Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM. This week I want to remind you of the dangers of CO poisoning when running a generator.
Just in the last few days I’ve received a ton of emails about how to connect a portable generator to your bricks-and-sticks house during a power outage. Of course, this is due to Hurricane Ida bearing down on the Gulf Coast, which will have struck in full force by the time you read this on Monday.
While I’ve been covering all the electrical issues surrounding powering your house with a portable generator, CarGenerator, your RV’s built-in generator, or even a Ford F-150 PowerBoost’s generator, this JAM session will be about the dangers of CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning due to running ANY generator nearby or even inside of your house.
What is CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning?
Fully combusted fuel produces a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2) (as do you in your exhaled breath). So, as long as your C02 levels don’t get too high it’s only moderately dangerous. However, incomplete combustion from any gasoline or diesel engine, natural or propane gas-fired furnace or water heater, or even a Heat Buddy catalytic heater, can indeed produce a large amount of CO (carbon monoxide) fumes.
And these fumes are VERY dangerous even in small concentrations. Symptoms include lethargy, dizziness, confusion and can even lead to death. Most victims of CO poisoning simply fall asleep and are found dead the next day. And, sadly, entire families are sometimes found dead. Carbon Monoxide poisoning won’t wake you up – it lulls you to sleep.
Why is CO so dangerous?
Because your lungs don’t produce CO naturally (remember, your own breath includes CO2 [carbon dioxide]), your body will absorb carbon monoxide fumes like a sponge. And CO interferes with your body’s ability to absorb and process oxygen (02). Hence, even a small amount of carbon monoxide in your body will essentially cause you to drown while in the air. So CO doesn’t have to displace all the available oxygen in the room. Only a tiny amount will cause your body to ignore the available oxygen in the room!
NEVER do this!
- NEVER run a portable generator outside anywhere near an open window
- NEVER run a generator in an attached garage or your basement
- NEVER run a portable generator inside of your house
- NEVER run a portable generator underneath your RV
- NEVER park a vehicle with the engine idling close to your house or RV
I recommend you use a heavy-gauge 25-foot (or longer) extension cord to connect any portable generator to your house. Keep any exhaust at least 20 feet away from your house.
And NEVER, EVER let a vehicle idle inside of your attached garage, or any garage for that matter. Any exhaust fumes will quickly spread throughout your residence and endanger everyone in it.
I also recommend installing carbon monoxide detectors in any residence. Your RV should already have one from the factory, but your bricks-and-sticks house may not. So, please get a few of them and install according to directions.
It’s cheap insurance, as ANY natural or LP gas furnace or water heater can produce CO gases if the vent pipe becomes restricted or the combustion chamber cracks. Been there, done the that.
Don’t backfeed a generator into your home electrical system
Unless you already have an appropriate generator transfer switch or interlock installed at your house (and don’t think you can find one now), it’s safest to just run extension cords from the generator into your house to power the important things like your refrigerator, freezer, basic lights and your cell phone chargers.
For a 3,600 watt generator with duplex 20-amp receptacles you’ll want to run a pair of 50-ft, 12-gauge extension cords into your house, making sure to keep the generator exhaust far enough away from any open windows. Most safety agencies recommend keeping your generator at least 20 ft distance from any open window or door.
Play it safe…
OK, everyone. Remember that portable generators are actually very safe, as long as we pay attention to all safety precautions while using them.
Let’s play it safe out there….
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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