By Mike Sokol
Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM.
A friend of mine recently had a fire in their RV trailer, and it burned down to the frame, taking down the outbuilding with it. They think the fire may have started at the 50- to 30-amp dogbone adapter, but nobody is sure just yet. While they did survive the flames, my friend suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns trying to put the fire out. Can’t they make these things more fireproof? What should I do if there’s a fire in my RV? —Mary B
As many of you know already, I have a number of colleagues who are EMTs or fire department volunteers. And one of my life-long buddies was not only the chief of Funkstown Engine 10 for decades, he was also a fire inspector in Phoenix for 25 years. So you can imagine the kind of conversations I’ve had with them about RV fires started by electrical overloads, and anything else for that matter.
Get out, NOW!!!!
Any RV fire can quickly turn into an inferno within seconds, so there’s no fighting it. Once a fire gets started, its going to burn until there’s no fuel left to burn, which might take only a few minutes.
The recurring directive from each of my firefighting colleagues has been that a fire in an RV is impossible to fight, so the best you can do is get yourself, everyone else and your pets out of the RV, and to a safe spot to regroup. Don’t worry about saving your clothes or your books or anything else that’s replaceable. Nope, get your family and pets “outta there” as quickly as possible.
That’s right… Time flies in an RV fire, so seconds count. Since a motorhome or RV trailer is essentially a tube full of flammable material, it can become fully engulfed in flames within a minute or two of ignition. There’s simply no time to gather your jewelry or other valuables.
If you’re lucky you might grab your laptop computer and phone on the way out of the door. But even that may not be possible if you’re in a back bedroom and your computer or phone is sitting in the front of the RV. Remember, things can be replaced, lives cannot. Get thee to the nearest exit ASAP.
Don’t roll the dice and tempt fate
I’ve written about this many times before, but always inspect any electric appliances such as portable space heaters for signs of overloading the wall outlets. Never run a space heater on a power strip. Only use a short, heavy-duty, 12-gauge extension cord if you must.
And I simply won’t run an electric heater on the high (1,500- or 1,200-watt setting) overnight. I’ll use the 600-/750-watt setting since that draws half the current of high power. I’ve seen way too many overloaded RV outlets to be comfortable with that much load.
If you smell something, do something…
Yup, over the years I’ve heard from RVers who said they smelled something “hot,” but went to bed anyway because they couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Yikes!!! Your nose is a great warning device.
Don’t go to bed if you smell something that could be an overheated wire, as you might never wake up. Instead, shut off electrical power whenever possible, and even bivouac in the campground meeting house if need be. But don’t spend a night in an RV that smells like burning electrical wiring.
Be the town crier
If you do happen to find yourself in an RV fire situation, after you get your family and pets to safety, think about the other RVers in the park on either side of you. Don’t wait until they hear the fire trucks to wake them up. Pound on all the doors and yell “Fire!”
As close as RVs are stuck together in parks nowadays, if your RV is engulfed in flames, it can easily ignite the RVs next to it. If you can give them a few minutes’ advance warning, they may be able to pull their RV out of the spot beside you, thereby saving their own rig from catching fire.
So, yes, make sure that your smoke and CO detectors or combination smoke/CO detectors are working properly, and never disable a fire or carbon monoxide safety device. And while you’re at it, get your family to do a fire drill at the beginning of every camping season. Nobody likes to think about fires until its too late.
The safety of you and your family is the main mission, so take this seriously. While you may never experience an electrical fire (or any kind of fire) in your RV, be prepared for the worst, and hope for the best. That’s how I do it….
OK, everyone. Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.
Let’s play safe out there….
[Editor: Here are links from Amazon for smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, LP gas detectors, and combination smoke and CO detectors.]
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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I just took the siding off my trailer and there was saw dust everywhere the furnace was full of it.
FIRE HAZARD !!!
We keep an extinguisher in the bathroom (back), bedroom (commercial grade-front) and next to fridge.Same thing at home.You may need that extinguisher to get to an exit.
Good informative article but I find it ironic that in the same RVtravel issue there is a “Readers Tip” advocating hooking up a splitter to your campsite in order to have a hose ready to fight a fire.
You are not going to fight an RV fire with water. What you might be able to do is keep other things around it cool enough not to ignite, if you can keep far enough away to be safe.
We put keys, purses, phones, glasses by the door at night in case we need to make a quick exit.
We have a 12’ four section folding ladder that I set up as a step ladder and firmly tie it to the side of the RV outside the emergency window exit and make sure the window will open, the first time I did this when I tried to open the emergency feature it was stuck closed. After prying it open with a screwdriver it was ready to be a fire escape. As we are in our upper senior years the idea of crawling out backwards and dropping 6’ to the ground without injuring an important part of our body did not appeal to us. Since starting this 3 years ago I’ve had many questions about it in campgrounds and when I explain it most people say they had never give that a thought so I write this as a reminder, YOU DON’T WANT IT TO HAPPEN BUT IT COULD!
It seems like there should be some fire retardant minimum standards for the basic materials used in RV construction by now.
The real danger is all of the flammable things we pack inside of our RVs, plus fuels such as propane, gasoline for the generator, etc…
Since RV’s seem like a fire trap, I think our government should get involved with dictating Safety standard requirements for manufacturing RV’s. Especially since they don’t really follow the national electric code. I was surprised to see the shore power cord on the Venture SportTrek Touring STT343VIB Travel Trailer so close to the outdoor shower and water connections. I’m under the impression RV’s made with adzel may be more fire and smoke resistant. From reading the many issues people have with RV’s The RVIA sticker don’t give me a comfortable feeling. Especially since I’m a retired Army inspector who was responsible for inspecting military equipment. Similar to RV’s from manufacturing to repairing old units. We always followed the national electric code and safety was always a concern.
We never run any electrical heater at night but do during the day and only when in the motorhome. One of the heaters quit the other day and when I unplugged and inspected it could see that a lot of dust had settled on the filter and fans. Let it cool down, vacuumed and wiped down the heater and it worked again. Grateful that it must have a heat overload switch (or something!)
Yes, all space heaters sold in the US have some sort of tip-over switch and overheat breaker. But yes, dog and cat hair in your portable space heater can really clog things up and create a fire hazard.
Also be careful of the outlets and wiring methods. Many RV outlets are combined with the outlet box, not separate as in a house. And most I have seen use the “push-in” wiring rather than the standard romex under the screw contact of the outlet. It is much safer to plug in your electric heater to just one outlet, that you have chaged to a 20 amp rated with screw terminals for the wire. The push-ins have very little contact area and get hot. In my case, I added a quality outlet for the heater, on its own breaker, rather than using a small gauge fed stock outlet in the RV’s longer wiring strings.