Fire officials: Generators dangerous if not used safely

Watch for carbon monoxide fumes, setting up too close to house

If you’re using a portable generator because your power is out, don’t set it up in your garage. Its carbon monoxide fumes can poison you.

Place the generator outside, 20 feet from a structure. Its heat and exhaust can damage a home’s siding and start a fire.

And, by the way, your carbon monoxide detector may not be working after five days without electricity.

Andy Oleson, assistant Cedar Rapids fire chief, on Friday offered those bits of lifesaving and house-saving advice for those operating generators.

Three girls — ages 9 to 14 — were overcome by carbon monoxide at 10 p.m. Thursday in the 1700 block of 16th Street NW. The culprit was a generator set up in a garage, he said.

Marion firefighters also report cases of carbon monoxide fumes making people sick.

Olesen said generators should not be placed in a garage or closed space. Some people, he said, put a generator in their garage because they didn’t want it stolen. w Instead, Oleson said, chain it to a tree, as long as the exhaust isn’t close to the tree,

This week, he said, he saw people place generators on apartment balconies — dangerous because of the fumes and heat but also because of the gasoline used to power the generator in a building with stairwells.

Capt. Shawn Fluharty of Marion Fire Prevention Bureau also advises putting said to be aware of your neighbors when setting up a generator. One Marion man on Friday became sick from carbon monoxide fumes produced by his neighbor’s generator.

“With large areas still not having power, most people have their windows open, which allows the carbon monoxide to enter the building,” Fluharty said.

Also, don’t assume your carbon monoxide detector is working, he said.

“Most homes have carbon monoxide — CO — detectors that are plugged into electricity with a battery backup,” he said. “Unfortunately, if you have been without power for several days, the battery may not be working and, therefore, you have no warning about a CO leak.”

Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, lethargy, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision and unconsciousness.

“CO is called the silent killer because it is colorless and odorless, so without a working CO detector, you have no warning until you start to have symptoms,” Fluharty said. “People should be aware that small pets and children may actually develop signs/symptoms before adults do.”

Fluharty said anyone concerned about possible carbon monoxide in their home should immediately call 911 and a fire official will check it out.

Other tips

• A generator can start a fire your home’s electrical wiring was damaged in the storm. Have an electrician take a look.

• Always shut off your home’s main electrical breaker before connecting a generator to avoid “backfeeding” through the main breaker to the transformer, which is dangerous and could start a fire. It also can create high voltage on lines utility workers are attempting to repair.

• Use generators to power only essential items. Generators are rated by their power, and overloading a generator or cords attached to it can start a fire. Items such as refrigerators, microwaves, washing machines and window air conditioner units use a large amount of electricity.

Use the shortest extension cord that you can use, and “make sure that it is at least a rating of 16 gauge or better,” Fluharty said. 

• Set up the generator outside and fuel it outside.

• Don’t store fuel for the generator in your house.

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