By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Nearly every new home built in the U.S. has them: carbon monoxide detectors. These little units can save your life. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and often deadly gas, the byproduct of incomplete combustion. The combustion source in an RV could be anything from an improperly operating furnace, water heater, oven, generator, or any other device that burns fossil fuels. Small amounts of CO can make you sick – in fact it’s the leading cause of accidental poisoning in the U.S., with almost 10,000 cases heading into ERs every year. Larger amounts can make you dead: Roughly 200 Americans a year join that statistical tragedy.
The symptoms of CO poisoning include headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and two real bad ones: unconsciousness followed by death. Carbon monoxide is a tricky thing: A little bit of CO over a long time can do harm to you, or a lot over a short period of time can do the same. Since there are plenty of devices in an RV that could produce carbon monoxide, it’s good for RVers to know the symptoms of CO poisoning. But it’s much better to have a CO detector warn you before you get any of the symptoms.
All new RVs come from the plant with a CO detector, but hang on. These devices have a limited “shelf life.” After five years from manufacture, your detector needs to be replaced. The hard part is, CO detectors for RVs have to meet special requirements – after all, they’re exposed to a wide range of temperature conditions and get knocked about with road bumps. Result: Like a lot of things “RV,” prices for CO detectors for your rig are typically more costly than the ones off the shelf at Homer D. Poe’s.
If you’re replacing an older, out-of-date detector that was originally manufacturer installed, replacement should be fairly easy. Simply dismount the old detector, observe wiring polarity, and reinstall the new detector following the instructions included. Many OEM detectors are “hard wired” into the RV 12-volt system. However, before you go shopping for the new detector, make sure that it is rig-powered. If you buy a new detector that “looks” for 12-volt RV power and your old one was battery powered, you’ll be up to your neck with a wiring issue.
If your new detector wants 12-volt rig power and there are no handy 12-volt wire stubs, you’ll have to locate a source of 12-volt power near your installation area and run the wires out to it. MAKE SURE the wires are not switched – that is, you can’t accidentally shut off the power to the wires you tap into. Lighting circuits are a good bet, but they should not be switch controlled.
Where should CO detectors be located? CO is slightly lighter than air, hence it rises. So putting the detector above the floor is right. You might even place it on the ceiling, but generally about five feet above floor level is best. If you have a big rig, make sure you install it close to your sleeping area so you’ll be able to hear the alarm when you’re asleep. Of course, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on “siting” the unit.
(Editor: RV CO detectors are available at Amazon.com.)