Early detection and prevention are keys to protecting your family from this deadly gas at home and on the road.
By Jim Brightly, F358406
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a stealthy killer. You can’t see, smell, or taste this poisonous gas. As an RVer, it’s vital that you are able to detect its presence and prevent it from infiltrating your motorhome, because it doesn’t take long to succumb to its deadly effects.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 400 people die in the United States each year from accidental CO poisoning, while thousands of others are admitted to hospital emergency rooms or urgent-care centers because of this noxious gas.
CO is produced by the incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels such as gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), fuel oil, kerosene, coal, charcoal, or wood. CO restricts the amount of oxygen absorbed from your lungs into your bloodstream. Lack of oxygen in the blood can lead to organ, brain, and central nervous system damage.
Unfortunately, many people who suffer CO poisoning mistake its symptoms for the flu, and even physicians sometimes misdiagnose the illness. The initial symptoms of CO poisoning, which also can 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. High levels of CO exposure can lead to serious problems such as loss of consciousness and/or hearing, blurred vision, vomiting, disorientation, seizures, cardiac arrest, coma, and respiratory failure.
If you experience symptoms of CO poisoning while traveling in your motorhome, exit the coach immediately and call 911 (or the appropriate emergency response number in your area) for medical attention. Do not ignore the symptoms! If you remain in the motorhome, you could lose consciousness and die. If you can do it safely and quickly, open all the motorhome’s windows and rooftop vents to air out the vehicle. If you are uncertain about the illness and choose not to call 911, at the very least see a physician or an urgent-care facility for a precise diagnosis.
The effects of CO poisoning largely depend on the level and duration of the exposure, as well as an individual’s health condition. No one is immune to the dangers of CO exposure; however, individuals with existing health problems such as heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable, as are smokers, the elderly, infants, children, and unborn babies. CO concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm). Those exposed to CO levels of 1 ppm to 70 ppm typically do not experience any symptoms (although some heart patients might notice an increase in chest pain). As the levels of CO increase and/or remain above 70 ppm, symptoms may become more noticeable (headache, fatigue, nausea, etc.). As CO levels increase into the 150-ppm to 200-ppm range, disorientation, unconsciousness, and death become possible.
Since 1993, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) has required its member manufacturers to equip all new motorhomes with CO alarms (this became a requirement for all new towable RVs built after January 1, 2005). Some alarms are wired directly to the coach’s electrical system; others are self-contained units with their own batteries. Apartments and houses are also now required to be so equipped, usually with several alarms, depending upon the size of the residence.
Unfortunately, my wife has had personal experience with CO poisoning, so the subject of this article is quite personal to our family. Years ago, as a school bus driver, she kept getting severe headaches during her route. Many of the children on her bus also were becoming ill, even on relatively short trips. The bus was checked several times by the maintenance staff, but no malfunction was discovered. It wasn’t until she underwent a very painful bone marrow test that it was found that she was suffering from CO poisoning. Once the mechanics knew that the exhaust system on the bus was the culprit, they were able to pinpoint the leak, which was located on top of the muffler in an almost inaccessible location. The exhaust fumes had seeped into the interior of the bus, making the kids and my wife ill.
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 the symptoms appear, you’ve already been exposed to a harmful dose of carbon monoxide, so early warning and prevention should be your primary concerns.
One important thing you should do is invest in CO alarms for both your motorhome and your stationary residence if you do not already have them. As mentioned earlier, motorhomes built since 1993 should be equipped with a CO alarm. However, you may want to add more 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 and that it is waist-high or higher.
Similar to a smoke alarm, a carbon monoxide alarm acts as an early warning system, alerting anyone within earshot to a potentially dangerous situation. Unlike a fire, which eventually will show itself in the form of smoke or flames, a CO problem may not be realized until it is too late.
When choosing an alarm, look for one that meets the requirements of the current UL standard 2034 or the International Approval Services 6-96 Standard. Make sure you choose an alarm specifically made for RV use. The most recent published UL listing for CO alarms occurred in 2008, and includes a separate section for Carbon Monoxide Alarms For Use In Recreational Vehicles And Unconditioned Areas. (UL standards are constantly updated between publication dates.) Carbon monoxide 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 changes included renaming the standard to UL 2034 –Single And Multiple Station 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 is an indication that it is an older device that doesn’t meet current standards. Alarms that meet the requirements of UL 2034-2008 provide a greater safety margin than previously manufactured detectors.
Should the CO alarm(s) sound in your motorhome, immediately press the rest/silence button to turn it off. Move to fresh air and make sure everyone 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 CO poisoning, call for emergency medical services.
While CO alarms alert you to increased levels of carbon monoxide in your motorhome, they are not foolproof. Test your CO alarm by following the manufacturer’s instructions. When the test button is pressed, some detectors/alarms indicate whether both the circuitry and the carbon monoxide sensor are working, while other alarms check only the circuitry. For units that test only the circuitry, a separate kit is available to check the sensor. Test the alarm at least once a month, and replace the batteries in battery-powered units twice a year.
If your alarm sounds but no one on board has symptoms of CO poisoning, turn off any appliances or other sources of combustion; open the motorhome’s windows, rooftop vents, and doors; 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 appliance again. Whatever you do, never ignore a sounding CO alarm.
CO alarms use a chemical to detect carbon monoxide. This chemical reaction closes a circuit, which causes the alarm to sound. In time, this chemical can degrade and lose its effectiveness. In some alarms, this will close the circuit, causing the alarm to sound; in other devices, just the opposite occurs and no alarm will go off. Most information I’ve found indicates that it takes approximately six to seven years for this chemical to degrade sufficiently to be ineffective. Taking a page from home-owner alarm warnings where the alarms’ batteries should be changed each spring and fall with the changing of the clocks, remember to change out both your CO and LPG alarms whenever you change your tires (motorhome tires likely will need to be replaced every six to eight years) to play it safe. In addition, just as you change out all the fluids and belts when you buy a preowned motorhome, replace all the CO and LPG alarms with new units before you spend a night in your “new” coach.
There are many instances when you or your family may be exposed to higher-than-usual CO levels and not even know it. One example is letting your motorhome’s engine idle for an extended time without moving the coach. In certain situations, the exhaust can build up to dangerous levels in or around the motorhome. The motorhome should be parked in such a way that the exhaust can dissipate easily. If you are parked close to another motorhome or truck ? such as when spending the night in a truck stop’s parking lot ? 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 if another vehicle’s exhaust pipe is located under the window.
Do not park the motorhome in a place where the exhaust gases from its engine or the generator can accumulate outside or underneath the coach. Before starting the generator, test the CO alarm and inspect the generator’s exhaust system for damage or obstruction. Test the CO alarm each time the coach is taken out of storage, being packed for a trip, and at least once a week during use. Do not sleep with the generator running.
The National Safety Council cautions that carbon monoxide detectors should be used as a backup, not as a replacement for proper use and maintenance of fuel-burning appliances. You could experience CO problems if your motorhome contains an incorrectly vented or malfunctioning water heater, furnace, or oven/stove, which would allow the CO to pool inside. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes in a tightly sealed motorhome also can elevate the carbon monoxide levels inside the coach.
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, skill, and tools, and always refer to the owner’s manual when performing adjustments. Better yet, have a qualified technician service your fuel-burning appliances once a year, just as you would for the furnace and water heater in a stationary residence.
Similarly, the vehicle and generator exhaust systems should be inspected regularly and operated only when they are free of problems. The underside of the motorhome should be checked for any openings that could allow carbon monoxide to enter the coach. Any such openings should be sealed.
Every year new stories provide tragic details about families who use a barbecue grill, a non-vented LPG catalytic heater, or some other apparatus for overnight heating and never wake up. Don’t let this happen to you! Never operate an unvented fuel-burning appliance inside your motorhome and never use gas appliances such as ranges or ovens as heat sources for your motorhome.
One final tip: CO alarms that operate off the house batteries can be affected by the condition of those house batteries. If the alarm begins to act erratically, check the condition of the house battery bank. Your alarm may be telling you that these batteries need to be replaced.
Follow these simple guidelines and travel secure in the knowledge that this silent killer won’t sneak up on you.