By Russ and Tiña De Maris
[Editor: Click here for an important update, Dec. 22, 2019.]
A van dweller and his dog have died from what authorities say was carbon monoxide poisoning in Kennewick, Washington. David Dana, 61, and his Labrador were found dead on December 5.
What was the source of the CO poisoning? Conflicting media reports muddied the waters. The Tri-City Herald reported that Mr. Dana was “Using a parabolic propane heater for keeping warm and cooking.” In a story released the same day, KXLY.COM indicated that Dana “Was using a Mr. Heater brand heater, which was hooked up to a five-gallon propane tank, to cook a roast on a skillet inside his van right before his death.” Both media outlets indicated their source was the local coroner.
At least one RVtravel.com reader brought this story to our attention, as Mr. Heater brand propane heaters are popular among some in the RVing community. While parabolic propane heaters are generally regarded as safe for outdoor use only, Mr. Heater brand portable infrared heaters are touted by their maker in an advertisement this way: “You will enjoy years of comfortable indoor safe heat.” That quote comes from an advertisement on Amazon.com. So just what kind of heater was David Dana using at the time of his death?
We contacted the public information office of the Kennewick Fire Department, the agency that sent the team of first responders. We were told emphatically that the heater in use was, indeed, a Mr. Heater. What went wrong? How could a portable heater promoted as “safe” turn deadly?
We contacted Enerco Group Inc., the company that manufactures the Mr. Heater brand. We were first directed to the company’s marketing department, where a somewhat hesitant representative told us he hadn’t heard anything about the incident, but was quick to point out that the company had strict prohibitions about cooking on any of their brand of heaters. He then said he would have the company’s vice president of engineering call us to talk in greater detail. A day went by, with no call. We called and left a voice-mail, asking for clarification. Finally, on the next day, we got a terse phone call from a woman who said she represented Enerco Group. She said she was calling so that we would stop making inquiries, telling us, “At this time, we have no comment,” on the issue.
For us, this left more questions than answers. Without having a “horse’s mouth” comment, we can only make a few assumptions on facts that we could dig up. First, Mr. Heater’s maker “prohibits” cooking on their heaters. Here’s a lift from their written policy: “Buddy Heaters are neither certified, nor safe to be used to warm or cook food of any kind. Buddy Heaters are not certified as a cooker and not designed to operate in this manner. Moreover, Enerco expressly prohibits the use of any type of non‐approved attachments with its Buddy heaters … Enerco expressly prohibits its Buddy heaters from being used for the cooking or warming of foods. Third party products intended to change the intended operation of the Buddy heaters are not endorsed by Enerco and, in fact, are expressly prohibited for use as they could cause serious harm to consumers.”
It’s not clear whether or not David Dana was using any sort of “non-approved attachment” on his Mr. Heater. However, Kennewick Fire officials tell us that Dana had turned the heater over on its back. But one of Enerco’s safety features, built into each of their portable heaters, is a “tip-switch” that immediately shuts down the heater if it is tipped away from its upright operating position. In our initial phone call with Enerco, the marketing department representative, when asked if it was possible to defeat such a feature, admitted that Enerco had seen this very thing happen. A little more internet research yielded plenty of “helpful” users who gave specific instructions on how to disable these safety tip-switches, right down to describing which screws to remove from the heater to access the necessary internal area to make the change.
But would disabling a tip-switch or cooking on a Mr. Heater with any of the available third-party accessories make a Mr. Heater more prone to putting carbon monoxide into the environment? That’s a key question and, sadly, one that we’re apparently not going to get an answer to, at least not from Enerco, the company that really should know.
So, does this mean that the average RVer, who only wants to heat his RV but has no interest in cooking his dinner on it, is safe from the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning when using a Mr. Heater or similar heating appliance? The answer looks to be “yes and no.” In an article published in the New York Times on space heaters is this key quote: ”Any time you have a fuel-burning appliance, you’re going to produce carbon monoxide,” said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington. ”And carbon monoxide can kill you.”
Mr. Heater is, indeed, “a fuel-burning appliance.” But here’s the safety point. Enerco in the literature provided with the heaters it sells points out that their heaters must be used with adequate ventilation. One might think this is to see to it that there’s plenty of oxygen for both the heater and the occupants of any construct in which the heater is used. True enough, and Enerco also equips their heaters with an oxygen-sensor that shuts down the heater if the surrounding oxygen levels dip below a safe threshold. But how does that relate to carbon monoxide?
“One cause of carbon monoxide poisoning from unvented heaters – incomplete combustion caused by lack of air – has been virtually eliminated in newer heaters by use of Oxygen Depletion Sensors (ODS),” says a posting from the University of Iowa. “Unfortunately, the ODS does not respond to incomplete combustion caused by improper gas pressure; dust, dirt, or rust on the burner; incorrect placement of artificial logs in a gas fireplace; or disruption of the burner by air currents. CO poisoning from unvented heaters remains a concern.”
Hence, the ODS in a Mr. Heater should potentially protect you from carbon monoxide, the byproduct of insufficient oxygen; but as we can see, things can cause that sensor to not work – and, hence, not protect you. We also found other “helpful” folks on the internet telling readers how they can quickly and easily defeat oxygen sensors in Mr. Heater and other gas-burning appliances equipped with them.
In any event, safety authorities are quick to point out the same thing that Mr. Heater’s maker says: Don’t use this kind of appliance without sufficient outside air. And just how much outside air is “sufficient” for safety? There are a number of ways of calculating this, based on just how much internal space there is where the heater is used, whether or not the “building” is constructed with a tight vapor barrier or not, etc. At the risk of endangering readers, our best advice – read and carefully follow the owner manual that comes with your space heater.
In Mr. Dana’s case, it appears his van was tightly closed. To be overcome by carbon monoxide would not have been out of the question. For RVers, ensuring that you have enough air flowing into your unit is critical. And as we have repeatedly stressed, HAVE A WORKING, “IN-DATE” CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTOR IN YOUR RV. We say “in-date” detector, because each detector has a limit as to how long it will really detect carbon monoxide. Just getting a “beep” when you hit the test button only tells you that the alarm circuit itself is working; it DOES NOT indicate that the device will actually detect this odorless, colorless and deadly gas.