To subdue the steaming heat of hurricanes or to thaw out during a blizzard, gasoline-powered, portable generators are a lifeline during weather emergencies when homes are cut off without electricity. But these generators emit poisonous carbon monoxide—a single generator can produce a hundred times more of the colorless, odorless gas than a modern car's exhaust. New research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shows that to prevent potentially dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, users may need to keep generators farther from the house than previously believed—perhaps as much as 25 feet.
Up to half of the incidents of non-fatal carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning reported in the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons involved generators run within 7 feet of the home, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Carbon monoxide can enter a house through a number of airflow paths, such as a door or window left open to accommodate the extension cord that brings power from the generator into the house. While some guidance recommends 10 feet from open windows as a safe operating distance, NIST researcher Steven Emmerich says the "safe" operating distance depends on the house, the weather conditions and the unit. A generator's carbon monoxide output is usually higher than an automobile's, he says, because most generators do not have the sophisticated emission controls that cars do.
"People need to be aware that generators are potentially deadly and they need to educate themselves on proper use," Emmerich says. With funding from CDC, NIST researchers are gathering reliable data to support future CDC guidance.
NIST building researchers simulated multiple scenarios of a portable generator operating outside of a one-story house, using both a test structure and two different computer models—the NIST-developed CONTAM indoor air quality model and a computational fluid dynamics model.
The simulations included factors that could be controlled by humans, such as generator location, exhaust direction and window-opening size, and environmental factors such as wind, temperature and house dimensions. In the simulations the generator was placed at various distances from the house and tested under different weather conditions.
"We found that for the house modeled in this study," researcher Leon Wang says, "a generator position 15 feet away from open windows was not far enough to prevent carbon monoxide entry into the house."
Winds perpendicular to the open window resulted in more carbon monoxide entry than winds at an angle, and lower wind speeds generally allowed more carbon monoxide in the house. "Slow, stagnant wind seems to be the worst case because it leads to the carbon monoxide lingering by the windows," Wang explains. Researchers determined that placing the generator outside of the airflow recirculation regions near the open windows reduced carbon monoxide entry.
In the next phase of the study NIST will model a two-story house that researchers believe will interact with the wind differently. NIST researchers also have worked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission on related work. (See: "NIST to Study Hazards of Portable Gasoline-Powered Generators," NIST Tech Beat, March 5, 2008.)