All about RV electrical fires and a new way to extinguish them fast

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By Mike Sokol
All about RV electrical fires and a new way to extinguish them fastHey, everyone. You know me as the RV Electricity guy, but I am indeed interested in all sorts of things, including those that can be dangerous to an RVer.

But before I go on, can we please agree on one thing: safety. I believe safety should be the most important thing on our minds when we buy and use a recreational vehicle, how we pack it for trips, how fast we drive, and where we park. After all, I think we can all agree that we want our family and friends to be safe.

And if there’s anything we can do to improve the safety of our loved ones, then it’s worth discussing.

All about RV electrical fires and a new way to extinguish them fastWith that in mind, I was sent a link to an Airstream trailer fire that occurred last weekend. I’ve been in contact with the owner who has agreed to let me post these pictures of a fire that totally destroyed his trailer in just a few minutes.

While it’s too early to know exactly how the fire occurred, there’s evidence that it was in or near the 3-way refrigerator compartment. And since the propane was turned off and the trailer was plugged into shore power, there’s a real possibility this was an electrical fire. Now, we need to put a pin in this particular story for now because I haven’t yet seen the insurance report. But as soon as I get enough information I’ll publish the complete story in my RV Electricity Newsletter the last Sunday in June.

What is an electrical fire?
In the meantime, let’s discuss exactly what an electrical fire is and a few ways we could possibly prevent one. In the first place, these are not fires made of electricity. The electricity simply provides the ignition source, either through resistive heating which can result from a space heater or an overheated wire, a direct flame such as a propane cook top, an electrical spark from a wire with failed insulation, or a loose screw in a connector.

Next we need a combustible material, which our RVs have in abundance. Even something like an aluminum body Airstream has a wooden floor. But even aluminum will melt and burn if the fire gets hot enough.

Finally, we need a source of oxygen, which happens to be all around us. It doesn’t take much beyond the three elements of oxygen, combustible material and a spark or hot surface to start a fire. And when it begins, any RV basically becomes a blowtorch with the fire consuming it in a matter of minutes.

All about RV electrical fires and a new way to extinguish them fastWhat can we do to help prevent this sort of tragedy?

Well, there is a recent technology that’s supposed to be required in all new RVs being built after 2020. It’s called an AFCI for Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter, and you may already have it in your own home, especially the bedroom of a house that been built in the last 10 years. The job of the AFCI is similar to the GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter), except for instead of looking for a fault current going through your own body and heart, it’s listening for any sparking noises in the wiring which could indicate a wire with compromised insulation, or perhaps a loose screw that could be sparking. And just like its cousin the GFCI, it shuts down the power to the circuit before it can start a fire. According to ESFI.org, “In the United States, arcing faults cause more than 30,000 home fires each year, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries.”

In a nutshell, ACFIs have been required in new residential home construction (for bedrooms) since the 2009 NEC (National Electrical Code) was adopted, and it will probably be required in all new RV construction with the adoption of the 2020 NEC.

Okay, so enough about electrical fires that start from sparks. How about fires that start from direct overheating or even a flame source?

Is there a technology that can stop a fire quickly AFTER it starts? Well, indeed there is. I saw how this worked last month at the Ramblin’ Pusher Club Rally in Goshen, Indiana, and it was mighty impressive.

All about RV electrical fires and a new way to extinguish them fastIt’s the THIA fire suppression system from PROTENG. Basically it’s a plastic tube filled with a firefighting agent that remains liquid at normal temperatures. So there’s no nominal pressure in the tube, only liquid.

But if there’s a fire in the protected area and the tube reaches sufficient temperature, the liquid turns to gas and begins creating pressure inside the tube. And once the plastic tube gets hot enough from the hot air or direct flame, the tube ruptures and fills the area with a non-toxic fire-fighting gas, putting out the fire in a matter of seconds. Watch a short video demonstration:

I will feature both AFCI and THIA technologies in my next RV Electricity newsletter, which publishes in a couple of weeks, but I want you all to begin thinking about fire safety in your RV. To me, there are few things scarier than an RV fire, so anything you can do to protect yourself and your family from one is worth the effort. Remember, nothing is more important than the safety of you and your family.

See you next week. And in the meantime, let’s play safe out there.

All about RV electrical fires and a new way to extinguish them fast

 

##RVT902

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steve

So what does it cost and where do I get it?

Robbie

Looks like there was quite a bit of damage and fire before the thing went off!

Gene Cheatham

Pretty cool. I recently sent The Fire Guy an email asking about suppression for RV’s. Looking forward to the article. Hopefully it will have some approximate cost info and how and where to install for best overall protection.

Tommy Thompson

Is it possible for a fire to re-ignite after one of these Proteng tubes extinguishes it?

Michael Chesney

We are looking for a suitable fire suppression system to protect our 2018 diesel class A pusher. When we looked at the THIA strips, we were very impressed right up until we found out that every strip has a life of around 4 years, after which each must be replaced. As an alternative to replacing our entire fire suppression system every four years (yikes!), we are electing to install gas and foam fire suppression systems from Fire Fight Products (http://firefightproducts.com) that feature a lower initial cost (installed) and only need to be replaced as needed based on the reading on the discharge meters. According to Jim Bounds, the proprietor, only a few canisters over the years have required replacement (short of being discharged to put out a fire, of course); most of their gas and foam canisters last indefinitely.

Jeremy Pratt

Big Truck Big RV guy just reported that his THIA strips have popped for no reason just because of Texas heat. He was given a bunch to promote and I was a fan of them until this latest report.

Hal StClair

ACFI’s have been required by the NEC since 2008 in homes (bedrooms). They may or may not work in an RV depending on how the the circuits have been wired. You would be best advised to find a qualified electrician to do the work.

Mark Birnbaum

THIA? At first I thought it was spicy food. That is Protengś moniker Tube+Heat=Instant Action.

AFCI – Not exactly new tech. Has been in NEC code since 1999 edition (initially qualified to new bedroom circuits).

Has anybody (ie Progressive) made noises about expanding their EMS product to also be an AFDD (arc fault detection device)? While new RVs will be protected next year, there are millions that need arc fault detection and an AFCI breaker will not fit as replacement.

Gritty Eileen

Can an AFCI be installed in an older motorhome?

Abe Loughin

I work camp and mostly in maintenance. Question about the AFCI circuit breaker, will it sense arcing before it? IE; in the shore power cord or campground pedestal.

Jim B

Hmmm … FM200 is heptafluoropropane. A liquid in normal state but turns to various gases, some of the poisonous, with a small amount of heat. In order to suppress fire an agent has to displace one of the 4 things in the fire tetrahedron. This one displaces oxygen. While it may save your rig, when your smoke detector (must have) activates …. get out!

mike henrich

It should also be noted that the 2 Square D breakers you have in the picture might not fit in your RV electric panel, even if it is square D. My RV has a Square D panel that is very small and doesn’t have the room for Arc Fault breakers.