Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning During a Power Outage

photo of Google Nest

In late July, little did we know that a thunderstorm and subsequent power outage would result in our suffering Carbon Monoxide (CO) inhalation. We are sharing our cautionary tale to help others avoid the same fate.

It was a typical hot and muggy late July afternoon in Northern Virginia, when a severe thunderstorm hit our neighborhood. The storm knocked out power, and after about an hour, we realized it would likely take some time for the power company to restore it. So, we started up our portable generator, like many times before when we lost power in summer and winter storms.

This day was very hot and humid. The air was dense and still. We set the generator up in our backyard at the edge of the patio about 15 feet from the house, in the same place where we had set it up and operated it safely several times before. However, this time the hot, dense, still air made a significant difference. (We subsequently learned the recommended safe distance from the house is 20 feet.)

It was sunset when we started the generator up and ran extension cords into the house so we could operate a couple of fans, lamps, the refrigerator, and phone chargers. Later, we went to bed, and at about 10:30 p.m., a CO detector went off. We have the kind of CO detector that gives verbal warnings, so Brian got up and checked to make sure we did not have any leaking gas appliances. He opened a window on the ground floor and another one upstairs where the bedroom is and went back to bed. Deb was foggy and having a hard time becoming alert, and we both quickly fell back to sleep.

Fortunately, we have the type of CO alarm that gives escalating verbal warnings. The warning became louder, and it told us to leave the house immediately. This got our attention and helped us take immediate action.

Deb left the house and called 911, and Brian quickly opened more windows. The dispatcher asked Deb how she felt, and what she thought was stress from the event – headache, nausea, and fatigue – were actually symptoms of CO inhalation. An EMT team and fire truck were sent to the house right away.

Upon arrival at our house, the EMT checked our symptoms, and the firemen ran monitors through the house to check the CO levels. The firemen determined it was the generator in the backyard that caused the problem. The concentration of CO in the house was well above the level of concern. Even the CO concentration outdoors on the screened porch, which we learned was the CO point of entry to the house, was well above the level of concern.

Because of the levels in the house, the fire department called in another truck that had large fans to clear out the CO. Once everything was clear, the firemen explained the danger of running a generator when the air is still and dense. In fact, he recommended not running one, and we turned ours off. In our case, the CO from the generator’s exhaust remained concentrated all around the generator, and that is how it drifted onto the porch and into the house.

It is clear the CO detectors saved us from illness or worse. We also recognize now that we were foggy when it first went off, and it took the voice warning of the second alarm for us to take it seriously.

We encourage everyone to install CO detectors if you do not already have them. If you do, please check the batteries to make sure they are working properly. And consider getting detectors that have a verbal warning feature, because we know that made the difference for us.

We are still in the middle of hurricane season, and summer storms are prevalent. Power outages across the country are likely. We hope that our story helps everyone stay safe.

photo of Brian and Deb Hawkinson
Article authors Brian & Deb Hawkinson