By Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.


My father designed portable generators for his entire career. After he retired, he served as the executive director of the national trade association for the manufacturer’s of portable generators for another 15 years. I learned about carbon monoxide from my father, probably before I was 10. When I was 17, my father helped me write my senior term paper about air pollution, at a time that carbon monoxide and smog, was a big issue. Thus, when I see a story like today’s I shudder.

A family of six died in Fenton Township, Michigan, because their answer to a power outage was to run down to the local Home Depot and hook up a portable generator in their basement: The headline in says that they “Dropped in Their Spots.” There is something wrong about this story. The danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from running an internal combustion engine inside has been known forever. But it shouldn’t happen this fast. The account makes it sound like the father of the family, succumbed almost as soon as he started the generator up. No engine should ever be that dangerous. If that was the lethality of carbon burning engines, we would have to push our cars into the garage, because we might die as soon as we started them up.

Hopefully we will learn more details as the authorities conduct a full investigation, but the starting point has to be testing that generator to figure out why it was spewing out carbon monoxide at a rate to poison someone within minutes of starting the engine.

Ironically, electrical generator engines can now be made almost carbon monoxide free. My father’s company pioneered the field and according to Kohler’s website, the new engines can run 99 percent carbon monoxide free. See Such generators not only reduce carbon monoxide levels, they also come with a built in carbon monoxide alarm.

The report states that authorities were able to estimate the time of the poisoning based upon the convergence of other evidence with “a sales receipt for a generator and equipment from Home Depot that was time-stamped 10:06 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19,” according to Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell.

Tomorrow we will address whether the standards for all portable generators should now be shifting to the low CO generators referenced above. At a minimum should not big box retailers only stock such generators when the risks that such will be used in a home is much higher than for other type generators?

2 replies
  1. Mike Legare
    Mike Legare says:

    What if a gas furnace or gas water heater flames out for some reason while the gas is on, will these appliances still flow gas into the air causing CO emissions to rise unknown and undetected?

    Secondly, can a gas generator be used in the basement if all the downstairs windows are open, say in the case of an electrical outage now that winter is approaching?

    Thank you

    • Attorney Gordon Johnson
      Attorney Gordon Johnson says:

      NEVER USE A GENERATOR IN EITHER A BASEMENT OR A HOUSE. You may not survive it. There is no way that windows can exhaust levels that may be as high as 100,000 ppm from the generator.

      While having a pilot light flame out will cause other serious safety risks (explosion/fire) this would not directly cause Carbon monoxide poisoning because there needs to be a fire (combustion) for the creation of Carbon monoxide. It is a byproduct of combustion, which is not the same as a methane leak.


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