After retirement, our goal was to travel the southern US and visit the many famous places we had heard or read about. Palm Springs, Phoenix, San Diego, the Florida Keys and many others.
The best way to see these places, for us, was in our RV. With no deadlines or schedule, we could take our time, stay at a location as long as we like or not.
During our first RV travels south I started noticing scorched areas on the shoulder of highways. I have seen these a couple of times in the north where we live, but definitely not as many as in the south.
At firs,t I didn’t pay much attention to these areas, then I realized there were many and almost all of these scorched areas were on or after climbing a long steep hill. The size of these areas were larger than a car, I attributed them to overheated trucks that caught fire.
On one trip we were heading home traveling north from Phoenix, Arizona. It was May, the weather was very warm, upper 80’s. We were heading north on highway I- 17 a couple of hours from Phoenix, the highway was gradually gaining elevation and now the hills were steeper and longer.
I was pulling our 36 ft. travel trailer with our Chevy diesel pickup. The hills are not a problem for my truck, even so, I always take precautions while climbing a long hill.
I turn off the A/C (the air conditioner causes the engine to work harder). I set the cruise control at 40 – 50 MPH keeping the rpms. at 2000 (higher rpms. for a gas engine) to ensure the coolant is circulating and the engine fan is turning fast enough to keep the engine from overheating. I keep my eye on the engine and transmission temperature gauges. I have never had an engine overheat using these simple driving adjustments.
Another small adjustment that is useful, turn on the heater, this helps coolant circulation and heat dissipation, although it may not be pleasant in hot weather. Pulling over to allow the engine to cool is the last resort.
While climbing the hill traffic came to a standstill and soon emergency vehicles screamed past. I could see black smoke rising in the distance. After an hour the heavy traffic began to move. As we moved slowly up the hill, my suspicions were confirmed. We came upon a burnt-out hulk of an RV, surrounded by emergency crews. It was devastated, the damage was so extensive I couldn’t tell what model it was. This was obviously the cause of the scorched areas I had been seeing, not trucks but RVs.
It was a sobering site, what had happened to this rig? What had caused the fire? Where were the occupants? Had they made it out okay?
According to US statistics, there were an average of over 3,000 RV fires each year from 2002 through 2005. These fires caused seven deaths, 62 injuries and approximately $41 million in damages.
RV Fires – The Causes
An RV fire can happen both inside and outside, whether your RV is moving or not.
The many systems make RVs particularly vulnerable to fire, even more so than your home.
Some common causes;
- Electrical shorts, 12-volt (the main cause).
- Fuel leaks, propane, gas or diesel.
- Refrigerator fires.
- Seized wheel bearing, causes excess friction and heat (trailers).
- Engine overheating.
12-volt electrical fires – the main cause of RV fires more than two-thirds of fires start from faulty 12 volt electrical systems. This type of fire may smolder for hours before flames occur. Often this type of smoldering does not activate traditional detectors. A dual-sensor which uses both photoelectric and ionization sensors will increase your safety margin. Clean and test your detectors at least monthly.
Vehicle overheating – while climbing a long hill watch your heat gauge. Refer to previous paragraphs for hill climbing procedures. Check your coolant and cooling system, radiator and hoses for signs of leaks and firmness, check tightness of clamps. Engine overheating can cause a fire. Engine coolant contains ethylene glycol that can ignite at if it lands on overheated engine parts.
Fuel leaks – check fuel system lines, rubber fuel lines are often used in the system and are subject to deterioration. Gas leaking onto a hot engine can be disastrous causing a fire or explosion.
Grime build up – grease, oil and dirt can build up on engines and transmissions making them run hotter, add a fuel leak or electrical short and a fire can happen. Keeping engine and transmission components clean will help them to run cooler and use less fuel.
Brakes & bearings – worn out dragging brakes or dry and seized bearings create friction, enough heat to cause a tire or leaking brake fluid to catch fire.
Tires – duel wheels are more susceptible to fire if one tire goes flat. Before heading out check duel tires inflation with a pressure gauge or strike with a hammer to check for deflated tires. During routine stops check hubs and wheels for excess heat.
Spontaneous Combustion – damp charcoal, rags soiled with wax or other petroleum based products can start on fire spontaneously if stored in a container. Store in a covered metal container.
Propane – while propane alone will not usually cause a fire if no leaks exist if an accident occurs and propane tank valves are open this may feed the fire. Shut off propane valves and let the residual in lines burn off before traveling. An RV fridge will keep food cold for a full day. Remember to turn off propane appliances to prevent electronic ignition from cycling.
Propane appliances – Check often to ensure burners have not been turned on by accident.
RV storage – check the fridge flue, hot water tank compartment for bird and insect nests they could block the flue causing a fire or carbon monoxide build up.
Batteries – produce explosive gasses, keep sparks and flames away. Check battery compartment venting and use extreme caution when handling batteries.
RVs kitchens – compact cooking areas. Combustibles are often close to open flames. Be extra careful and keep the proper type (class) of extinguisher close or a box of baking soda. Baking soda works well for small kitchen fires.
The importance of fire extinguishers in well known, the proper class is just as important. The following chart shows the class of extinguisher for each type of combustion.
Class A – Ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, cloth, trash, and plastics.
Class B – Flammable liquids such as gasoline, petroleum oil, paint, flammable gasses such as propane and butane.
Class C – Energized electrical appliances and equipment (shut off power and the fire becomes a different Class.
Class D – Combustible and flammable metals such as potassium, sodium, aluminum and magnesium.
Class K – Cooking fires, grease, and oils from animal and vegetable fats.
Carry three fire extinguishers, one in the cooking area, one in the bedroom and one in an unlocked outside storage compartment or your tow vehicle. It is a good idea to label the compartment, “Extinguisher Inside”. Be sure all capable travelers are instructed on the location of extinguishers and instructed on the use of the particular type of extinguisher.
RV Fire Detection & Prevention
Detectors – Carbon monoxide (CO), smoke detectors, and propane detectors. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should be installed in each room, also it is important that all sleeping areas have a carbon monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide is an odorless colorless gas that weighs the same as air and mixes readily with air throughout an area. Carbon monoxide can cause severe injury or death.
Carbon Monoxide Detector
Carbon monoxide may be produced in an RV usually from improper adjustment or carbon buildup of propane-fueled appliances. A proper flame should be bright blue in color with no orange or yellow color.
A propane detector should be installed in the kitchen adjacent to fuel burning appliances such as the fridge, stove, and furnace. Propane detectors are stalled between 4” and 12” off the floor, propane is heavier than air. Check manufacturer’s instructions for proper placement and replacement. Detectors will not work forever. If detectors are battery operated test often.
Smoke Detectors should be placed on the ceiling usually in the doorway for the bedroom and the cooking area.
Escape route – point out to all passengers the location of all escape hatches in your RV in case the exit door is blocked. There should be an escape hatch or window at each end of the RV.
Go over the procedure for opening the escape hatch, let everyone practice. It may be necessary to open in the dark.
Practice your escape plan – Everyone should be able to get to the escape hatch, open and exit with their eyes closed.
Diesel Pushers – This type of RV is more vulnerable to fire than other types. Fires in the rear engine compartment are common. A preventative measure is to install an automatic fire suppression system in the engine compartment. Fuel leaks have been mentioned as the common cause.
Automatic Under the Hood Fire Extinguisher
Location – When traveling everyone should be aware of your location so proper directions and notification can be communicated to emergency personnel in case of fire.
Traveling RVers may be unaware of a fire until pointed out by a passerby, check your mirrors often while traveling.
As you can see there exist many dangerous opportunities for a fire to start in an RV. Diligence, proper maintenance, and frequent inspections will help minimize RV fire risks. However, even if we do our best to prevent a fire the problem still exists. All occupants must be prepared to act quickly to prevent injuries and limit damage.
I originally wrote this article for the "Canadain RVing" magazine.
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