Carbon monoxide is a silent killer, so it’s best to prevent tragedy before it has the opportunity to occur. RV owners need to be aware of this and other potential issues as they travel.
By Steve Froese, F276276
The recent tragic carbon-monoxide-related death of three friends vacationing in Mexico is a somber reminder for everyone to pay attention to safety. While this certainly applies to all of us in our daily lives, this article will address RV safety. RV owners must be constantly aware of a number of safety-related issues to help protect their units and their families on the road. Let’s start with combustible gas.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless and colorless gas often formed by incomplete combustion in propane and natural gas appliances. Since most RVs have several propane appliances on board, they are prime candidates for carbon monoxide to be present — thus the importance of annual propane system maintenance by an RV service professional. During a yearly inspection, an RV technician will thoroughly examine the propane system and appliances for proper operation. This includes checking for leaks, proper pressure, and appliance condition. At the very least, the RV’s furnace, water heater, and fridge (unless it’s a residential unit) all utilize combustion. If these appliances are not regularly checked and maintained, the burners may become damaged or drift out of adjustment and potentially result in incomplete combustion and CO emission.
For instance, a furnace burner operates inside a sealed combustion chamber that vents outside the RV. Heat inside the RV is generated by blowing air across the combustion chamber and into the living space. If the combustion chamber becomes damaged or is not completely sealed, and the burner does not have the correct fuel or air mixture, carbon monoxide can result and leak into the RV. So, if the appliances are not regularly maintained, there is a fair risk of CO entering the living space. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer that is difficult to detect before it’s too late.
The best way to protect your family from the dangers of CO, both in your home and your RV, is to have working carbon monoxide alarms installed. If your CO alarms are battery operated, be sure to replace the batteries twice per year. If you live or travel in an area where daylight savings time is observed, I recommend replacing the batteries in your propane and CO alarms when you change your clocks. Otherwise, set a reminder for yourself to replace the batteries. If your detectors are wired into your RV’s 12-volt system, monitor the power LED on the alarm to make sure it is green. Test these devices regularly for proper operation; your CO alarm will have a button that should be pressed once a month or so for this purpose. Carbon monoxide mixes with air; therefore, CO alarms may be placed at any height, from floor to ceiling. Finally, be sure to replace your CO alarm every 10 to 15 years as indicated in the manufacturer’s documentation. The device should have a manufacture date stamped on the back.
The propane detector should be given the same attention. Like carbon monoxide, propane gas is odorless and colorless; however, ethyl mercaptan, an odorant that smells like rotten eggs, is added to propane and natural gas for safety reasons. A propane detector will sense the presence of free propane in the air long before the ethyl mercaptan is smelled by humans. Treat the propane detector the same as the CO alarm, including regular testing. Propane gas is heavier than air; therefore, detectors must be placed near the floor in an RV. While propane is generally an extremely safe energy source, it is important to respect it to eliminate risk wherever possible. To this end, always make sure to turn your propane containers off during travel. It is illegal in some places to travel with open propane containers, but even if it’s legal, it doesn’t make it safe.
Make sure you have at least one working fire extinguisher in your RV, although I recommend owning at least two. Most RVs are sold with one 2-pound fire extinguisher. This is not large enough to handle a significant fire. I recommend installing at least one extra extinguisher (type A, B, C). One should be near the main entry door (likely the place where the factory-installed extinguisher will be located), and one in the rear, especially if the bedroom is in the back. You may opt to install additional extinguishers and/or a fire-suppression system in the engine bay and behind the fridge. The extinguishers should be at least 5 pounds in capacity. Have the extinguishers professionally inspected yearly, and make sure you know how to use them. This is something RV dealerships don’t show you when they perform the walk-through on your new RV.
Other safety considerations. Make sure all your exterior lights are in proper operating condition. This includes clearance lights and running, tail, brake, and signal lights. Lights should be checked prior to each trip.
Whether you have a trailer or a motorhome, have the chassis serviced regularly and inspect the brakes and tires. RV tires tend to age out before they wear out. They often will not show signs of wear, even as they begin to reach the end of their life. It is important to have your tires regularly inspected by a professional tire technician. Trailer tires last an average of five to seven years, while motorhome tires may last up to approximately 10. However, this varies widely, and tire manufacturers recommend visual inspections by experts on a regular basis.
It is also important to run the correct tire pressures for your RV. This is not usually the tire pressure listed on the sidewall of the tire but based on the weight of your RV, and each wheel position. FMCA has published articles by Roger Marble, a retired tire engineer, and I highly recommend referring to these for more information on RV tire safety.
Trailer owners should ensure the towing systems are well maintained and operated properly, specifically the coupler, equalizer, safety chains, wiring harness, and breakaway cable. Motorhome owners who tow another vehicle also must be vigilant about inspecting their towing equipment on a regular basis.
It is fundamentally important to properly maintain all RV systems to help avoid damage, injury, or death to yourself or others. Please resist the temptation to take these systems for granted.