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Many RVers turn to a portable RV generator to give themselves access to sufficient power to charge their devices, replenish their RV’s battery power, and run appliances while they’re camping. But how safe are these portable generators? Should we be concerned about the potential for suffocation? In today’s post, we’ll dig deep to consider the dangers posed by portable RV generators and what their owners need to do to make them safer.

What Is a Portable RV Generator?

A portable RV generator is a small generator that isn’t built-in to your RV, but that you carry with you to use for additional power while camping.

Portable gas generators can range from very small inverter generators to generators that are a bit larger, such as a 50-amp RV generator, for example. These generators run on gasoline or on propane in some cases. You plug your RV’s power cord into an outlet on the generator to power your RV’s appliances.

Photo of a 50-amp portable RV generator
This 50-amp generator runs on gasoline. You’d plug your 50-amp plug into the generator to bring power to your RV’s appliances.

There’s also another type of portable power on the market that is solar-powered. A solar generator for RVs is really a portable power bank that allows you to plug in a solar panel to replenish the power you’ve used, and in turn, the “solar generator” powers your devices and some appliances.

We say “some” appliances because a solar generator is unlikely to power your RV air conditioner (though it’s technically possible), but a 50-amp gas generator certainly could. In fact, a small inverter generator is capable of powering an RV air conditioner if you have a soft start for RV ACs.

Photo of a small inverter generator sitting on a picnic table a fair distance away from the RV to which it delivers power
With an EasyStart 364 soft start in the picture, a little inverter generator like this one could start and power an RV AC unit.

Are Portable RV Generators Dangerous?

They can be, and here’s why:

Gas-powered portable RV generators give off carbon monoxide. If you’re parked very close to another RV, (as can be the case in some campgrounds or event parking), it’s possible for the generator’s exhaust to send carbon monoxide into your neighbor’s rig.

As a matter of fact, it pains us to report that this very tragedy occurred last July at a country music festival in Michigan. Three people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and the cause was a generator parked and running too close to their trailer.

Other gas-powered appliances such as furnaces have malfunctioned and subsequently led to carbon monoxide poisoning, but according to a 2018 Consumer Product Safety Commission report, no consumer product the CPSC has studied has led to more carbon monoxide poisoning deaths than portable generators.

Now – it’s important to note that most of these deaths have not been RVers, but have occurred when people have used generators at their homes/businesses improperly such as in a garage, a basement, or outside a window. Misuse of generators can occur due to lack of education about safe generator use, fear of having a generator stolen, or using extension cords that are too short, requiring the portable generator to be placed too close to doors/windows.

Photo of a person starting a small portable generator very close to an RV
Running a portable RV generator very close to your RV or your neighbor’s can cause the generator’s exhaust to send carbon monoxide into the rig, with the potential to cause injury or death from asphyxiation.

Overall, however, the CPSC has tracked 1,300 deaths from generators over the past 20 years. They also note in the report that the actual number of deaths is higher, but there is no legal requirement to report fatalities and injuries to the agency, so in many cases, they never hear about a death or injury.

We want to reiterate that most generator-related deaths don’t occur when people are camping, but it is possible, and it does happen. And, if you ask us, a single death is far too many, since this is an easily avoided problem.

The title of this post asked the question, “Is your portable RV generator a suffocation hazard?”. The answer is that it can be if the portable generator is not used safely.

We decided to write this post in an effort to raise awareness of the potential dangers in hopes of keeping people informed and prepared to use their portable RV generators safely and without incident.

Are There Federal Regulations Governing Generator Manufacturers?

Although portable generators emit carbon monoxide and are thus among the deadliest consumer products available, consumers are vulnerable because the generator manufacturing industry is allowed to regulate itself.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has long attempted to require portable generators to emit less carbon monoxide, but the generator industry has been resistant to these attempts. The industry instead proposed a cheaper voluntary safety upgrade in 2018 suggesting that manufacturers install carbon monoxide sensors that automatically turn generators off when high levels of CO are detected in an enclosed space.

Photo of a burnt portable generator in the rubble of a fire
Running a portable generator in an enclosed space can not only cause death by asphyxiation but can also cause a fire that can quickly destroy the structure.

But, to date, not all portable RV generator manufacturers have complied. Additionally, safety advocates say the shut-off switches fall far short of the protection needed. And the regulation doesn’t do anything to improve the safety of the MANY portable generators that are already sold and in use.

The standard is known as UL 2201, an American National Standard. UL 2201 certification requires that portable generators must shut off “when they sense CO concentration that averages more than 150 ppm during a rolling 600-second period average or sense greater than 400 ppm for any time period.”

The UL 2201 requirements provide increased safety beyond any others industry standards that have been published for portable generators.

Most recently, on February 23, 2022, the CPSC announced that UL 2201 would be likely to avert nearly 100% of carbon monoxide poisoning deaths in testing scenarios that were based on their data of fatalities from non-compliant generators in enclosed spaces.

You can read the publication here.

It’s important to note that generators that are permanently installed in RVs or boats are outside of the CPSC’s jurisdiction because stationary generators are used differently from portable generators and are thus covered by a different voluntary standard.

Why Are There So Many Incidents of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning From Generators?

Incidents have increased mainly because the use of portable generators has increased. This is largely due to more frequent extreme weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes, and winter storms as well as other events such as wildfires and earthquakes. More and more people have purchased generators in preparation for situations like these, looking to ensure access to power in situations when there are outages.

Photo of the aftermath of a hurricane
An increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and winter storms has brought about an increased need for the ownership of portable generators. With this increase has come a higher incidence of injuries and deaths from improper generator use.

In addition to increased use, many generator incidents are caused by users not following extremely important safeguards. Carbon monoxide is odorless and tasteless and it can’t be seen in the air. And it’s a by-product of generator operation. Operating a generator inside a structure OR operating a generator too close to buildings or RVs (including your own RV) is clearly very dangerous and is capable of causing serious injury or death.

Even scarier, people often don’t recognize the symptoms of CO poisoning – headache, dizziness, and confusion – or they attribute the symptoms to something else. Unfortunately, unconsciousness and death can occur if symptoms aren’t recognized and addressed with immediate access to fresh air and medical assistance.

How Can I Safely Use a Portable RV Generator?

There are a number of precautions you can take to safely use a portable RV generator. Adhering to these precautions can make your use of a portable generator perfectly safe.

Never Run a Portable RV Generator in an Enclosed Space

Most (but not all) generator-related injuries and deaths are caused by CO poisoning that occurs as a result of generators being used in enclosed spaces such as a garage or basement. As discussed earlier, however, portable generators can be just as deadly when used too close to a structure that is housing people.

Photo of a portable RV generator positioned very close to a trailer
Portable RV generators must always be positioned a minimum of 20 feet from any inhabited structure. Positioning a running generator close to a structure, as seen in this photo, is asking for tragedy.

A generator must always be placed a minimum of 20 feet away from a house or RV or other inhabited structure, with the engine exhaust directed AWAY from windows and doors. Also, be aware of the direction the wind is blowing, and try to place your portable RV generator so that its exhaust isn’t being blown toward other structures/RVs.

Use a Working Carbon Monoxide Detector

We should all have working carbon monoxide detectors in our RVs. All of our detectors – smoke, propane, and carbon monoxide should be tested regularly and replaced as needed. We should never be without working safety detectors.

Don’t Run a Portable RV Generator in the Rain

Never run a portable generator in the rain or other inclement weather without protection.

Online stores and hardware stores sell tents for generators. The purpose is to keep them protected while also keeping them well-ventilated. These tents are made to protect generators running OUTSIDE – where they MUST be run – in all kinds of weather including rain, snow, hail, and high winds.

Never toss a tarp or any other material over a working generator! Invest in a tent made for this purpose.

There are generator tents for larger generators like this one that will cover a 3,000-10,000 watt generator:

GenTent Generator Running Cover - Universal Kit (Standard, Tan) - for Open Frame Generators …
  • Safely run your portable generator outside in nearly any wet weather - rain, snow, ice, sleet, and wind.wind
  • Protects sensitive electrical areas, sheds water away, large door for easy refuel, and waterproof.

Other generator tents, like this one, are made for the smaller inverter generators that are commonly used by RVers:

IGAN Small Inverter Generator Tent Cover While Running, Compatible for Honda and Most 1000~2300 Watts Generators, Portable Outdoor All-Weather Tarpaulin Cover for Rain, Orange
  • 1.The IGAN Advantage: Run your inverter generator safely whether in rain, snow, high winds or wet weather.
  • 2.Patented Design: Ensure the sensitive sections of the machine are 100% well-protected and maintain its natural cooling airflow & mobility.

Before Refueling, Turn OFF a Gas-Powered Generator and Allow it to Cool

Generators need to be refueled in order to continue running for long periods of time. Prior to refueling, always turn your generator OFF and allow it to cool sufficiently.

Allowing the engine to cool not only reduces the risk of burns that can occur during the refueling process but also relieves the risk of spilled gasoline igniting on hot engine parts.

Store Extra Gasoline Properly

Always store fuel in an ANSI-approved container and keep it in a cool, well-ventilated area. You can add a stabilizer to the gas in your ANSI-approved container so that it lasts longer, but never store gasoline near any potential source of sparks, heat, or fire, and never store gas inside your house or RV.

Photo of three old gas containers
Store the gasoline for your portable generator only in an ANSI-approved container that is in good condition. Never use old or damaged gas containers. Keep your gas containers in a cool, well-ventilated area.

Buy a UL-Certified Generator With Built-In Safety Technology

If you buy a new generator, be sure to buy a UL-certified genny. These are likely to have the built-in safety technology discussed above. This should include a device that detects dangerous levels of CO and will turn off the engine when safe levels are exceeded. Even though we know you’re all going to follow the recommendations for operating your portable generator safely, having a failsafe backup NEVER hurts!

Beware Extension Cords When Using a Portable Generator

If you need to use an extension cord with your portable RV generator, be sure to use a heavy-duty cord made specifically for outdoor use. Also, be sure that it’s rated in either watts or amps to safely handle AT LEAST the sum of the loads of your connected appliances.

You’ll also want to make sure that any extension cord you use with your portable generator is free of damage such as cuts and gouges in the protective rubber coating. Be certain that the plug has all three prongs and that they’re in good condition. This can be critical to shock protection.

Important Safety Take-Aways!

  1. Most incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning occur when safety standards and manufacturer’s instructions aren’t being followed.
  2. Most deadly accidents from generators haven’t been from RV portable generators in particular, but portable RV generators are clearly capable of asphyxiating/suffocating people who are parked near a portable generator. If the exhaust from the generator wafts into a nearby RV (yours or your neighbor’s), the result can be deadly, as seen at last year’s music festival.
  3. High levels of carbon monoxide can kill a person – or several – within 5 minutes.

Don’t become a victim of such an avoidable problem and always operate your portable generator safely!

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Even though we're handy RVers, we're not professional technicians. So although we're happy with the techniques and products we use, you should be sure to confirm that all methods and materials are compatible with your equipment and abilities. Regardless of what we recommend, consult a professional if you're unsure about working on your RV. Any task you perform or product you purchase based on any information we provide is strictly at your own risk.

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