What I Learned from Sandy
The superstorm taught many of us about the dangers that arise when generators are misused
photographs by Chris Kelly
It’s never good when a fire truck stops in front of your house. But there it was on the fourth night after Sandy, with lights ablaze. I quickly realized the Rowayton firemen were here to help my neighbors, who were already outside in their SUV with their young children. I saw no smoke or fire, but determined the problem when one rescue worker approached the house with an air tank on his back and a meter in his hand: carbon monoxide.
It turns out the neighbors have a high-end generator that kicks in automatically when the power goes down; it was professionally installed and inspected. Problems arose when their three-year-old daughter cracked open her bedroom window before her nap. Her first-floor room is on the same side of the house as the generator. Even though her window is 25 feet away from and 4 feet higher than the generator’s exhaust, the deadly fumes reached her room.
I asked Ed Carlson, chief at the Rowayton Fire Department, how the fumes were able to penetrate the house. He told me about the stack effect. In short, it’s a cyclical flow of air inside the home; in winter, it occurs when warm air rises and escapes through air leaks in the upper floors and roof. Cooler air from the lower level is drawn upwards to replace it. If you open a lower-level window, it quickly pulls the outside air in. This is what caused the CO alarm to go off in my neighbor’s home, as the air was loaded with generator fumes laced with odorless, colorless carbon monoxide, also known as the silent killer.
For this reason, Carlson, along with New Canaan Fire Marshal Fred Baker, say every home should have CO detectors installed, preferably one on every floor. In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, their fire departments answered twenty calls related to elevated carbon monoxide levels, usually caused by the improper use or installation of a generator. In one case, Rowayton firemen responded to a call where the exhaust fumes from a propane generator mounted on the roof were blown down into the home through vents.
Following Sandy, Carlson and Baker also observed that residents were operating generators inside their garages to protect them from rain. Yet even with the garage door open, a running gasoline combustion engine can produce deadly results. Portable generators on the front porch are not a good idea for the same reason. I now have a list of generator do’s and don’ts posted near my workbench, where I can find them quickly the next time nature takes the power down in my town.
Generator Tips: 6 Don'ts
1 Don’t refuel a generator while it’s running or still hot from operation. Spilled gasoline can lead to fire, explosions and burns.
2 Don’t plug an extension cord from a generator into an electrical outlet.
3 Don’t operate a generator or any internal combustion engine in a garage or any indoor area.
4 Don’t open windows or doors near a generator.
5 Don’t overload the generator. Make sure the total wattage used by lights or appliances is less than the output rating of the generator.
6 Don’t store gasoline in the garage in the presence of a water heater or any other fuel-burning appliance.