How to Prevent and Detect Carbon Monoxide in Your RV

We need to know how to detect carbon monoxide in our RV. This is serious if you want to stay safe.

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless gas that you don’t expect to encounter when traveling the great outdoors. However, some RV appliances emit carbon monoxide which can be dangerous to your health. It’s important to be aware of the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and how to prevent it while enjoying the RV lifestyle.

If you suspect CO poisoning, call 911 or a health care professional right away.

There are fewer topics more important than how to detect carbon monoxide in your RV. So pardon me for this just-the-facts article.

With the large number of newbies embracing the RV Lifestyle, we need to be aware of the dangers of carbon dioxide poisoning. Besides, even longtime RVers need to refresh themselves on how to detect carbon monoxide in their RV and make sure all our CO-emitting appliances are well maintained.

Be aware of CO when using a space heater © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dangers of CO

Several years ago while on an extended road trip we heard an incessant beeping late in the evening. I had immediately assumed it was the smoke detector but it wasn’t the source. It took a few minutes (in my sleepy haze) to realize it must be the carbon monoxide detector.

Thankfully, the beeping was just a warning that the CO detector’s battery was low. If it had been a warning for CO saturation, my sleepy haze could have been a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when carbon monoxide builds up in the blood. When too much carbon monoxide is in the air, the body replaces the oxygen in the red blood cells with carbon monoxide. This can lead to serious tissue damage or even death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 50,000 people end up in the emergency room each year due to accidental CO poisoning. Worse, at least 430 people died. 

Carbon monoxide is a gas that has no odor, taste, or color. Burning fuels, including gas, wood, propane or charcoal, make carbon monoxide. Appliances and engines that aren’t well vented can cause the gas to build up to dangerous levels. A tightly enclosed space makes the buildup worse.

CO poisoning is a serious risk especially where any fuel-burning machines or appliances exist. As we all know, an RV itself is a fuel-burning machine with plenty of fuel-burning accessories in and around it.

Be aware of CO when using a space heater © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

CO risks in an RV

Essentially, any fuel-burning source contributes to the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. The following are common culprits for carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • The towing vehicle (if you have an RV trailer)
  • Generators
  • Gas ranges
  • Refrigerators
  • Camping stoves
  • Space heaters
  • Grills
  • Lanterns
  • Furnace

Some of these risks are located inside your RV but many surround your RV at camp. So, you need to be mindful of things that emit CO not only in your RV but around it. Including your neighbors’ equipment! The first rule in how to detect carbon monoxide in your RV is to be aware of the sources.

How to detect CO in your RV

You can’t! Humans cannot detect CO. It is odorless and colorless which is why it’s called the quiet killer. We must rely on sensors to detect CO.

Be certain your RV is outfitted with a CO detector. A quality CO detector costs from $15 to $30 and can save your life. Talk about a great investment!

If the detector senses an unsafe amount of CO, it will sound the alarm. The alarm is much louder than the beep that warns of a low battery. Since carbon monoxide makes people light-headed and pass out it takes a loud noise to bring them to their senses.

Be aware of CO when using a space heater © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Early signs of CO poisoning

Though humans can’t detect carbon monoxide, we certainly show symptoms of it. If you are aware of these symptoms, you can realize there’s a serious problem more quickly.  Besides the detector, the symptoms are another way to detect carbon monoxide in your RV. These symptoms progress fast. DO NOT try to shake them off!

Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms include:

  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Loss of consciousness

Who’s at Risk of CO poisoning?

Everybody is at risk of CO poisoning though some succumb more quickly to its effects. CO poisoning is particularly dangerous for people who are sleeping, intoxicated, older, young, or unwell. Plus, humans aren’t the only ones at risk.

An intoxicated person could easily dismiss the symptoms as being tipsy. A sleeping person may lose consciousness before ever realizing any symptoms. The elderly, children, and infants are also more susceptible to CO poisoning. The poison will normally affect them more quickly due to their underdeveloped or weakened constitutions.

People with pre-existing health conditions will also be at greater risk. For example, people with chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory issues like asthma.

And don’t forget about your pets! Despite their superior sense of smell, dogs and other pets cannot detect carbon monoxide either. They will be affected much more quickly than humans due to their smaller size.

Be aware of CO when using a space heater © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to prevent CO poisoning

CO poisoning is entirely preventable. You can protect yourself and your family by learning the symptoms of CO poisoning and how to prevent it.

Setting up a CO detection system is essential but it shouldn’t stop there. The best way to ensure your safety is to get ahead of the problem. This means you should take regular precautions to prevent CO from saturating your RV.

CO poisoning prevention tips

  • Replace the batteries in your CO detector every 6 months
  • Keep vents and flues free of debris; debris can block ventilation lines
  • Place your (portable) generator away from your RV and your neighbors
  • Point your generator’s exhaust away from your RV and your neighbors
  • Have your generator inspected and serviced by a qualified technician on an annual basis
  • Inspect your generator’s exhaust system every time you use it to ensure it’s not damaged
  • Keep doors, windows, and vents closed if in close proximity to a running vehicle or generator
  • NEVER use a range burner to heat your RV
  • When cooking with a gas range, use the range fan and keep a nearby window cracked open
  • Follow all directions and warning if using gas-powered heaters
  • Never use a charcoal grill, hibachi, lantern, or portable camping stove inside your RV
  • Be aware of your neighbor’s setup and make sure they are not directing any exhaust your way
  • Have your heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year

RV safety

RVing is not without some degree of risk. Driving on the open road, dirt roads, and even being parked can cause damage to your RV and equipment. In some cases, damage or improper maintenance results only in repair costs. But other times, it can have catastrophic results.

Don’t overlook something as simple as replacing batteries in your CO detector. Don’t take safety for granted. Don’t cut corners by not clearing vents or by waiting for your CO detector to beep in the middle of the night. 

Since we’re talking safety, here are a few related articles:

Worth Pondering…

Safety and comfort comes with complacency and that’s never a good place to be working from.

—Elijah Wood