According to CPSC reports, the misuse of portable generators causes an average of 71 deaths per year and poison thousands of others requiring emergency treatment.

Using a generator indoors or nearby a home’s structure and in the path of your home's intake ventilation, even with the windows or garage door open, can kill in minutes. That’s because the current portable generators, can emit carbon monoxide at a rate of 500 to 4,000 grams per hour. To put that in perspective, cars on average, release 2.4 – 5.4 grams per hour – and as you probably know, running a car inside a garage can result in carbon monoxide poisoning.

“The traditional internal combustion engines used in portable generators are producing a lot of carbon monoxide very, very quickly,” explains Kenneth Boyce, principal engineering director for the Energy & Power Technologies division at UL. “When you're measuring carbon monoxide concentration they produce in an enclosed space, you see a straight line with a high slope that keeps going up, and up, and up.”

Misuse can happen because people often turn to portable generators after a major disaster and sometimes try to use them in a garage or carport, on a porch, in a basement, etc., because of unfavorable outside weather. Or they may put the generator in partially enclosed places out of fear that the generator will get stolen, Boyce points out. “And that's how people introduce this horrible carbon monoxide poisoning risk to their families.”

Dangers of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is often called the “silent killer” because the gas is odorless, colorless and tasteless, and symptoms of poisoning can be difficult to recognize.

“It has this insidious way of hurting people, sometimes providing warning signs like nausea, headaches, or dizziness, but can cause injury or death for sleeping people without any warning symptoms at all,” Boyce says.

New Standard

To reduce the numbers of carbon monoxide deaths and injuries, the CPSC asked UL to form a working group to develop additional requirements for portable engine-generators. The new standard, ANSI/UL 2201, requires portable generators to meet two performance requirements:

1. Reduced carbon monoxide emissions rate to not exceed a threshold

2. Automatically shut down if carbon monoxide emissions exceed certain measurements

“One of the exciting things about our new requirements is that they advance manufacturers’ ability to use more sophisticated technology to mitigate the risks. One such technology is electronic fuel injection (EFI), which the automotive industry has used for decades,” Boyce explains. “Using a computer that monitors what's going on with respect to the engine performance, EFI can adjust the way the engine runs to help control carbon monoxide emissions. We don't say that manufacturers must employ electronic fuel injection, but we do know that EFI is one way to significantly reduce carbon monoxide production.”

Because current portable generators emit so much carbon monoxide so quickly, designing to comply with ANSI/UL 2201 will help reduce deaths and injuries.

“All generators should always be used outdoors, and more than 20 feet away from structures. But, you may have wind or other conditions that cause carbon monoxide buildup in a place not necessarily in close proximity to the generator,” Boyce says. “Reducing emissions and also using a sensing and shut-off technology are together a really good solution for helping to minimize poisonings. Helping to make the world safer drives everything we do at UL, and we're excited that we're able set the stage for a new generation of portable generator products that are safer for users.”

Tips to Stay Safer

If purchasing a portable generator, look for one with the UL Mark that include the words “Low CO Generator.”

  • Whether you use one of the older generators or a newer one, the CPSC recommends that you:
  • Never use a portable generator inside a home, garage, crawlspace, shed, carport, tent, barn, or in any partially enclosed space.
  • Keep generators at least 20 feet away from all windows, doors and vents that could allow the carbon monoxide to come indoors.
  • Install UL Listed CO alarms on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas. Test the batteries monthly.
  • Never ignore a beeping carbon monoxide alarm. Go outside and call 911 if the alarm sounds.
  • If you start to feel sick, dizzy, or weak while using a generator, get to fresh air immediately.
  • To avoid electrocution, keep the generator dry. If you must use a generator when it is wet outside, protect the generator by operating it on a dry surface under an open canopy-like structure, such as under a tarp held up on poles where water cannot puddle under it. Do not touch the generator with wet hands.
  • Turn the generator off and let it cool down before refueling because gasoline spilled on a hot engine could start a fire.
  • Store generator fuel in an approved safety can outside of living areas.
  • Plug appliances directly into the generator, or use a UL Listed heavy duty, outdoor-rated extension cord rated (in watts or amps) at least equal to the sum of the connected appliance loads.

Products certified to the new safety standard ANSI/UL 2201, together with the proper use of a portable generator, can help you keep powered on while keeping your family safe.