Tony & Peggy Barthel - StressLess Campers

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We’re Tony & Peggy Barthel and we’re working to help you be a StressLess Camper.

Fire Safety for StressLess Camping - don't get burned

Fire Safety for StressLess Camping - don't get burned

This RV water heater shorted out barely avoiding an RV fire. The rig was just a few months old.

This RV water heater shorted out barely avoiding an RV fire. The rig was just a few months old.

RV fire safety is nothing to joke about. According to the National Park Service there are over 20,000 RV fires every year. Knowing these 12 steps to fire safety can mean the difference between an insurance claim and an obituary listing. 

According to Mac McCoy, RV fire expert, you may be able to tackle a small kitchen fire but if you determine that an appliance is on fire or there’s an electrical fire, get out. Now. Make sure your whole crew is out. Once you’re out you can determine what caused the fire and potentially mitigate that. Or just be glad that you have insurance on the rig and that your whole crew is safely out. 

There are absolutely steps you can take to avoid an RV fire altogether and this is part of routine RV maintenance. But, should an RV fire happen, here is a guideline for making sure you can talk about it on future journeys. 

Have a bail out bag

This 12 volt connector on a trailer heated up and the owners saw it smoking and caught it before it became a fire.

This 12 volt connector on a trailer heated up and the owners saw it smoking and caught it before it became a fire.

If you’re on the road it can take days for the insurance company to get around to addressing your claim, depending on the company. While you wait, you will want to have a few items to help you through this time. These are things you’d want in a bail out bag. 

  • Credit card and identification. If your RV burns and your ID is in your camper, it can make the difference between getting assistance and walking home if you have a copy of a credit card or two and a copy of your ID. Perhaps even throw your wallet in your go bag before you go to sleep. 

  • Cash speaks volumes. Have some in the bag. 

  • Copies of prescriptions and other critical information. If you have necessary medications have information on those meds and contact information of where to refill the prescription. 

  • Have spare keys to the RV and other vehicles with you. 

  • Have copies of your RV insurance and copies of the insurance for all the vehicles on your journey. For example, your tow vehicle and trailer if that’s your configuration. 

  • Include enough weather-appropriate clothing for 2-3 days for wherever you are. 

Great friends of mine, Dave & Bev, who have spent years in the fire department and have seen many RV fires suggests that the bail out bag be in a consistent place. “Stuff always gets moved around in RVs but this should be one thing that never moves. In fact, it might be best to have it in the tow vehicle or a towed vehicle.” 

Practice, Practice

I had written that the best thing to do if there’s an RV fire is to get out. Now. 

But if you’ve got a whole RV full of family who gets out first? It’s important that everyone is completely on board with an RV exit plan. For example, if you have a larger bunkhouse travel trailer you may be on the opposite end of the trailer from the littles. Do they know what to do if the smoke detector sounds in the middle of the night? 

Their first inclination might be to run towards their parents but it is critical that they know how to stay calm and get out of the RV if it’s on fire. 

Remember that the pets that travel with you will likely freak out if there’s a fire so include them in your exit plans. 

  • Have practice drills before you head out for the great American journey on how to safely and quickly exit the RV if the smoke detector sounds. Make sure you and your guests can open the fire exits and do so every six months or so to make sure they’re still easy to open. 

  • Of course a door is the best way out but you may find a fire exit window is the closest and fastest choice. If you’re escaping through a window, throw a blanket or comforter over the emergency exit window frame as the metal edges are surprisingly sharp. Once you’re out you can use the blanket as a wrap as RV fires can happen at night when the air may be chilly or downright cold. 

  • Have shoes at the ready by your bed and put them on or, at least throw them out the window so you can put them on once outside.

  • Throw your bail out bag out the window

  • Make sure all those sleeping around you are out and then meet at a gathering space you’ve determined in advance. Choose one spot when you arrive at a campground that’s the central point if there’s a fire or just if one of the littles gets lost. 

  • If you’re built like me jumping out of an RV window, especially if you’re in the bedroom of a fifth wheel or motorhome, is going to result in injury just by itself as I displace a lot of water in the pool. This RV ladder is a must have if the door is not right near your bed, especially on taller rigs. 

  • Call 911 and know where you are. One camper I know has a chalk board where they write the address and RV space they’re in when they arrive at a campground. 

  • If possible and safe, once you’re sure everybody is out, turn off the propane and unplug the power. 

What causes RV fires?

RV fires can arise from a number of things. An RV is a complicated mixture of fuel lines and electrical wiring that is rolling down the road, absorbing bumps and often sitting for months between uses. Proper and routine maintenance are absolutely ways of minimizing RV fires altogether. Major sources of RV fires include: 

  • Leaking fuel lines and connections

  • Electrical shorts. Bev and Dave said that this is especially true in older RVs with aluminum wiring. They also mentioned that the electrical connections can wiggle loose creating more resistance which creates heat and can lead to fire. Inspecting all the connections regularly is very important. 

  • RV refrigerators

  • Wheel bearings and brakes

Mac McCoy, a long-time fire expert in the RV industry, was a strong advocate of fire safety for RVers. He also advocated high-quality RV-grade smoke detectors which come with RVs today but need to be replaced to remain effective. 

”All detectors are not equal," McCoy says. Smoke detectors approved for RV use have to meet different standards than regular detectors. They are tested at a wider range of temperatures and for longer periods of time than household detectors, and are tested against animal fat smoke, vibration and salt spray. When you buy replacement detectors, be sure you get RV-approved models.

If your RV has hard-wired smoke detectors Bev mentioned that some may not work unless your RV is plugged in. Battery-powered RV-grade smoke and carbon monoxide detectors with fresh batteries are a good thing. Replace the batteries as part of your annual maintenance routine. 

According to McCoy, the vast majority of RV fires originate in the 12 volt system and often smolder for some time before becoming an actual fire. 

As with any kitchen, an RV kitchen can also be a source of fire. 

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Preventing RV fire

An annual inspection by a trained professional is worth its weight in gold. This is especially true of motorized coaches which have the added risk of a fuel-burning engine and all its associated fire risks.

All RVs need inspections of the roof at least once a year but, even better, every 4-6 months to prevent leaks. If you schedule this preventative measure include inspecting the backside of your refrigerator and water heater as well. Insects can build nests in these which can inhibit proper air flow. 

Even though insects are attracted to these spaces and the ethyl mercaptan odorant in propane, the manufacturers of RV appliances strongly recommend against using bug screens as most of these also inhibit air flow causing reduced functionality and potentially fire hazards themselves. It may make sense to simply cover these openings when the RV is being stored but include removing these covers on your RV checklist so you don’t forget. 

Insect nests in these warm, enclosed spaces can be a fire risk so part of your inspection is to check for these. But also look at the appliance itself - is it dirty, dusty? Do things look out of place? Is there evidence of unusual activity such as blackened areas near the flame?

RV Refrigerators

While all the social media forums are full of people who assure you that you can travel safely with your propane on, do not do it. I am friends with a lot of firefighters and every one will reinforce what a bad idea it is to travel with propane turned on. But people want their food in the fridge at safe temperature. 

According to Dometic, the RV fridge can hold safe temperature between 6-8 hours if it’s not opened. It’s designed not to need to be turned on while you’re driving, though it will function while driving. If you do stop for lunch, that’s a good time to let the fridge run a bit and then turn it back off and shut off the propane when you resume your journey.

Remember, you’re driving around with an open source of fire, propane, and a flame going as you motor along at 60 miles an hour if you have the RV refrigerator running. 

Furthermore, with the propane on there are definitely cases where a falling object can open a propane valve on the stove. Now you’ve got an RV full of propane fumes and that same open flame. 

Surprisingly, though, the biggest source of RV fires is not the propane system. It’s the RV’s 12 volt electrical system. 

Our tech at the dealership where I work has mentioned more than once that faulty wiring in water heaters and RV refrigerators has given him a surprising shock, and this is in new RVs. I’m very fortunate to work at a place where we have an outstanding RV tech who checks for this, but not all dealerships are as thorough. 

Over time with dust, wear, use and bugs there can be many, many more sources of ignition, leading to a chance of RV fire. While RVs have built-in protection circuits and fail safes, it’s still a good idea to be fire safe. 

From Firefighters Dave & Bev

RV maintenance is so critical. The big fire in Redding, California was caused by a tire blowout where the elderly couple weren’t aware of the blowout in time to stop sparks from coming off the wheel and starting the fire. Dragging chains on the ground is another way to ignite a fire. 

Dave also recommended actually using trailer tires which are designed for the wear that a trailer sees and being sure that they’re properly inflated before every journey. 

In Summary

I’ve seen an RV fire. When I owned a resort we were coming home from dinner one evening and I saw a fire down the road. Thinking it was our resort, we rushed down the street. It was at the adjacent RV park and a motorhome had caught fire. The fire completely engulfed that motorhome and melted the fiberglass end cap on the motorhome in the next site before the fire department even arrived. 

RV fires don’t happen very often. Even veteran RVers may tell you that they have never seen one. But they do happen. Being prepared can mean the difference between telling the story at the campground on your next RV journey and being mentioned in the obituary pages. Combining basic maintenance with smart planning is absolutely StressLess Camping. 

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