By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia
If winter storms leave your family in the dark, you may be tempted to buy a portable generator. University of Georgia experts say a generator handled improperly can prove to be far more dangerous than any storm.
Carbon monoxide risk
Portable generators create a carbon monoxide risk if they aren't placed in the proper place and a proper distance away from your home, said Gina Peek, a housing program assistant with the UGA Cooperative Extension.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and deadly gas. Breathing high concentrations can cause unconsciousness and even death.
"Portable generators must be kept away from your home and away from all air intake areas," Peek said. "These areas include doors, windows, crawl spaces and garages. Carbon monoxide levels can quickly increase indoors if the generator isn't kept a distance away."
More than 1,000 deaths related to carbon monoxide are reported nationwide each year, said Henry Slack, an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta.
"Generator-related deaths have been on the rise because more people are using them," Slack said. "Even though the manufacturer says 'use in well-ventilated areas,' there have been incidents where a generator was just 20 feet away from the building. One fatality occurred when a generator was used on a screened-in porch."
Generator sales up
Slack also attributes the rise in generator-related deaths to advertising.
"We're seeing more power outages, and we're seeing more generator ads," he said. "The ads show one brightly lit home in an otherwise dark neighborhood. In actuality, you don't get enough power from a generator to brightly light up a whole house."
Carbon monoxide poisoning isn't the only risk involved with improper generator usage. You can be electrocuted, too.
"If you use a portable generator improperly, you can kill yourself, a neighbor or someone working on the power lines," Peek said.
If the generator's extension cord is plugged into a household outlet, the electricity flows backwards. Called "backfeeding," it poses an electrocution risk to utility workers and neighbors served by the same transformer.
"This is a pretty severe problem," Peek said. "The generators we buy at local building supply stores are made to power one appliance, not a whole house."
Find shelter elsewhere
If your power goes out, Peek's advice is simple.
"Go to a friend or family member's house that still has power," she said. "If that's not an option, go to a restaurant. Have a nice meal, enjoy the warmth and wait out the storm there."
Peek discourages the use of portable generators. Period.
"The whole topic of portable generators strikes fear in my heart," she said. "Tragedies happen every year. And once they do, there's no going back."
If you still decide to buy and use a portable generator, be sure to read the instructions thoroughly. If you're still unsure, Peek said, ask for help or don't use it.
"There's almost always an alternative to using a portable generator," Peek said. "I feel so passionate about this. People just don't realize the danger and the huge margin of error for what can go wrong."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)