Carbon monoxide from gasoline-powered generators kills more than 70 people a year but technology available today could drastically reduce the emissions that cause those deaths, according to a new study from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. By adapting the emission controls used on small motorcycles for generators, the margin of safety for consumers would be increased twelve-fold, the agency reported.
Deaths related to portable generators have been on the rise since 1999 and as a result, the CPSC has made it a priority to find ways to reduce the risk. Unfortunately, many of the fatalities happen when the generators are being used improperly—indoors or in an outdoor location where the exhaust can infiltrate the house. Recognizing that consumers either knowingly or unknowingly disregard advice to keep the unit away from the house, the CPSC attempted to eliminate or reduce the hazard at the source.
Working with other safety groups, the CPSC developed a prototype generator that used closed-loop electronic fuel injection and a small catalyst. Using a deadly scenario in which a consumer is running a generator in an attached garage, the researchers found that emissions were reduced by so much that escape time for someone with the symptoms of CO poisoning increased from eight minutes to 96 minutes.
That is a significant improvement. Under the CPSC's scenario, an occupant of the garage using a regular generator would progress from recognition of CO poisoning symptoms to death in 13 to 14 minutes and lose consciousness in seven to eight. With the prototype, the time from symptom recognition to death would increase to 152 minutes or longer and the exposed person would be conscious for at least 96 of those. That added time would result in many lives saved. In addition, the modified generator used 20 percent less fuel and performed as well as a regular unit.
Although the agency conducted its testing in an enclosed garage, it underscored its advice that consumers should never use a generator in that manner. The agency also stressed that all homes should be equipped with CO alarms, especially near sleeping areas.
The CPSC is now urging manufacturers to voluntarily adopt stringent CO emission standards for engines used in portable gasoline-powered generators with the expectation that it will improve safety and save lives. This has worked before. In 2005, manufacturers of small marine generator engines voluntarily adopted a stringent CO emission standard to address the hazard of acute poisoning that was causing fatal and serious injuries to boaters exposed to engine exhaust.
Related reading: See Consumer Reports latest generator Ratings and recommendations.
—Mary H.J. Farrell