You can’t see, smell, or taste this poisonous gas; therefore, prevention and a functioning alarm are the keys to protecting yourself and your loved ones.
By Jim Brightly, F358406
Every new motorhome for the past several years has left its factory with at least one carbon monoxide (CO) alarm installed. Some are wired directly to the coach’s electrical system; others are self-contained units with their own batteries.
The alarms are necessary. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), every year approximately 480 people in the United States die from carbon monoxide poisoning, and another 15,200 end up in hospital emergency rooms from breathing this poisonous gas. The statistics are really regrettable, because most of these incidents could have been avoided with some information, preventive maintenance, and functioning alarms.
Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that has no color, odor, or taste. It is produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels such as gasoline, natural gas, LP gas, oil, kerosene, coal, charcoal, or wood. When inhaled, carbon monoxide restricts oxygen from being absorbed from your lungs into your bloodstream. Lack of oxygen in the blood can lead to organ, brain, and central nervous system damage.
Many people who suffer carbon monoxide poisoning mistake their symptoms for the flu, and it’s not unusual for physicians to misdiagnose the illness. The initial signs of carbon monoxide poisoning “” which can also mimic altitude sickness or food poisoning “” are headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and rapid heartbeat. The victim’s skin also may turn pink or red in response to rising blood pressure. If you experience any of these symptoms, do not ignore them; they can lead to more serious problems, such as loss of hearing, blurred vision, vomiting, disorientation, loss of consciousness, seizures, cardiac arrest, coma, and respiratory failure.
If you experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning while traveling in your motorhome, stop the vehicle immediately when it is safe to do so, exit the coach quickly, and call 911 (or the appropriate number) for medical attention. Do not ignore the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning! If you remain in the motorhome, you could lose consciousness and die. If you are uncertain about the illness and choose not to call 911, at the very least see a physician for a precise diagnosis.
The effects of carbon monoxide poisoning depend on the level and length of exposure, as well as each individual’s health. No one is immune to the dangers of carbon monoxide exposure. However, individuals with existing health problems such as heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable, as are the elderly, infants, children, and unborn babies. Carbon monoxide concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm). Those exposed to carbon monoxide levels of 1 to 70 ppm typically do not experience any symptoms, although some heart patients might experience an increase in chest pains. But as the level of gas increases and remains above 70 ppm, symptoms may become more noticeable (headache, fatigue, nausea). As carbon monoxide levels increase into the 150- to 200-ppm range, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death become possible.
My wife experienced carbon monoxide poisoning, so this article is quite personal to our family. As a school bus driver, she kept getting severe headaches during her route. Also, many of the children on her bus were becoming ill, even on short trips. The bus was checked and examined several times, but no malfunction was discovered. It wasn’t until she underwent a very painful bone marrow test that she was found to be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Once mechanics knew that the exhaust system on the bus was the culprit, they were able to find the leak, which was located on top of the muffler in an almost inaccessible spot. The exhaust had seeped into the interior of the bus, making the kids and my wife ill. The same thing could happen in a motorhome.
To help protect you and your family from possible carbon monoxide poisoning, here are several tips and suggestions to keep in mind. Remember, by the time symptoms appear, you’ve already been exposed to a harmful dose of carbon monoxide, so early warning and prevention should be your primary concern.
One important thing you should do is invest in carbon monoxide alarms for both your motorhome and your stationary residence if you do not already have them. Similar to a smoke alarm, a carbon monoxide alarm acts as an early warning system, alerting anyone within earshot of a potentially dangerous situation. But unlike a fire, which eventually will show itself in the form of smoke or flames, you may never know you have a carbon monoxide problem until it’s too late.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) requires its member manufacturers to place carbon monoxide alarms in motorhomes manufactured after September 1, 1993, and in towable RVs that have a generator or are prepped for a generator. However, you may want to add other alarms so that there is one in each of your motorhome’s sleeping areas. When choosing an installation location, make sure the alarm cannot be covered up by the furniture or draperies.
The National Safety Council cautions that carbon monoxide alarms should be used only as a backup, and not as a replacement for proper use and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances.
When choosing an alarm, look for one that meets the requirements of the current UL standard 2034 or the IAS 6-96 standard. Also make sure you choose an alarm specifically made for RV use. The most recent evaluation and UL listing for carbon monoxide alarms is UL 2034-2003, “Including RV & Unconditioned Areas.” CO alarms designed to be used in an RV must comply with additional requirements to address the special conditions often present. In 1998, when Underwriters Laboratories made major revisions to the listing, part of the change included renaming the standard to UL 2034 “” Carbon Monoxide Alarms. Most manufacturers followed suit by labeling their products “alarms” instead of “detectors.” So, if the device installed in your motorhome is labeled as a detector rather than an alarm, this likely is an indication that it is an older device that doesn’t meet current standards. Alarms that meet the requirements of UL 2034 provide a greater safety margin than previously manufactured detectors.
If the carbon monoxide alarm should sound, immediately press the rest/silence button. Move to fresh air and make sure everyone else is out of the motorhome. If elevated levels of carbon monoxide continue to exist, the newer alarms will sound again in six minutes. If anyone is experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, call for emergency medical services.
Although carbon monoxide alarms alert you to increased levels of carbon monoxide in your motorhome, they are not foolproof. In order to test your carbon monoxide detector, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. When the test button is pressed, some detectors/alarms indicate whether the circuitry as well as the carbon monoxide sensor is working, while the test button on other alarms checks only the circuitry. For units that test only the circuitry, a separate test kit is available to test the sensor inside the alarm. Test the alarm at least once a month, and replace the batteries in battery-powered units at least once a year.
If your alarm sounds but no one on board has symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, turn off any appliances or other sources of combustion; open the motorhome’s windows, doors, and vents (if the vent includes an exhaust fan, turn it on); and check for possible sources of carbon monoxide. If you cannot locate a source, have a qualified service technician make necessary adjustments or repairs to the alarm, or have it replaced to correct the problem. Be sure to do this before turning on the appliances again. Whatever you do, never ignore a sounding carbon monoxide alarm.
A note of caution here: CO alarms (and alarms of all types) do wear out and need to be replaced periodically. According to Mark K. Goldstein, Ph.D., president of the Quantum Group Inc., which has been making and selling CO detection products for 20 years, “All CO alarms, and for that matter all life safety alarms, have a finite life and need to be replaced. CO alarms require replacement about six years on the average; you must look at your product to be sure when it expires. In the future, all CO alarms will give you an audible and visual signal at end of life. Replacing an alarm is much preferred to a CO accident with an alarm that is no longer functioning. All the alarms will fail after a time. Make sure you know that time, so you can replace it before it is too late for you, your friends, and family.”
There are many instances when you or your family may be exposed to higher-than-usual carbon monoxide levels and not even know it, such as when you let your motorhome sit with the engine idling for extended periods of time without moving the coach. In certain situations, the exhaust can build up to dangerous levels in or around the motorhome. The coach should be parked in such a way that the exhaust can dissipate easily. If you are parked close to another motorhome, you also should be aware of its engine or generator exhaust. Even cracking the bedroom window slightly may allow a dangerous amount of carbon monoxide into the motorhome from another RV’s generator exhaust if the exhaust pipe is located under the window. Similarly, do not sleep while your own motorhome’s generator is running.
You also could run into problems if your motorhome contains an incorrectly vented or malfunctioning water heater, furnace, or oven/stove, which would allow the carbon monoxide to pool inside. Even smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes in a tightly sealed motorhome can elevate the carbon monoxide levels inside the vehicle.
Should you experience elevated levels of carbon monoxide inside your motorhome, check each appliance by observing the color of its flame. An orange flame means it may have a problem; however, a blue flame does not necessarily mean the appliance is safe. Never service fuel-burning appliances without proper knowledge, skills, and tools, and always refer to the owner’s manual when performing adjustments. Better yet, have a qualified service technician service your fuel-burning appliances once a year, just as you would for the furnace and water heater in a stationary residence.
In addition, have your vehicle and generator exhaust systems inspected regularly and operate them only when they are free of problems. Check the underside of the motorhome for any openings that could allow carbon monoxide to enter the vehicle. Any such openings should be sealed.
A barbecue grill, nonvented fuel-burning appliance (such as an LP-gas catalytic heater), or other apparatus for overnight heating should never be used inside your motorhome or your stationary house, for that matter. Never use gas appliances, such as stoves or ovens, as a heat source for your motorhome or your house.
Follow these simple guidelines and travel secure in the knowledge that this silent, invisible killer won’t sneak up on you.