By Russ and Tiña De Maris
RVs have their own peculiar smells. A frequent complaint about a new RV is that of the acrid odor of formaldehyde. New RVers quickly learn to leave the refrigerator and freezer “cracked open” when turned off and not in use. Of course, there are pleasant smells we associate with RVing: The tangy-crisp scent of the ocean when camped near the beach; the heady fragrance of a pine forest on a summer breeze.
Fragrance or odor. Scent or smell. It’s all a matter of perspective, but one you need to learn is like knowing what a rattlesnake’s buzzing tail sounds like. Herein lies the tale.
We took a non-RVing relative out for an RV trip not long ago. He stayed in our trailer for the day while we had other things to tend to, and on our return he gave us a quick critique of what he thought of our RV toilet’s ability to contain black water odor. Simply put: “That bathroom, my God!” This came as a bit of a surprise to us, as we hadn’t really had much trouble with black water odors before. But there was indeed, a bad stench coming from the biffy.
But a double-take with the nose revealed there was something far more serious than a smelly black water tank. That malodorous thing wasn’t black water stink, but more “rotten eggs” in nature: A propane gas leak. Someone had casually parked our freestanding LP gas heater in the bathtub, and in the process had mashed to heater control valve into the side of the tub, pinching it into the “light pilot” mode. Thinking back, the heater must have been seeping LP gas into the bathroom for perhaps better than a day.
Propane gas (LP) is in its natural state, odorless. LP producers add a substance called ethanethiol, said to be listed as the most “smelly substance on earth” by the Guinness Book of World Records (2000 edition). Some describe it as “rotten eggs,” while others suggest it bears a strong resemblance to leeks or onions–on steroids. In any event, the smell is distinct and strong. Do you know what it smells like? If you don’t, walk on out to your RV, open the valve to one of your stove burners and gently waft the gas toward your nose. This educational process may stand you in good stead.
Why didn’t our LP gas detector alert us to the leaking LP in the bathroom? First, we don’t have a gas detector–something that needs to be resolved. Secondly, gas detectors may not sense the buildup of LP until the danger is already present–say the distance from the detector to the actual source of the leak, or just a malfunctioning detector. Better you should have a backup leak detector–your nose.
Keep in mind that ethanethiol, despite its reputation for strong olfactory reactions, can be “missed” by some. Older folks can sometimes develop a lessening of the sense of smell. Smoking and illness can also affect the ability to detect some odors, including that of ethanethiol. One study revealed that over half the people age 60 and older could not recognize the smell of LP odorant. All the more reason to install, maintain, and frequently test an RV LP leak detector.
We’re not sure that our RV guest recognized the seriousness of the situation. He was so relieved to learn that the stench he’d been discomforted by was LP gas. “I was trying to figure out how I’d ever sleep with that stink!” was his comment of relief after the LP gas valve serving the heater was firmly set to closed.
pepe courtesy lesmode on flickr.com