the living space,
  • hire a professional electrician to install it properly, and
  • make sure your house has a battery operated or battery backed-up CO detector.

The increased frequency and heightened severity of weather crises has raised public consciousness about impacts of global climate change. And the increase in generator sales suggests that a segment of the public anticipates prolonged power outages. This concern is fostering a movement of disaster preparedness and what might be coined as an era of the Mad Max Economy.

As public concern about energy security increases, program providers have an opportunity to demonstrate the role of efficiency in energy independence. It may not be far-fetched to think that this trend could fuel the adoption of energy efficient retrofits and net zero homes. Food for thought.

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Comment by Adam Gloss on April 1, 2013 at 4:06pm

This is a great piece, and the accompanying video was excellent. We often talk about the risks of fire and gas storage with portables, as well as the problems with incorrect hook-up to appliances and lack of grounding, but never really had the information on CO poisoning. Thank you!

Comment by Dennis Heidner on April 1, 2013 at 11:47am

In addition to the immediate risk of CO,  the less obvious risk include the storage of the generator with 5 gallons of gas in its tank, perhaps additional gasoline cans for spares.  Lots of flammable materials in the garage, sometimes near a hot water heater or furnace.   Even then they are not running,  they can be one of the best sources of VOC -- for those that like the fresh smell of gasoline and engine exhaust.

One of the steps for use that many generator operators forget to follow - is grounding!.  It is too easy to pull the generator out into the driveway, start it up and run the cords back into the house - sometimes even back feeding the electric panel.  The instructions ALMOST ALWAYS remind the user to drive an earth ground and ensure the generator is grounded.   That is quite hard to do on a concrete drive way.

Anyone know of the deaths attributed to electrical shock from generators?

Or fires related to storage of gasoline in the garage?

I had a generator - and got rid of it for just the reasons described in the blog, plus the worries about storing it in a garage.  A  better solution is the outdoor permanently installed generators - that are well vented, away from combustibles.....

 

Comment by Tom DelConte on March 27, 2013 at 5:38am

And when you consider the overall pollution impact of generators, they are a definite no-no. Please submit to the main magazine.

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