Carbon monoxide kills 8 during ice storms

Mary Farrell

After being left in the dark by ice storms in the Northeast and Midwest this week, three Americans and five Canadians have died from carbon monoxide given off by gasoline-powered generators, according to The New York Times. The deaths occured in Maine, Vermont, and Michigan as well as eastern Canada. In at least one case, the generator was located in a garage. Here's how to stay safe during a power outage, with tips from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Carbon monoxide hazards

  • Never use a generator in an enclosed or partially-enclosed space. Generators can produce high levels of carbon monoxide very quickly. Remember that you cannot smell or see CO. Even if you can't smell exhaust fumes, you may still be exposed to CO. If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air immediately. The CO from generators can rapidly lead to full incapacitation and death.
  • Never use a generator indoors, including in homes, garages, basements, crawl spaces, and other enclosed or partially-enclosed areas, even with ventilation. Opening doors and windows or using fans will not prevent CO build-up in the home.
  • Follow the instructions that come with your generator. Locate the unit outdoors and away from doors, windows, and vents that could allow CO to come indoors.
  • Use battery-operated CO alarms or plug-in CO alarms with battery back-up in your home, according to the manufacturer's installation instructions. Test the CO alarms and replace dead batteries.

Electrical hazards

  • Keep the generator dry and do not use it in rain or wet conditions. To protect from moisture, operate it on a dry surface under an open, canopy-like structure. Dry your hands before touching the generator.
  • Plug appliances directly into the generator. Or, use a heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cord that is rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads. Check that the entire cord is free of cuts or tears and that the plug has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin.
  • Never try to power the house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet, a practice known as "backfeeding." This is an extremely dangerous practice that presents an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbors served by the same utility transformer. It also bypasses some of the built-in household circuit protection devices.
  • For best results, use an appropriate power transfer switch, installed by a professional.

Fire hazards

  • Before refueling the generator, turn it off and let it cool down. Gasoline spilled on hot engine parts could ignite.
  • Never store fuel for your generator in the home. Gasoline, propane, kerosene, and other flammable liquids should be stored outside of living areas in properly-labeled, non-glass safety containers. Do not store them near a fuel-burning appliance, such as a natural gas water heater in a garage.

Power inverters, an alternative to generators, pose their own safety concerns. Here's how to use a power inverter safely. Plus more generator safety tips from the CPSC. And more on the best generators from Consumer Reports' generator tests.

Mary H.J. Farrell

More from Consumer Reports:
Consumer Reports' top scoring cars
Best & worst new cars
Guide to the best small SUVs

Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.