Power Washer Causes Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Wilmington, Delaware

A gas power washer resulted in a severe carbon monoxide poisoning in Delaware, in much the same way as gas powered generator would. Gas engines cannot be run indoors or in garages.

By Rebecca Martin

In Wilmington, Delaware this month, six children and two adults were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning which occurred in a three-story rental home in which a gas power washer was in use in the basement. Fatal levels of carbon monoxide were discovered in several areas of the home by firefighters on the scene.


power washer carbon monoxide

Using a power washer indoors or in a garage can cause severe carbon monoxide poisoning as the exhaust levels in these machines are hundreds of times more deadly than current automobiles. Unlike cars, power washer gas engines do not have electronic fuel injection or catalytic converters.

While portable generators often are the first thing to come to mind when we are discussing seasonal carbon monoxide hazards, summer is also the time many of us are tackling home maintenance chores. With the proliferation of DIY videos and information available to us through social media platforms, many of us are opting to bypass professional services in order to save a few dollars. Understanding power washer safety measures is important and many of the safety concerns over gas-powered power washers are the same as gas-powered generator usage.

Gas Power Washer Dangerous because Fumes Have CO

The electric and gas-powered power washer are both available for purchase or rental. It is generally accepted that the gas-powered washers deliver more PSIs even if they might not be the most ideal for the average homeowner’s needs.  Gas-powered power washers are meant to be used in outdoor or well-ventilated areas while electric power washers are acceptable for indoor use. In general, electric power washers are perfectly adequate for most of the uses the average homeowner might have and while requiring safety measures for operation, do not come with a risk of potential carbon monoxide exposure. Gas-powered washers are more geared to a commercial environment and heavy duty jobs.

Even professionals who utilize a gas-powered power washer can use them improperly either by accident, ignorance or negligence. Every spring and summer, enclosed parking areas are often cleaned using gas-powered power washers to remove heavy deposits accumulated over the winter. There have been cases of workers injured or killed working in parking garages without adequate ventilation, not to mention the risk of such fumes leaking into other populated areas. https://www.ontario.ca/page/alert-carbon-monoxide-hazards-using-gas-powered-pressure-washers#:~:text=Workers%20who%20can%20be%20affected,risk%20of%20carbon%20monoxide%20poisoning.

History of CO Deaths from Power Washers

In 2012, a worker was killed while using a gas power washer to remove paint from a boat. Although the work was being done in an outdoor space, plastic tarps had been utilized to enclose the area to keep paint chips from falling in the water. When the worker moved the power washer to an enclosed corridor he succumbed to the fumes. He was discovered unconscious and unfortunately died from what the medical examiner termed “inhalation of engine exhaust”. https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/18065-facevalue-worker-dies-from-carbon-monoxide-poisoning-while-using-pressure-washer

Much like portable gas-powered generators, while certain safety shut offs are in place to protect the machinery itself such as low oil levels, high engine temperature or low water supply, there is most often no automatic shut off due to high carbon monoxide levels.

Warnings are Insufficient to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Deaths

Manufacturers rely on consumer-targeted operating manuals and safety instructions as well as assumptions that not only are operation instructions followed but maintenance recommendations as well.

            The recommendations for use of gas-powered power washers are:

  1. Use the power washer outdoors or in a well-ventilated area,
  2. Avoid using the power washer in an enclosed area, such as a garage or basement.
  3. Be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea or confusion, If any symptoms are suspected, turn off the washer, move to fresh air, and seek medical attention.
  4. Consider an electric power washer instead for routine household maintenance or jobs which do not require machinery with commercial grade PSIs.

There is another consideration attached to using a gas-powered power washer. There should be an automatic shut-off in place that shuts down the machine if it has been inactive for a certain period of time. Another safety feature is a safety trigger lock which requires constant pressure to keep the engine running. Recently certain power washers from Generac and DR Power were recalled due to malfunctioning electronic start buttons. The engines could potentially start by themselves and pose a carbon monoxide risk. “There were nine reports of pressure washers self-starting and operating while they were not connected to a water supply.” https://www.daytondailynews.com/local/recalls-power-washer-can-start-itself-bunny-baskets-pose-choking-hazard/PYOFSB76QRCNFI6IRSX6X7EONQ/

This recall involves Generac and DR Power brand electric start pressure washers with model numbers DPW3100DEN, DPW3101DEN, DPW3102DEN, G0071320, G0071321, G0071430 and G0071431. Consumers can check specific unit type, model number and serial number location information at www.generac.com/service-support/product-support-lookup.

It is advised that recalled machinery have the rechargeable battery removed to prevent accidental starts until modifications can be made.

Although deaths and injuries due to misuse of power washers are not in themselves statistically alarming, these deaths and injuries are included in the category of death and injury by gas-powered equipment which includes portable generators and IS the leading cause of death and injury from carbon monoxide nationwide. Operating any fuel-burning device or machinery has the potential to become deadly. And every case of fatality or injury is something to be taken with absolute seriousness in that these are preventable deaths and injuries.

The last line of defense against carbon monoxide is the carbon monoxide detector. Until all fuel-burning devices are obsolete or engineered with shut-off switches in the presence of carbon monoxide, carbon monoxide detectors should be present in any space inhabited by people. Familiarizing one’s self with proper operation of machinery, following recommended maintenance schedules, and being aware of common carbon monoxide exposure symptoms are essential to keep one’s self and others safe.

Common symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain and confusion.Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Exposure Can be Confused with Other Causes Keep in mind that compromised mental faculties can impair judgement so self-monitoring the risk of using a piece of machinery in an inadequately ventilated space is not reliable. You cannot safely monitor the amount of exposure that would be an acceptable risk when you are not a reliable meter of the impact fumes are having. There is not an acceptable risk of exposure when running a fuel-burning device in an enclosed or improperly ventilated area.

  • Each Of the victims interviewed by NIOSH expressed shock at how quickly they were overcome. A farm woman recently poisoned in Iowa stressed, “I was amazed at how it affected my ability to think clearly and to get out.”https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/93-117.html

What does proper ventilation mean?

According to the CDC, power washers should not be operated inside any building. There have been multiple documented cases in which carbon monoxide poisonings occurred even in the presence of multiple open doors and exhaust fan systems. “Though warning notices in operating manuals advise that the equipment is not to be used without adequate ventilation, it can be difficult to determine how much ventilation is adequate.” https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/93-117.html

We have seen the demonstration of the ambiguity of the term “proper ventilation” when generators are run in open garages where air behavior may draw fumes into the home rather than out of it. “Never leave your car running in an open garage” is a good demonstration of this.

According to the EPA, “Opening doors and windows or operating fans does NOT guarantee safety.”  This same warning can be applied to concrete cutting saws, power trowels, floor buffers, welders, pumps, compressors and generators.

“Common engine-driven tools (generators, lawn mowers, power washers) accounted for the largest portion of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths unrelated to structure fires.” https://www.health.com/carbon-monoxide-poisoning-deaths-consumer-products-increasing-7376686

Compounding the issue of carbon monoxide safety is the potential for misdiagnosis of carbon monoxide exposure. Because it entails a long list of non-specific symptoms, non-fatal exposure is not always identified.

It is crucial to familiarize oneself with the proper operation and maintenance of all gas-powered machinery and if there is an error to be made, it should be to err on the side of safety. While warnings abound about the use of generators during storm season, care must be used with all gas-burning tools year round.

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