By Russ and Tiña De Maris
The tragic story of a Kennewick, Washington, man, David Dana, who lost his life in early December due to carbon monoxide poisoning, drew plenty of attention from our readers. Last week we posted a piece regarding Dana’s death, and since have had plenty of feedback.
In our original story, we mentioned that first responders to Dana’s van, where the incident happened, reported that Dana had been using a Mr. Heater-brand appliance. At the time, Enerco Group, Inc., the manufacturer of Mr. Heater, wasn’t providing a comment on the incident.
This week we heard from Enerco’s president, Jeff Bush. Bush told us that as soon as the company learned of Dana’s death, it formed a team to investigate and understand what happened – and what, if anything, could be done to prevent such a tragic event from happening again. Regarding the company’s initial reluctance to comment, Bush explained, “Always better to deal with facts, than start talking first without the facts.” And facts we now have, which fill in a lot of the missing gaps in the story.
First, and perhaps most importantly to many of you who contacted us, David Dana was indeed using a Mr. Heater-brand appliance. However, it was not a “Buddy” heater, but, rather, a unit designed and specifically designated for outdoor use. Dana’s unit was what some call a “parabolic” or “sunflower” outdoor-use-only heater. That fact alone made Dana’s situation perilous, but a chain of other factors could easily have contributed to the danger that Dana was exposed to.
Kennewick city officials have provided photos showing the equipment as they found it. Enerco’s team went over them closely and found several issues. First, someone removed all the factory-provided guards from the front and back of the heater. The discoloration on the grid screen assembly in the shape of a circle suggests to the Enerco team that the user may have been putting something directly on the burner surface. That fits with the observations of first responders who said it appeared Dana was trying to cook on the heater. But in so doing, the result could easily be a quenching of the burner flame and an interference with the burner’s access to secondary air. All of that could have significantly increased potential carbon monoxide production.
Next, Enerco’s team found that someone had removed the thermocouple safety system. While that wouldn’t have contributed to carbon monoxide poisoning, anyone using the heater was exposing themselves to another danger: a potential LP explosion, as the thermocouple system automatically shuts off propane if the burner were to be blown out for any reason.
Other issues uncovered included modifications to the safety shut-off system. Notice the black tape wrapped around it, rendering it useless. As well, the shut-off button was taped in and used as a stand against the tank itself. Further, the connection between the air intake tube and control valve was loosened so the entire burner assembly could be rotated to pointing up when attached to the propane cylinder, as opposed to the factory set face-out position.
One other issue which may have contributed to a fatal build-up of carbon monoxide is how gas flow to the burner was adjusted. It appears to Enerco that the propane cylinder valve was used to control the flow of LP. If that was the case, adjusting the flow down would have made for extremely dirty combustion and, as a result, high amounts of carbon monoxide being released into the environment.
As accident investigators noted, David Dana was using this lash-up inside a closed-up van. It is also believed that Mr. Dana may have added additional insulation to the van, in which he was living at the time of the incident. There was likely very little air exchange in the van at the time of the incident. With all of these factors taken together, it’s hard to imagine how anything other than the tragedy resulted. An outside-only heater, modified and used in a tightly sealed small enclosure created a very dangerous situation and directly lead to this unfortunate situation.
In fairness to Enerco, it doesn’t look like much could have been done on their part of have saved Mr. Dana. The company includes safety information with all of its products, and likewise posts that information on the internet. The fact that carbon monoxide deaths have happened in the past led the company to the development of their “Buddy Heater” line of indoor-outdoor-approved-use heaters. The safety features included in the “Buddy” lineup include a tip-switch that shuts off the heater if moved away from strictly upright. An oxygen depletion sensor (ODS) system checks the oxygen level of the air around the heater and shuts it off if the level becomes too low for human safety.
In addition to these physical devices, the company likewise aims to educate users to keep even these inherently safe heaters safe. As we mentioned in our last story on this subject, there needs to be sufficient outside air available when using any non-vented heating appliance, and Enerco stresses NEVER using third-party add-ons, as these might endanger users. And, as we likewise mentioned, the company cautions against – prohibits – use of their heaters to cook or warm food. And while most of our readers are using ventless heaters inside fairly roomy RVs, don’t ever sleep next to a heater of any sort. Rolling over and catching your bedding on fire isn’t something pleasant to consider.
Finally, we repeat for the umpteenth time: Invest in a carbon monoxide detector, keep the batteries fresh, and don’t go beyond the unit’s replacement date. Following a few simple rules can keep you warm – and alive.