With the east still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, the Department of Energy reports that 650,000 people huddle hungry in the cold and wait for relief. Relief has already come to some people in the form of generators, but the deployment of these life-saving machines has been sporadic and unpredictable. A huge event like Sandy is a rare historical event in the region and municipal and emergency personnel are sometimes as unfamiliar with generators and associated problems as the people who most need them.
Having a generator is no guarantee of comfort. The Newark Star-Ledger last week reported the deaths of two teenage girls from poisonous carbon monoxide fumes spilling from a portable generator placed too near a window.
Permanently installed standby generators have the added complication that they must be installed by qualified technicians and according to local buildings codes. Hooked into existing circuitry through transfer switches, they are designed to turn on automatically during power outages.
Hydrocarbon fueled generators may be powered by gasoline, diesel, or natural gas. Consumer Reports advises that natural gas or propane powered generators have advantages of extended run times but they too can be subject to supply disruptions.
The predominance of gasoline- and diesel-powered generators presented challenges to victims of Hurricane Sandy when fuel was hard to find and often unobtainable, since gas stations require electricity to pump gas into vehicles and containers.
The cancelled New York City Marathon provoked the ire of hurricane victims when generators (and other comforts) were provided to visiting runners arriving from around the world. The New York Post was among news outlets reporting that " a dozen generators desperately needed" by storm victims sat unused in Central Park, along with heaters, bottled water, and food.
The Center for Disease Control says that a small portable generator can produce the carbon monoxide equivalent of six idling cars.
Electrical energy produced by generators, if not properly connected, can "backfeed" to outside electrical lines and electrocute power company utility workers trying to restore power to homes, according to the Center for Disease Control.
Generators must also be positioned in dry places as water is a good conductor of electricity. ABC News detailed the plight of Regina McManus of Rockaway Park, N.Y., who turned off her generator to protect it from the Nor'easter pummeling New York and New Jersey residents tonight.
Generator use brought stories of humor and vapidity. East Coast teenager Kelly Fett complained on Twitter of early rising and early bedtime due to the noise of the special generator in her life.
One of the biggest problems stemming from improper placement of backup generators occurred at Fukushima, Japan. There, backup generators flooded by the Tsunami failed to power pumps designed to pump coolants to the fuel rods, according to The Guardian.
Major stock trading markets NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange are back on conventional power after using generator power for nearly a week. A Wall Street Journal blog tells of the advantage stock and commodity traders had in accessing commodity diesel fuel supplies.
Whether you call it the spirit of entrepreneurship or the spirit of grand larceny, sellers on Craigslist were taking advantage of the generator shortage, according to an organization called AEI Ideas.
Hardcore green energy advocates may prefer-bicycle powered generators which do not pollute and can generate 132 watt hours of energy after an 80 minutes cycling session. According to Core 77, that will give you two hours of light from a 60 watt bulb -- more if you're Lance Armstrong.
Anthony Ventre is a freelance writer who has written for newspapers and online publications. He is a frequent Yahoo contributor in news and financial writing.
- Nature & Environment