WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. – After suffering through extensive power outages during Hurricane Sandy -- and in anticipation of more outages to follow -- many people throughout Westchester County are putting portable generators on their “must buy” list.
But before doing so, you might heed the urgent words of Peter De Lucia, Westchester County’s assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health Protection: “Using a generator near your home can kill you in minutes.”
“Even if your front porch is only partially enclosed, carbon monoxide can build up inside the house if the generator is close to windows, doors, laundry vents or air conditioning equipment,” said De Lucia.
Carbon monoxide – widely known as the “silent killer” -- is a highly poisonous, colorless, odorless, tasteless gas produced by gas and charcoal-powered equipment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that carbon monoxide poisoning claims nearly 400 lives and causes more than 20,000 visits to hospital emergency departments annually.
Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include fatigue, weakness, chest pains for those with heart disease, shortness of breath upon exertion, nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, lack of coordination, impaired vision, loss of consciousness, and in severe cases, death, according to the CDC website.
According to Connecticut State Fire Marshall, Robert Ross, “Installing battery-operated carbon monoxide or plug-in carbon monoxide alarms on every floor of the home with battery back-ups and following manufacturer’s installation instruction -- along with frequent battery testing – can save your life.”
But precaution begins before any system is powered up, said Ross. “Often people think of purchasing a generator only days before bad weather is projected to hit,” which he said can lead to hasty and/or faulty installation.
Not only can portable generators pose a risk of carbon monoxide exposure, there is one of fire as well. In the case of hard-wired systems, “A licensed electrician is a must. Fire can result if installed improperly, or utility wires can be energized, which risks causing fires in the neighborhood or even electrocuting utility repair crews,” said Ross.
But even smaller, gasoline-powered generators, which don’t need to be wired to a home’s electrical circuits, pose no small risk. All generators should be placed a minimum of 15 feet from the building and 15 feet from any doors, windows or vent openings-- with the exhaust facing away from the structure so that it does not face doors, windows or openings.
The number of power outages affecting more than 50,000 customers more than doubled between 2007 and 2012 when compared to the previous five-year period, according to a study at the University of Minnesota. While “big box" stores such as Lowes and Wal-Mart do not release sales information, generator manufacturer Briggs & Stratton “has continued to see an uptick in demand since Hurricane Irene," said Briggs spokesperson Laura Timm.
Severe weather might in fact be the new normal, and so might resorting to portable generators for power. “Make sure you’ve followed all the manufacturer’s instructions, and don’t cut any corners,” said De Lucia. “The lives of your family are at stake.”