Mr. Heater user dies from carbon monoxide – Could you?

46

By Russ and Tiña De Maris

[Editor: Click here for an important update, Dec. 22.]
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.

Check for the expiry date of your CO detector. patch.com photo

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.

##RVT926b

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Richard Hubert
1 month ago

We have a Buddy Jr heater which we have used inside our Class A when <30F. Never had a CO problems, and we have 2 fairly new CO detectors which would alert us if we did. (We know they work because last year a neighbors (Honda!) generator about 30′ away was apparently producing CO as it set both our detectors off just from what drifted in through open windows).
But we hesitate to use our Buddy heater much. It works great and produces a ton of heat. But the main product of propane combustion is H20 – and we end up with a LOT of condensation inside our rig from all the water vapor it produces.

Crowman
1 month ago

Blaming Mr. Heater for this guy’s bad choices is like blaming the van maker for making the van too air tight.

hvac basics
8 months ago

Sounds like this guy planned his last supper unfortunately. Burning ANY fuel is potentially deadly without adequate ventilation it takes proper oxygen/fuel mix for even the best burners to operate accurately. But they are need fresh air makeup. Not having fire/CO/propane alarms indoors is flipping the coin for survival

Timothy Mitchener
9 months ago

The unit that you have pictured is NOT a parabolic type heater.

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
9 months ago

See the updated story in tomorrow’s News for RVers newsletter, Timothy. —Diane at RVtravel.com

Pierre Woody
9 months ago

I use the big Buddy in the rv with 2 windows opened up to 18 sq in totalled, that’s what the instruction says, never had any problems

Carson Axtell
9 months ago

Clearly one design obstacle still remains for engineers to tackle: How to completely idiot-proof potentially dangerous appliances.

S. R. Perk
9 months ago
Reply to  Carson Axtell

Good luck with that one. There are some levels of stupid that can’t be fixed OR educated.

Wolfe
9 months ago
Reply to  Carson Axtell

I have a sign posted in my office:

“ALL ATTEMPTS TO IDIOT-PROOF OUR PRODUCT HAVE RESULTED IN BETTER IDIOTS”

Mark
9 months ago

My Mr. Heater close to the one pictured) clearly states in the manual that it’s not to be used in a closed environment. That poor puppy 😢

Chuck
9 months ago

Russ and Tina,
I believe you need to do some additional research for this article. You are confusing/lumping together all Mr. Heater units with the Mr. Heater Buddy series. The article I read about this from the coroner stated in the last sentence that there are heaters designed for indoor use but the one used was NOT of that design. This implies it was NOT a Buddy heater. Please contact the sheriff’s department to determine the exact heater used and post an update to this article. It’s doing both the Mr. Heater company and Rv’ers reading this article a great and dangerous disservice unless you get the complete story.

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
9 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

Thanks, Chuck. Yes, Russ and Tina are definitely doing a follow-up on this story. In fact, they received a phone call from the president of the company asking us to do a follow-up story with the information that the company has obtained (and is still obtaining) in their investigation into this unfortunate death. Also, please note that when Russ interviewed Kennewick officials, there was confusion among them as to the specifics of the situation. We hope to get the updated story into the next News for RVers newsletter this coming Sunday. Stay tuned… —Diane at RVtravel.com

Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  RV Staff

Unfortunately, there will be ALOT of readers that don’t read the follow up, and will next post on the internet not to use buddy heaters.

I would take this POST Down and the. erase it and point to the update.

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
9 months ago
Reply to  Bob

Thank you for the suggestion, Bob. I had already planned on linking the updated article in our original article once it was published, which I have just done. The original article provides more information, and the updated article clarifies some of the questions presented in the original one, so I think both articles should remain. —Diane at RVtravel.com

Alvin
9 months ago

Never heard of a Mr. Heater, but for me, I’d never EVER consider using such a device inside my unit. Electric or shut it down for the season when it gets to cold. Yes I know that is not an option for folks living as Mr. Dana did. A sad story, I hope we can all learn something from.

Kevin
9 months ago

I did a quick internet search and most reviews call the Mr. Buddy heaters “radiant heaters” rather than “catalytic heaters”. There might be some CO generated from a Mr.Buddy. Generally this is an insignificant amount especially in a well ventilated area. My suspicion is that since the victim was using the heater improperly, the O2 sensor either failed or was disabled and the van was tightly sealed against the cold. In any event it is sad that someone (and their faithful companion) died because of misuse of the heater. The biggest take away for all users is to read and follow the instructions and have a properly functioning CO detector. Maybe this week we should all check the date on our CO detector and replace if necessary.

KMG
9 months ago
Reply to  Kevin

Years ago my dog alerted me to carbon monoxide poisoning.
I wonder if his dog tried to warn him?

TIM
9 months ago

A lot of assumptions made in this article. The Mr. Heater name is on a lot of different heaters other than the Buddy line that is used by RVers. Why assume it is one of the Buddy line of heater?

H Goff
9 months ago

so after reading everyone’s comments i checked with Amazon. Mr. Heater model F242300 is a parabolic heater/cooker. it can be used as a “regular” heater, then also sets up to heat a pot. this is its purpose. its also to be used outdoors only.
lots of speculation in the comments….

Joe Allen
9 months ago

I had a propane and natural gas license in our business and any and all vent free appliances can be doctored by the user and made unsafe! Bottom line, any vent free appliance out there must have a window open enough to allow for the gases being driven off by the appliance. I have seen ODS systems wired to keep from shutting the heater off and windows tightly shut. Even vent free logs that we set inside of a real fireplace must have a clamp installed on the damper to keep it open enough to vent. Believe me, in the 22 years of service business, I have seen it all. Stupidity has no bounds and does not discriminate!

Chuck
9 months ago
Reply to  Joe Allen

I want to second your comments. I am in the process of buying a house where the fireplace was converted from woodburning to gas logs. I looked up the chimney and someone had placed an alumnum plate over the damper completely sealing off the chimney. Luckily they never got around to hooking up the propane before deciding to sell the house.

WEB
9 months ago
Reply to  Chuck

Give the previous owners some credit… Maybe they disconnected the propane (so it can not be used) and then sealed the chimney to reduce that heat loss. :-/

Daniel Terry
9 months ago

I have a Mr Buddy that I have used in a tent, a tent is hardly air tight, with out any problem. Common sense must be used when using this or any propane device. Always leave a couple of windows cracked open if using in a RV.

Rnbj
9 months ago

It’s highly likely that this van dweller never had, nor read, the safety warnings that originally came with this heater. His cause of death is CO poisoning simply caused by owner ignorance. Most RVers know to read and heed safety warnings on their gas heaters. This article should remind RVers to review these safety warnings at the start of each heating season.

Fred
9 months ago

There appears to be some misinformation & false impressions in some of these comments. A properly working catalytic heater does not produce carbon monoxide. There is a big difference between combustion, as in your stove top burners, & the catalytic process that uses a catalyst to speed up a chemical reaction, as in a catalytic heater. Combustion causes carbon monoxide, the caalytic process does not, but it does reduce the oxygen in the room, thus the need to crack a window in your rv. An excellent article that explains the difference & how a catalytic heater really works is this link:
https://www.hunker.com/13409397/how-do-catalytic-heaters-work
We have used an Olympia catalytic heater frequently in our fifth wheel over the last 10 years of fulltime travel. I don’t use it overnight as an extra precaution. I sometimes get up early & turn it on a couple of hours before we plan to rise for the day, & we use it during the day. it burns a fraction of the propane that a gas furnace does.

WEB
9 months ago
Reply to  Fred

You are the first to mention “catalytic heater” and start the ‘misinformation’. The Mr Heater is a radiant heater and is TOTALLY different.

Mark B
9 months ago

I have a Buddy Heater (Mr. Heater) and have never used. It is for an emergency, when primary heating system has failed and I don’t have electric. Even then it will have to be below freezing, can’t drive to warm facility, and only used long enough to keep hypothermia from setting in.

Drew
9 months ago

Sad story. A reminder: Your rv furnace is more than likely propane fired so there are cautions there too. If the heat exchanger is cracked you could die as well. If it’s not extremely cold outside we use an electric heater when in an rv park- nice and quiet too.

Patrick Granahan
9 months ago

If you open enough windows to supply fresh air are you not also letting in cold air and defeating the purpose of Mr. Heaters job of heating your RV or Van ?

Can’t fix STUPID !

Tumbleweed
9 months ago

I cannot picture how any Mr. Heater could be used for cooking. There’s no flat surface on which to place a pan. The guy must have made a weird/stupid modification in order to cook on it, and this would probably be the reason for the malfunction. I used a Buddy heater safely in my RV for years, until I replaced it with a more fuel-efficient blue flame heater. Both worked well and I’m still alive.