By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Last month the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced it was mulling over “rule making.” The rules could affect portable generator manufacturers. The agency is tasked with keeping citizens safe from the dangers of household products. CPSC sees death from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning associated with portable generator usage as a priority. Will the CPSC write new generator rules and, if so, how will RVers be affected?
More than just deaths
Roughly 70 people are killed each year by CO from portable generators. To many, this doesn’t seem like a significantly large number—unless one of those deaths is among your friends or family. While official statistics are easy to track down on deaths, injuries from CO poisoning are significantly larger in number.
The long-term effects of CO poisoning can really be something to reckon with. Survivors may suffer long-term memory, language, and cognition problems. Behavior and mood problems aren’t uncommon. Some even suffer from symptoms that might be seen in Parkinson’s disease patients. Making it all the more disturbing, symptoms may not appear for days—even weeks—after the initial poisoning occurs. While CO may not kill “too many” people, it could make life a walking nightmare for hundreds, if not thousands.
With this in mind, the CPSC approached the portable generator manufacturing industry some time back. They suggested industry might want to voluntarily undertake generator research and production. Goal? Reduce the likelihood of deaths and injuries from CO poisoning. Such a voluntary program would eliminate any chance of the CPSC making rules. Industry responded, developing a voluntary industry standard. At the heart of the standard are changes to portable generators that would, by industry’s testing, reduce the number of deaths by 99%.
How does the generator industry’s system work? Imagine building a CO detector into a portable generator. The detector constantly sniffs the surrounding air. If a danger level is reached, it shuts down the generator. A warning light then indicate what the problem is. Some manufacturers already have models with this safety equipment on store shelves.
Will it make generators safer for RVers?
Will that make RVers safer when operating a portable generator? That’s a big “maybe.” The government says the vast majority—95% or more—of CO generator deaths are associated with indoor generator incidents. Here’s a typical scenario. A major storm blows through a region, knocking out residential power. A homeowner sets up a generator in his attached garage. He fires it up, and it kills his family when the CO fumes migrate into the living area of the house.
In that scenario, an automatic detector/shutdown system is an excellent response. On sensing the build-up in the garage (or other enclosed space) of dangerous CO levels, it shuts down. Hopefully, the homeowner will put two-and-two together. He’ll move the offending equipment outside the home. But RVers, who are in the 5 percent or less range of being killed by CO, typically DON’T operate a generator inside an enclosed space. In anecdotal situations, where RVers have been poisoned by generator emissions, the “genny” has been set up too close to the RV. The invisible gas migrates in through a cracked window or door, snuffing out the unsuspecting occupants.
The fed’s view
What’s the alternative? How can RVers, and other users who set up generators outside, be protected? The CPSC says there are two ways to approach the issue. One way is the industry-supported detector/shut off approach. The other, simply decrease the amount of CO produced by the generator. One fact that upset some of our readers was the suggestion that portable generators produce relatively high levels of the toxic gas.
Statistics bandied about suggest that a single 5-killowatt generator produces as much CO as some 450 automobiles. This number was seen by some as being overblown. We asked the PGMA (Portable Generator Manufacturer’s Association), an industry trade group, about this. They simply referred us to data published by the CPSC. Those figures indicate a 5-KW generator produces somewhere around 1570 grams of CO per hour. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) indicates that 1990’s mid-size cars crank out an average of 4 grams of CO per hour. That’s a little less than 400 cars’ worth of CO per generator, but certainly significant.
Shrink down to your typically-used-by RVers 3.2 KW unit and the numbers are reduced to 600 grams CO per hour. Sound like a fairly insignificant amount of carbon monoxide? Imagine parking your RV in a nice, open space. Now park 150 idling mid-size cars around your campsite—will you sleep well? It does sound a bit far-fetched, but it certainly stresses the importance of not having your generator exhaust anywhere near your RV—or anyone else’s rig (or tent) for that matter.
So what’s better for RVers?
In practical terms, for RVers it would seem that the actual reduction of CO emissions would be a safer bet than a “sniff and shut down” system. Under the CPSC’s potential rule, portable generators of all sizes would be limited to emitting no more than 150 grams of CO per hour.
Of course, making any sort of change, be it the industry-suggested “sniff and shut down” or the CPSC’s “emission control,” will cost the manufacturers money. How much? In an email a representative of the generator manufacturers’ association told us, “Specifics as it relates to pricing is part of each individual manufacturer’s strategy, which an industry association group like PGMA cannot speak to. We can say that changing to a lower CO approach is costlier than the CO shut off approach.”
The CPSC says that the “lower CO approach” would cost about $115 per unit. While industry is mum on the cost, we can safely assume that every dime will be passed along to the consumer. If CPSC’s estimate is true, then the price of a Honda 3,000-watt unit would rise a little less than 5 percent, based on a present-day $2,350 price for a EU3000iS1AN model.
How much will you pay?
The million dollar question is this: Will the CPSC impose generator rules? The generator manufacturers’ group doesn’t think so. “We think, in the end, there will not be a mandatory standard because there is a voluntary standard, ANSI/PGMA G300,” writes the group’s representative. That standard “effectively addresses the issue and there will be substantial compliance by the industry.” If industry “substantially complies” with their own voluntary standard, then CPSC has no footing to write new rules on generator safety.
At this point it’s a bit like watching a poker game. The CPSC sits on one side of the table, the generator manufacturers on the other. Nobody is showing their cards and, at this point, it just might be who can bluff the best. It’s dead certain that financially, generator costs will go up. Depending on who “wins” the generator rules game will dictate just how much more the price dealt to the consumer will be.
While none of us want to watch more dollars fly out of our wallets, there is one thing to be said. Being the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning is something we’d probably be glad to be pay money to avoid. Death or serious, permanent damage to ourselves or our loved ones is not something to scoff at.
But as we’ve preached before, regardless of the outcome of this generator rules game, spend a little money now for peace of mind. Invest in a carbon monoxide detector for your RV. Install it, keep the batteries fresh, and mind the “expiration date” on the device. We installed one in a rig of ours—even though we didn’t have a generator at the time. One night, that piercing shriek shook us out of sleep. Our water heater was malfunctioning and pumping CO back into the rig through a siding defect. Without that $35 detector, you might not be reading this article right now.