When strong storms blew through Del Ray June 29 and knocked the power out for more than a million people across the region, there was an addition to the normal city sounds of birds, kids, cars, sirens and planes: portable generators.
The hum of the gas-powered machines signaled sweet relief to people anxious to protect the food in their refrigerators or run a fan to break the heat. But others found the "hum" an inescapable, maddening roar.
"I'm about to shoot a hole in my neighbor's generator," a friend of mine wrote on Facebook the second day of the blackout. "The noise is literally killing me. Wish I could tune it out but pretty certain my ears are bleeding."
I felt the same way. And yet, I confessed I was running one too!
My father showed up the morning after the storm with his Coleman Powermate Premium Plus 6250 generator and two jugs of gas. I was skeptical at first, having heard the generator in operation before at my parents house. It's a noisy thing, no doubt. On product review sites, it's described as "unacceptably loud" and "horribly noisy." And there are multiple posts online that show users how to jerry rig motorcycle and car mufflers on to the thing to dampen the noise.
But I had a fridge and freezer filled with several hundred dollars worth of food and the temperature was climbing quickly toward 100 degrees, so I told my father to fire it up.
"It's loud!" my oldest child immediately shouted above the din.
Portable generators cost from $500 to $2,000 and the less expensive models easily produce more than 100 decibels of noise. Alexandria City regulations restrict noise levels to 55 decibels at the property line from a stationary source. However, the noise ordinance, like some other regulations, is relaxed during a state of emergency, said Richard Baier, the city's director of transportation and environmental services.
"Basically, because of the declaration of emergency... it's not enforced," Baier said.
He said the city doesn't field many complaints about generator noise, probably because people who run them let their neighbors plug in too. That's precisely what we did. The generator sat in the back yard with one extension cord running to our house, another to our next door neighbor who had three out-of-town friends visiting for the weekend and a fridge full of food like us.
Still, I have to admit, the noise really got to me. With all the windows open, you just can't escape it. I was grateful that it saved the contents of our refrigerator, but I was even more thankful to turn it off once power was restored.
If you have a portable generator or plan to buy one to prepare for the next extended power outage, there are rules to keep you safe. Generators can be dangerous and the risks include carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, electrical shock or electrocution and fire hazards. Carbon monoxide deaths associated with generators have spiked in recent years as generator sales have risen, according to an Arlington County press release.
Safety tips from the Arlington County Fire Department:
- Operate your generators in well-ventilated locations outdoors away from all doors, windows and vent openings.
- Locate the generator so that exhaust fumes cannot enter the home through windows, doors or other building openings.
- Install battery-operated CO alarms or plug-in CO alarms with a battery backup according to the manufacturer's installation instructions. Should CO enter the home and pose a risk, an alarm will sound.
- Do NOT refuel the generator while it is running. The generator should be turned off and allowed to cool down before refueling is performed.
- Never store fuel for the generator in your home. Gasoline and other flammable liquids should be stored outside of living areas in properly labeled safety containers. They should be stored away from any fuel-burning appliance such as a gas hot water heater.
- Plug your appliances directly into the generator or a heavy duty outdoor-rated extension cord. The cord should be checked for cuts or tears and that the plus has all three prongs, especially a grounding pin. Do NOT power your house wiring by plugging the generator into a wall outlet.
- If the generator must be connected to the house wiring to power appliances, a qualified electrician should install a properly rated transfer switch in accordance with the National Electrical Code (NEC) and all applicable state and local electrical codes.