Summary of the CPSC’s Efforts to Regulate Portable Generators

The Consumer Products Safety Commission is once again trying to pass a Fed Rule that would require safety devices on a portable generator.

By Rebecca Martin

Wednesday, June 28, 2023: The US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) will take another run at instituting a proposed rule requiring portable generators to install safety devices that will eliminate some deaths and fewer injuries from portable electric generators. The CPSC has been trying to make portable electric generators safer since 2002.

Here is the timeline of the CPSC’s often interrupted efforts to reduce the risk factors of generators:

  • 2002 – CPSC Started on Portable Generator CO Deaths
  • 2005 Marine Generators are Made Low CO Generators– 99% Reduction
  • 2006 CPSC Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule (ANPR) in 2006
  • 2007 Comments from Major Manufacturers Acknowledging Other Similar Incidents
  • 2007 New Warning Labels
  • 2009 PGMA formed by Manufacturers to Stall Rule Making
  • 2016 First PGMA Tech Summit
  • 2016 CPSC Proposed Rule Making (NPR)
  • 2017 – PGMA Tech Summit Says: Shut Down Will Save Lives
  • 2017 – One PGMA Member, TTi is making Low CO Generators
  • Trump Administration – CPSC – Abandoned Initiative
  • 2023 – CPSC Proposed Rule Making with Watered Down Requirements

2002 – CPSC Begins Look at Portable Generator CO Deaths

In 2002, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) embarked on what was to become a decades long look at portable generator safety. The CPSC is charged with investigating thousands of consumer products and protecting the public from unreasonable risk of injury or death. The CPSC, which is a very small agency by government standards, embarked on the study as the increasing number of deaths indicated a serious problem existed.

In 2001, 18 deaths had been reported due to CO poisoning from portable generator usage. The number of deaths increased to 40 in 2002. This 100% increase in fatalities tagged portable generators as warranting investigation. “From 1990 through 2003, 228 CO poisoning deaths associated with portable generators were reported to CPSC.”

Even though findings indicated that 70% of fatalities occurred at home, the most immediate results were the enactment of regulations for marine generators. In response to the number of reported fatalities the following years, in December of 2006, the CPSC published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to determine whether there might be an unreasonable risk of injury and death associated with portable generators.

The most significant strategies identified in the ANPR were related to generator technology. “The ANPR cites several possible strategies to reduce consumers’ exposure to carbon monoxide, including generator engines with substantially reduced CO emissions and interlocking or automatic shutoff devices.”

University of Alabama Proves Portable Generator Risks

As a result of the report generated by the ANPR, the CPSC contracted with the University of Alabama to explore generator technology development which would result in low CO emissions and to conduct comparative testing between unmodified and modified generators.

Separate from these findings, new warning labels were also considered in a separate rulemaking and those warning labels were put into effect in 2007. The findings from the ANPR were filed and forgotten.

In 2009, generator manufacturers formed the Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association (PGMA), promising voluntary standards for portable generators, effectively stalling any mandatory federal regulations.

PGMA is Industry’s Lobbying Arm

In 2016, the CPSC again proposed a rulemaking (NPR) to address fatalities and injuries from portable generators. It was again proposed that manufacturers lower CO emissions and add automatic shutoff devices as part of a mandatory safety package. Delays ensued with the PGMA requesting additional time beyond the response period for research and testing. The entire process was expected to take years.  By 2017, a new political agenda was in place and the only CPSC commissioner who voted against the mandatory generator safety standard was appointed to act as chair of the commission. The issue of portable generator safety was again dead in the water.

Now, in 2023, the CPSC has once again begun the process of rulemaking to revive the 2016 mandatory safety standard for the manufacture of portable generators in order to reduce the number of deaths and injuries due to consumer usage.

2016 Portable Generators Rule Had Higher Safety Standards

The 2016 Proposed Rule was a good one. It not only required that generators include electronic fuel injection to make these engines about 90% more efficient, it also required installation of catalytic converters that would have eliminated most of the remaining 10% of carbon monoxide from these generators. Before modifications to make them safer, generators emit as much as 100,000 ppm CO in their exhausts.

portable generator safety

The CPSC is once again tackling portable generator safety. Attorney Gordon Johnson of is shown here (on the right), testifying before the CPSC in 2017, the last go around to reduce deaths from portable generators. Click here for more on the 2017 hearing.

To understand the risk involved in running an unmodified portable generator,  Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr. says, “I have personally tested a Honda generator that had 87,000 ppm in its exhaust. That is a thousand times more CO that a furnace might have in its exhaust. Even really bad furnaces that result in the vast majority of poisonings in homes, have exhaust levels in the 4,000 to 6,000 levels. In other words, generators running as designed are 20 times more deadly than furnaces with cracked heat exchangers.”

He goes on to point out that death is not the only potential risk from portable generators. “In 2017, I testified in front of the CPSC about the scale of the problem that CO poisonings have on our country. My principal points were that for every death, there are dozens of people left with permanent brain damage and that the economic harm suffered by the population of those suffering permanent CO damage, was hundreds of times what the cost of implementing these safety measures.”

Although, the possibility of an agreement with the PGMA appears more promising, the CPSC has made concessions to the PGMA which dilute the original intent of a mandatory safety standard. Attorney Johnson explains, “That compromise is much worse than the 2016 rule. First, the generators are still really dangerous. And the safety shutoff, if it in fact uses the UL 2034 alarm standard, could be meaningless. Here is the reason: The UL standard does not ever immediately alarm. It is set to alarm in 4 to 15 minutes when concentrations are above 400 ppm. So that means that an indoor space could be flooded with CO with exhaust levels at 12,000 ppm, for up to 15 minutes. 12,000 for 15 minutes will kill almost everyone in a small house. While shutting off at 4 minutes would be three times safer, that is still a lot of CO. If the CPSC is going to replace a plan to reduce exhaust from a 100,000 ppm to below 1,000, with a 12,000 ppm standard, then the machine must shut down in seconds when levels exceed 400 ppm. Plain and simple.”

While the CPSC is once again proposing regulations for the portable generator industry, it must be kept in mind that allowing the PGMA to continue to self-regulate has not been successful. The media continues to bring us tragic stories of deaths and injuries due to the use of portable generators. The consumer is inevitably blamed for the improper use of a device that is often used in a high stress emergency situation in which judgement can be compromised.

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