Friday June 25th 2021

So let’s talk about what no body ever really wants to think about, a FIRE!

You need to have a plan in place and everyone needs to know the plan!

Now having lived in our coach for four years now we have seen a number of RV fires, in coaches, fifth wheels, and travel trailers. In actual fact it has become a reasonably common experience, and happens in lots of different locations. In campgrounds, while boondocking, or just sitting in a parking lot, in fact we have seen a lot of fires in four years.

We had a fire at the park we are managing just a couple of weeks ago. And no I’m not going to to post photos of someone else’s heart ache, we have seen lots of disasters on the road but never posted any, sufficient to say it’s devastating for the people involved in where the fire started and if it happens in a campground it’s usually devastating for the neighbours as well, because it usually damages the closest trailers as well. Such was the case here, three other trailers were damaged (written off), which is why this should serve as a wake up call for lots of people.

A lot of the RV fires we have seen, seem to all start at the same location, which is at the area of the refrigerator, I know it may sound strange but here is the basic principle of the operation for an RV fridge.

Wikipedia’s description:

“An absorption refrigerator is a refrigerator that uses a heat source (e.g., solar energy, a fossil-fueled (propane) flame, waste heat from factories, or district heating systems) to provide the energy needed to drive the cooling process. The system uses two coolants, the first of which performs evaporative cooling and is then absorbed into the second coolant; heat is needed to reset the two coolants to their initial states. The principle can also be used to air condition buildings using the waste heat from a gas turbine or water heater. Using waste heat from a gas turbine makes the turbine very efficient because it first produces electricity, then hot water, and finally, air-conditioning – trigeneration. Absorption refrigerators are commonly used in recreational vehicles (RVs), campers, and caravans because the heat required to power them can be provided by a propane fuel burner, by a low-voltage DC electric heater (from a battery or vehicle electrical system) or by a grid powered electric heater. Unlike more common vapor- compression refrigeration systems, an absorption refrigerator can be produced with no moving parts other than the coolants.”

Now most RV refrigerators are either manufactured by Dometic or Norcold, and a quick check for recalls will turn up numerous recalls that list overheating of the cooling unit. And next most RV fridges (unless a residential style) use ammonia and hydrogen as the chemicals to cool, and hydrogen can be very flammable. Now in a perfect world the system works very well and as stated above just uses a heat source to operate, either a heater element either powered by battery or a grid (120 volt) connection or with a small propane flame making the fridges quite versatile having either a two or three way operation.

Our coach fridge is a Norcold two way, which means it operates with either propane or 120 volt grid power, and when we purchased the coach, the cooling unit already had a recall kit installed. The problem was that the recall fix would protect the system from overheating, but did so by just shutting the cooling unit off when the overheating occurred, it did nothing to resolve the cause of the overheating. And because we were going to live full time in our coach having a refrigerator that would keep shutting off during operation was far from desirable.

So after much research, I discovered that there was a true design issue with the ammonia/hydrogen absorption cooling unit, and a little more research found that there was an aftermarket cooling unit that was produced by the Amish in Indiana, that used ammonia/helium and besides the construction was better than original, and the use of helium gas allowed for a larger cooling range it was our choice.

So what does that all mean?

Well simply put although ammonia makes a great refrigerant (as its used in most arenas to cool the pad for the hockey ice production), it is also toxic, the amount used in recreational vehicles is small and as for the reason they use hydrogen, I have to assume it is because was a cheap by-product from Oxygen production, but a leak of either at the source of heat will cause a fire. This was one of the reasons I chose helium, because helium an inert gas and will not burn. The larger cooling range means that every cooling unit or air conditioner has a range. if the ambient temperature is 30ºC (86ºF) the refrigerator cooling maximum may be 0ºC (32ºF), the helium allowed us to still reach the 0ºC cooling when the ambient temperature is 37ºC (99ºF) and that’s a big difference in the desert.

Now there are lots of other reasons that can cause a trailer to catch fire, but they are normally caused by humans doing the same things that cause regular houses to catch fire.

Here is a short list to check:

  • Smoke alarms need to be operational (usually battery operated, check the batteries)
  • Carbon monoxide / propane detector (usually hard wired to the 12 volt system)
  • Have a fire extinguisher and make sure it is charged (should be located near the door)
  • Know the emergency exits (usually windows that open and are marked as such)
  • Charge batteries, cell phones, lap tops only on hard surfaces only
  • Never leave a stove unattended
  • Do not use electric space heaters (unless designed by manufacture such as a fireplace)
  • Do not overload electrical circuits with appliances
  • Ventilate properly if using propane heaters and watch clearances
  • plus all the normal smoker created dangers!

As you may have guessed electrical issues are the second major cause of RV fires, and most because of overloading circuits. At your home a wall receptacle in your kitchen has two circuits running to each plug while in your trailer all kitchen receptacles are on just one circuit. And as hard as it may be to believe trailer manufactures are notoriously cheap with the unseen construction and then we drag these circuits on the roadways which allows circuit connections to come loose. What I’m trying to say is that that Keurig and that toaster oven are too much on one circuit. Will it start a fire now? No not likely, but it will overheat the circuit that can weaken the connections and if you do that every morning you are creating a problem for the future.

One of three exit windows in our coach

A quick mention, if you purchased your unit used, there is a good possibility the “EXIT” may have been removed from the windows, but it should have a permanent marking such as a red or yellow handle. Just take time to explore and plan your egress points when and if needed.

My last topic is insurance, now recreational units were not meant to be used as second homes. Most are insured with the intention a few weeks use a year, and some weekends, not full time summer living, and if your using your trailer all summer you need to insure it the same as your home. Your home appreciates in value, while a recreational vehicle usually depreciates in value (these last two years are an oddity where the trailer values have not fallen) so you may be very disappointed with what the insurance will allow you for your trailer. You need to insure to protect yourself and your investment, in our case we have full time insurance to protect us if a catastrophe happens on our travels, you need to do the same it will cost more but it will seem a small amount when a disaster hits. Remember that the company that insures your house may not have the needed knowledge to insure your RV and cheapest price is not always the best when its needed. We are insured for a dollar amount so if needed we know what the payout for a total loss will be, as well as we subsidise with roadside insurance that covers accommodations as well as towing and repair assistance.

Be informed, Be well, and Stay safe out there!

One thought on “OH OH!

  1. Thank you Brian & Laurie for all the help you provided during the fire in the campground. It certainly was scary to see it and the devastation it caused. Thank God everyone was safe.
    As always thank you for all your great tips.


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