Generator Madness

Do not go gently into that good night…

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

Pride goeth before a fall.

– Proverbs 16:18 (basically)

It’s often very hard to know the precise moment when a manageable situation turns into a complete boondoggle — when the McGyver movie you thought you were starring in turns into a comic caper flick starring Seth Rogan, minus the comedy and (sadly) Seth Rogan.

Such has been the past four days “prepping” for the storm-o-pocalypse, Sandy. After reading the scary weather reports Thursday night just before bed, I tossed and turned and whirled in my sleep like a tropical disturbance. Woke up Friday morning with the conviction that for once in my life, I was going to be prepared for the worst, not hoping for the best.

Here are a few things you should know about our sitch:

1) We always lose power. We live in leafy, green Takoma Park, where the power lines are strung up among the branches. Both trees and the lovely treehuggers who protect them are numerous. Since moving here, we have lost power 6 times in under 2 years, mostly for a few days at least.

2) We have a freezer full of line-caught salmon from a buying club (yum) and organic fruits and veggies. When we lose everything, it’s real money.

3) Due to this exorbitant pricetag for freezer hiccups, the last time we lost power, over the summer, we attempted an escape to my folks’ house in Virginia with a packed cooler. This was a disaster — flooded roads, downed power lines and trees, and then, when we were halfway there, the discovery that they, too, had lost power. We had to turn around and find our way back to our dark house, which took hours. Despite our raid on the one grocery store still with ice, everything eventually melted.

4) We are not Mechanically Inclined. At all. It took us months to figure out where, for just one example, the water main was in our house. Our toolbox consists of a few screwdrivers and a hammer, and a lot of nifty options for hanging pictures.

5) When I was a kid, I read all kinds of book like Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson, and actually memorized techniques for surviving a shipwreck on a desert island. So I have that store of useful knowledge in reserve, in case we need to make a barn from the roots of a baobab tree, or something.

OK, so you can see the acute tensions here between the possible and the likely. Thursday night I spent researching our options, which seemed to be, basically, a portable generator. None of the Internet shipping possibilities would get any one of them to our house before Tuesday morning, however, when Sandy would be over our heads, and so on-line options were useless.

Friday morning after a restless night I hightailed it to Home Depot at 7 a.m., and found two generators left among all the contractors poring over their checklists. Storm prep paranoia had clearly not yet infected area consumers. Oddly enough, I was early! I snagged D batteries, a couple lantern style flashlights, and a 5,700 watt generator and some associated thick cords for an additional $60 bucks.

Based on charts up on the Amazon Web site about typical appliance wattages, I knew this would be enough for the fridge (2,200 watts to start, 600 to maintain), furnace blower (1,200), and Internet router, as well as a few lights. How hard can this be, I thought? Why doesn’t everyone just get a generator?

I’ll say this: Home Depot at 7 a.m. is an even more masculine environment than it’s normally testosterone-laden shelving would support. I was the only one in a dress for miles, or so it felt. The same Amazon resource on generators, I dimly recalled in my self-consciousness, had also said something about needing a “transfer plate,” or “transfer switch” or something. I duly questioned a fella in the electronics section about this. He gave me a blank stare, and pointed me to something that was clearly not It.

It was at that moment that I realized that I really needed an electrician to come and set this all up at our house, and that the cost of the generator (which wasn’t cheap at $700) was just the beginning of our capital incursions. Upon hearing my cross-examination of the Home Depot fella, at just that moment, an electrician piped up to say that no, a transfer switch was not needed with a portable generator. I knew that wasn’t the case based on what Amazon said, but I nonetheless immediately made nice with him, and eventually inveigled him into promising to come install things at my house and even drop off the massive generator, which would have never fit into my Altima.

Home Depot was out of the gas cans we would need for fuel, so I called around and found 2 at another local hardware, Ace. They would hold them in my name for a few hours.

So far, so good. I got Maya to preschool, co-oped with her, and went to get the 6-gallon gas cans. They had been put back out on the shelf but were still sitting there, so I picked them up as well as two 5-gallon blue kerosene containers. All together, these would hold only 22 gallons of gas, and the box for the generator indicated it would use 6 gallons every 11 hours, running at half the load. So we would still need to refuel even with all those canisters, even after just a few days without power. I envisioned non-functioning pumps and gas lines. This will be fun, I thought.

The electrician eventually showed up Saturday to do the job, and after several more trips to the store for the right equipment, he installed a power line to the main switchboard and disconnects both inside and out. It did require a hole in the foundation to the outside and a small chuck of drywall out of our ceiling, as well as another $750 dineros. Ouch.

Then, we got the wheels on the generator dolly, muscled it outside and down around the underside of our ramshackle back porch, where it would stay (we hoped) basically dry under a couple of heavy tarps. We also tidied up the yard and cleared what we could of the gutters.

Next, I went for gasoline, which turned out, for a non-toxics person, to be a form of torture. I had to stand above the gas tank, watching for spills, and whiffing the fumes. The gas came to $70. Then, like a moron, I evidently FUBAR‘d the kerosene tanks’ closures, and a small amount spilled in my car (the trunk was full of toddler gear, and I stupidly thought I could make it the few blocks home without incident).

The cloth upholstery stank like an Exxon. And I likely ruined one of Maya’s little jackets. Grr. Perhaps this is the moment when Seth Rogan enters the scene?

At any rate, on Sunday afternoon we sat down to actually read the full owner’s manual on our big new hulking machine. Words like “carbon monoxide poisoning” and “electrocution” really jumped out at us. As it turned out, we needed a ground wire for the machine itself, not just for the electrical wiring as the electrician had installed. I consulted my dad, and headed out for the store again.

When I got to Ace Hardware, we dropped another $90. They sold me a long copper rod (it was originally 8 feet, but I couldn’t even reach the top to pound it in, so they cut it off to 5 feet — and we hope that is good enough), a thick, wide hammer, some feet of number 8 wire, and a clamp to make a positive connection with the wire and the rod.

Seeing how overwhelmed I was as I balanced the bags of stuff while Maya pulled trinkets off every low-hanging shelf, the nice store manager at Ace actually said to me, “You know, you should really read the generator manual. I don’t want to read about you guys in the papers.” I reassured him that we had, and that it all looked very complicated to us. He did not look particularly reassured.

I also picked up a battery powered carbon monoxide monitor and batteries, to put inside in the downstairs window closest to the generator. And some rubber gloves, to try to break any connection when turning it on (I also will wear rubber shoes). We’re better safe than sorry on this kind of thing, and it’s almost guaranteed to still be wet whenever we’ll need to flip the switch.

Last, I took a trip by the car store, to pick up some completely toxic upholstery cleaner. I gave it a good spray with the chemical foam, and the chokingly intense gas smell abated a bit, but of course my car now just smells like the awful cleaner instead. Needless to say, every eco-principle I have bit the dust with this one. I tossed Maya’s jacket in the washer by itself with the strongest detergent we have, but it may be a goner.

When I got home late Sunday, it had started to drizzle. I picked a spot near the generator and started to pound in the rod. We’ll just say that my upper body strength is not very well developed. (My hubs offered to do this, but I was determined to follow through on my bright idea from a few days back.) I scraped my hand a little on one blow, still not sure how, and this was the end result of another near-miss, one day later:

In the end, the stupid rod went into the ground, except for a few inches, and we attached the clamp to the rod.

Now, we’ll just have to figure out where the ground wire goes on the frame, attach the electrical cord, flip the main circuit breaker off and the switch on at two locations, follow the reasonably elaborate starting instructions, and pull the cord.

And hope we don’t get electrocuted or die of carbon monoxide poisoning. And that our bank account will someday recover from my Friday morning panic, though we may need to also someday build a specific shed for the generator out in our tiny yard, to keep it even further from the house. So that’s another “cha-ching!” Yay.

At this point, a melting freezer doesn’t look too awful. Of course, IF it works AND we don’t die, it will be nice to be able to run the furnace blower and keep our food around a bit.

I’ll write after the storm, with luck, and let you know that we made it. I have faith, even if my finger hurts a bit, and even if I currently feel more fool than crafty survivor as Sandy comes roaring in.

Update:

Irony of ironies, we never lost power. This time. At least we’re set for the next incident.

Also, my finger is no longer painful. So there’s that. We’ll stick the gas in our car, and will add a storage and ventilated area for the gas and generator when we renovate the porch, which needs doing anyway.

We really didn’t get hit hard here by the storm. But I’ll note that the few area casualties from Sandy included three reports of carbon monoxide poisioning from generators, though all ultimately recovered. If you’re going to invest in a generator, please also drop the $25 bucks on a carbon monoxide monitor for your house! Seems to me that they should be sold together, always.

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Generator Tips

When my dad went to the hardware store on Sunday, he saw many families with large generators in their carts. Despite the buying spree, I’d be willing to warrant that many of these stay in the box, or get returned. Setting up a generator is more complicated than I knew at least, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who thought of it, wrongly, as an easy fix.

Please take advantage of our lessons learned if you are considering buying a generator.

Here’s what you’ll really need to do the job right:

1) A truck, or better, someone with a truck and dolly, to get it home: The larger machines (4,000 watts+) are very heavy and big. You’ll need several strong people to lift/move it and a large enough vehicle for transport, or to pay the store to do it.

2) The right electrical cords and connections: Be sure to check the length, plug type, wattage AND amperage on the cords. Home Depot sold us the wrong stuff twice.

3) Electrical know-how and a transfer switch: For smaller generators, if you know what you are doing, you can switch off the main power, and run extension cords from the particular appliances you’ll need to a multi-plug cord designed for that purpose. Of course, you’ll need all those extension cords, and this arrangement won’t power the furnace blower or anything that can’t be connected by cord (i.e., lights). Use extreme caution in wet conditions if hooking up extension cords — puddles, obviously, can conduct electricity. So hook up everything before you power up.

For larger generators, the whole point is to run more stuff. (For a link to typical appliances and their wattage needs, see this Amazon resource.) So you will likely need an electrician, as we did, to install a transfer switch and run a cable from the main power box through the house and outside. The clear advantage of doing it this way also that this avoids multiple extension cords, which have to get outside somehow. Keeping a window open with a larger generator may draw deadly carbon monoxide back into the house.

Either way, unlike what everyone initially told me, you DO need a transfer switch. This critical piece of equipment insures that the main power line into the house is off if the generator is on — otherwise, if you were running the generator and the power for the main house was active, you could send electricity along the line out from your house, just as some hardworking soul from the electric company is out there in hellish conditions trying to fix the power, and you could injure or kill that person.

All the same, Home Depot did not stock this essential item, and even the electrical supply stores had scant supplies, especially for generators the size of the one we purchased. You can get the transfer switches on Amazon, but you’d obviously have to have the time available to order ahead, which is reason #50 that generators are more work than you might think.

4) A place to put it: This is the trickiest part. First, it MUST be run outside. Carbon monoxide fumes can kill you in minutes. Also be sure that windows are closed if there is a risk of introducing fumes. Here’s the CDC’s guidelines, including specific instructions for generators.

Second, the instructions indicate that it must be a meter or more from the house, and yet also under a shelter from the weather. In addition, they ask for 3 feet of clearance on all sides, including above. Given that the machine itself is a good 3 feet long by 2 feet wide by 3 feet high, that means a shed that is approximately 6 feet high, 8 feet wide and 9 feet long.

How many homes have an enormous, basically empty shed a meter (approx. five feet) or so outside their house? I would guess very few.

Even in our yard, it was a close call. Our spot barely works, given that much of our yard is drainage that becomes a virtual stream with this much rain. Our porch happens to provide decent clearance on all but the top, and we can get the generator a meter away from the house and still have it under the porch. We added tarps on top of the generator itself (which must be removed when we run it) and also plastic sheeting above on the porch, to try to keep the water off and keep puddles from forming nearby. So factor in tarps, covers and any other weather protection needs to your shopping list.

We also looked at the insta-shed plastic options, which run about $200, and even so, none had the right clearances, ventilation or space. If you ran it with the doors open on these smaller sheds, the water would get right in. So it wouldn’t be easy to come up with a decent place for the machine, if you don’t have one available already.

5) Ground rod, clamp, wire and determination: While few people actually bother with this, the instruction booklet is very clear that the generator itself — particularly models on wheels with rubber tires — must be grounded. This is so that when you touch the machine, you don’t create that ground and draw the electrical current. You’ll need a long copper grounding rod (about $26), a copper clamp designed to make a connection, and several feet of thick wire (our model called for number 8). Pound in the rod (at least our soil was soft and clay-like — you may want to consider the work involved here); strip a few inches of rubber off both ends of the wire; attach one end with the clamp to the rod and the other to the machine where indicated in the instructions. Note that moving the machine will require enough wire to allow that movement and keep the ground connection intact.

6) Gas containers: You’ll want to have several gas containers on hand full of gas, and a safe place to put them, as well as a place to refuel for extended outages. Our 5,700 watt generator runs for 11 hours on 6 gallons at half-load, for a measure of how many containers and how much gas you’d need.

7) Safety equipment: You’ll want thick-soled shoes (rubber is best) to wear when turning it on and a battery powered carbon monoxide monitor with batteries. Put the monitor inside the house near where gas could enter the house from the machine, and do check to make sure the monitor and batteries are working.

Hope that this list is helpful to you! Please let me know if you have tips in addition to these.

Burning Questions: An FAQ on Flame Retardants in Furniture

A flame from a burning candle

Whenever I scan the search engine subjects through which people now stumble over my blog, it becomes clear that the major thing everyone wants to know is whether they have a toxic sofa in their house and what in the blazes they are supposed to do about it.

So below I have compiled an FAQ based upon the research I did, the amazing investigation by the Chicago Tribune, and what’s happened since. If there are other burning questions on your mind, please let me know!

Q1: Is my sofa or upholstered chair full of toxic flame retardants?

I’m so sorry to have to be the one to break it to you, but the answer is yes.

While that sinks in, you can peruse the only caveats:

1) Your furniture is so groovy it dates back to the early ’70s (pre-1975, to be precise);

2) You bought this furniture from a local custom furniture supplier who never sells furniture in California and you specifically asked that supplier about whether the foam they used has any kind of flame retardant in it; or

3) You paid a small fortune for the sofa and bought it from a certified “green” supplier with whom you discussed this very issue. At length. With specificity. And, very likely, paid extra for the privilege of toxic-free-ness.

If, on the other hand, your furniture came from any national manufacturer (including Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Ikea, Overstock or basically anyone else that would sell a stick of furniture in California, at least some of the time), it has some kind of chemical flame retardant in it.

A stupid California rule, Technical Bulletin 117, requires flame retardant properties in upholstered and many other consumer products that results in these chemicals being part of any upholstered furniture sold basically anywhere, given the sheer size of California’s economy and influence on the national market. (In addition, the federal government requires cars to meet fire resistance standards which drive companies to include these chemicals in car upholstery, which is a topic for another day.)

Sadly, there is a lot of greenwashing on this point. Sofas sold as “green” because they have some soy foam in them instead of all polyurethane foam, or because they have certified hardwoods, almost all still have chemical flame retardants in them.

Also, furniture can have a label like the “Certipur” label, or a sticker or label that says it is “PBDE-free” or some such, and likely still has chemical flame retardants in it. (For example, when I called Crate & Barrel, they told me that the sofa I had in mind was “PBDE-free” but upon further questioning and after some considerable hold time, revealed that it did have “chlorinated phosphates” in it as a chemical flame retardant. That is probably, but not certainly, “chlorinated tris,” or TDCPP, which is discussed below.)

Q2: What kind of toxic chemical flame retardants does my sofa have in it?

Ah, you want to know what harmful chemicals are in your house? Sorry, that’s proprietary.

Basically, the furniture manufacturers and foam suppliers have refused to give this information in any usable form even to scientific researchers. For years. This meant that even crack scientists like Heather Stapleton had to become detectives, asking people in their circles to literally cut small sections of sofa out of their couches and mail them to them to be tested. They called these “couch biopsies,” which is kind of cute given the carcinogenic properties of many of these chemicals.

That’s one way Stapleton figured out, for example, that although Ikea and other furniture companies had been publicly bragging about being free of PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, a particularly nasty and notorious type of flame retardant, that Ikea was using a type of chlorinated tris instead.

Chlorinated tris (one kind of these chemicals are also called TDCPP) made headlines back in the 1970s when it was actually banned from children’s pajamas after it showed up in children’s urine after only a few days wearing their chemical PJs and was shown to be a potent mutagen. Unfortunately, it was not banned for every use, and so furniture makers evidently thought it a brilliant turn to start sticking it into sofa cushions sometime around 2005, when PBDE’s fell under a public cloud of PR toxicity.

Now, there’s a new chemical fire sheriff in town, Firemaster 550, which researchers don’t know much about. And the chemical makers have also rumbled publicly about a chemical switcherooni with some other new kind chemical flame fixant, as reported by the Tribune series. In short, no one knows what, exactly, is in the millions of products in homes and on the market today, and the only way to really know for sure is to ask the company that sold you the sofa. And wait on hold. And insist on getting a specific answer.

If you do make a call about your furniture, please let me know what happened in the comments to this post, and I will track these and publish as complete a list as we can all come up with, working together.

Here’s one thought on what to ask: “Specifically what kind of chemical flame retardant is used on the fabric and/or foam of this furniture I own/am thinking of buying? I would like to know the name of the chemical in particular…. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Q3: What’s the harm of chemical flame retardants?

Here’s where, if my first-hand experience is any guide, the mind rebels. It’s really close to impossible to feel comfortable in mi casa ever again. Which is an outrageously unfair situation for all of us, for obvious reasons.

Basically, the harm from chemical flame retardants depends in part on what kind of chemical it is, of course. And since we mostly do not have that information, here’s what is reasonable to say:

1) Flame retardants suck. PBDEs, for example — the chemicals that are likely in any furniture produced before 2005 — are linked by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “neurobehavioral” harms. As the EPA put it:

EPA is concerned that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment.

About the others, here’s Stapleton again:

TDCPP is a suspected carcinogen and other “Tris” chemicals are known carcinogens (e.g., TCEP).

Some of our research has shown that TDCPP is just as potent a neurotoxicant as the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos had its indoor permit withdrawn by the EPA due to concerns about neurotoxicity.

And FireMaster 550 contains chemicals that may also be neurotoxicants and endocrine disruptors…we’re trying to evaluate this now.

2) Flame retardants don’t help save us in fires. Thanks to testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, we now know that chemical flame retardants don’t do anything to make a fire safer, but make it more toxic and dangerous by causing the release of harmful fumes when an item burns.

As Stapleton explained:

They are suppose to slow down the rate at which the product burns, but some tests shows that this only slows down the rate by maybe 2-3 seconds. In addition, by having flame retardants in the foam, you generate more smoke, soot and carbon monoxide when they burn, which is a concern because many people die of smoke inhalation during a fire. So one might actually argue that the presence of these chemicals in foam containing furniture increases fire hazards!

3) Flame retardants don’t stay put, but instead get into our bodies.  In fact, as Stapleton found in tests of indoor air which have been sadly confirmed, chemical flame retardants get into household dust, into the air we breathe, and thereby into our bloodstream.

They pose a particular risk to young children (and to pets), who are in the house for long periods of time, playing on the ground, and put everything into their mouths. In fact, one shocking 2011 study found that Mexican-American children in California had PBDE levels that were 7 times higher than that of their age counterparts living in Mexico.

Here’s the EPA again:

PBDEs are not chemically bound to plastics, foam, fabrics, or other products in which they are used, making them more likely to leach out of these products.

Q3: Where else are chemical flame retardants in my house and life?

Turns out, these delightful chemicals tend to be wherever foam is found, and then some. They are in your car seat and child’s car seat, are used to treat electronics like televisions and computers, and are in some other types of products with foam like bedding, rugs, strollers and nursing pillows.

While California suspended the rules with regard to bedding in 2010 and some “juvenile products” in March 2011, these items still may contain chemical flame retardants as this stunning 2012 study found was true of 85 percent of baby products, including co-sleepers and nursing pillows. Older items almost certainly are laden with chemical ick, to put it scientifically.

Adding insult to injury, I also must tell you that polyurethane foam is not very cool, in and of itself, given that it’s made with toluene and other suspect chemicals, as you can read about from informed sources in the comments here that recommend latex instead.

Q4: What can I do about this, now that the flame-retardant foam is no longer pulled over my eyes?

First, if you are not in the market for new furniture given these uncertain economic times, here are a few ideas:

  1. Open the windows and air out the room (and car) whenever you can;
  2. Wash your hands (and your child’s hands) frequently, and definitely before eating;
  3. Vacuum more often, using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, and move furniture to get the dust underneath;
  4. If upholstery is damaged or leaking, fix it promptly and re-establish a seal (use duct tape if you need to);
  5. Minimize polyurethane foam products (polyester foam is better, according to Stapleton);
  6. Don’t let children spend time unnecessarily in car seats (or in strollers, play pens or pack-and-plays with foam padding — look for an Oeko Tex certification on fabrics);
  7. As some innovative commenters have suggested, think about purchasing or making a sofa cover in a tightly-woven or allergenic fabric and use an upholstery stapler and thick fabric on the underbelly of the furniture (note: I have no proof whatsoever of whether this would work, but since dust is the medium here, it stands to reason that it might help).

Please note that no one really recommends re-upholstering items, as this will release far more dust from the furniture than merely keeping it around.

Second, from least invasive of your lifestyle to most, here are some thoughts about furniture options:

  1. Avoid buying products when you can that are labeled “flame retardant” or “Meets California Technical Bulletin 117″ or “Complies with TB 117″ or some such nonsense;
  2. Look for furniture from before 1975 or so (if you can stand the dust and dust mites!);
  3. Look for non-upholstered options when feasible, i.e. dining room chairs, or even wooden recliners with pillows you could design or have made to fit (as I did here through a seamstress on Etsy);
  4. Avoid adding suspect chemicals to new furniture by turning down optional stain-guard treatments;
  5. Make your own sofa using a daybed, as in the inventive comments to this post from SallyS, or use an organic mattress to build a new sofa, as outlined here;
  6. Check out the possible suppliers for flame-retardant free sofas in Sofa Saga Part Two and Part Four (as well as some additional suggestions and links in the comments from helpful readers).

Third, if you’re generally concerned about chemicals and furniture, you might also pause to consider the type of wood products you’re bringing into your home.

Furniture is just not made with the quality and care that it used to be, and even fairly expensive furniture, as well as the cheaper stuff, has plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) in parts of it (like drawer bottoms and backs).

These pressed wood products off-gas for the life of the product, and can contain formaldehyde as well as toxic glues and solvents. If you can find solid wood items, that’s certainly best. I’ve found that Craigslist, Ebay, yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores and antiques stores are all good potential sources for these, and that even mainstream stores carry some items that are solid wood.

Fourth and last, the most important thing we all can do is to weigh in as the state of California considers where to go now on its inane flame retardant rule. Governor Edmund Brown has just asked state regulators to rewrite the standard following public pressure to change it. But make no mistake: getting a better rule will require a battle royale with the chemical industry, and its considerable bag of tricks.

There will be a public comment period, which I promise to monitor, so that we can all weigh in to say exactly how ticked off we are about this standard, which has introduced chemical poison into every home in America, and into the bodies of our children. Please stay tuned for that!

And if you do pick up the phone or email a furniture company about your own furniture, please do let us know what they say, so that everyone can learn from your valuable time on hold…

More resources on flame retardants and furniture: