RVers dodge a bullet from generator exhaust


By Greg Illes

Exhaust from a portable generator in close proximity to your RV could spell trouble.

My generator is quiet, but never quiet enough. I usually run it on a long cord, away from “Howie,” our motorhome. In fact, I run it very rarely: our solar system usually keeps our batteries charged.

But, as the fortunes of weather would have it, one week was perpetually overcast and rainy, and the batteries finally reached their low threshold after several days’ feeble-to-no sunshine. Out came the generator.

I had recently checked and sealed all the gaps in the RV (for improved heating/insulation), so I was confident that any traces of exhaust would not penetrate our living space. In addition, there was a light breeze that I believed would sweep away any noxious odors. Besides, the generator was brand-new, and I really didn’t expect anything out of the exhaust except CARB-certified CO2 and water vapor.

Cheap insurance for a disaster.

All went well — for about 20 minutes. Then a piercing shriek began emanating from somewhere in the rear of the coach. After the first jolt of panic (“Fire!”), I quickly identified the source: our bedroom CO monitor.

AT THIS POINT we had no symptoms of CO toxicity. No light headache, no smarting of eyes and certainly no nausea or unwell feelings. Just life as usual. But we knew it could not possibly have been a false alarm — much too coincidental. So I relocated the generator 20 feet away under the toad and we opened a couple of windows to air out the coach. Shrieking continued.

And then a couple of more windows. Still shrieking. All the windows and the door. Wind blowing through the cabin. Inside air temperature down to 58 F. Still shrieking.

Well, we knew we had good air by then, so I pulled the batteries out of the CO detector, and we closed up all the doors and windows and turned the heater up full blast. After we stopped shivering I put the batteries back in the CO detector, tucked it back into position and listened to the blissful quiet. Deep breaths.

We picked up some valuable knowledge from this experience, which I’ll quickly summarize:
• Even the best of generators, in the best condition, warmed up and running properly, will put out CO.
• No matter how tightly an RV is sealed up, CO can get in.
• Nothing short of a strong wind will sweep the exhaust away, and maybe not even then.
• Watch out for light/variable breezes — they can bring the exhaust right back to the RV, even if the generator is farther away.

An exhaust extension sends fumes into the air, not into your RV.

• Depending on how and where you park, exhaust from other generators could get to your coach.
• A good CO detector can and will save your life.

It’s also worth mentioning that even with some built-in generators the exhaust can be swept back under (and into) the coach. Some folks use those “smoke-stack” after-market devices to direct the exhaust safely above the vehicle.

At another time, our CO detector went off when we were downwind from a smoky, stinky campfire. We already knew that we were in trouble (stinging eyes, burning lungs). The CO detector confirmed that it was much more serious than discomfort, and we moved.

No coach is manufactured in the United States today without a CO detector. If yours doesn’t have one, I’d highly recommend buying and installing one. It’s cheap life insurance.

Think you already have a detector? There are smoke detectors, CO detectors, and combination detectors. Be sure which one(s) you have. Also, all detectors have limited life spans, but especially CO detectors, which must be replaced every five years

##FT1-18 ##RVDT1292

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Great article. Thank you.


The detector in our Titanium is near the floor. Does that mean it’s a propane detector? I’ve always thought a propane detector WAS a CO2 detector. What’s the difference?

Roger Marble

When I bought my new RV one of the first things I did, after installing a TPMS, was to open up the battery chamber and write the replace by date. This way I am reminded when to get a new detector every Spring when I De-Winterize and replace the batteries.


LOL, it’s the law that smoke/co detectors go off in the middle of the night and wake you from a deep sleep. We boondock mostly which leads to dust inside the rig and inside the smoke/co detector. After our first (and last) false alarm I now remove my detector from the ceiling in the middle of each trip and give it a jet of air from my compressor to make sure none of those pesky dust particles make me lose sleep again.

Donald N Wright

Lots of us camp to get away from the noise and smog. Families in tents, small campers, people enjoying the outdoors. Then some inconsiderate person in an oversize RV starts up their generator. They close their windows to turn on the A/C, or watch the game on the television. Same with campfires, folks build a big one, then they leave it as the smoke or heat makes them uncomfortable.Maybe they go inside their RV while the smoke drifts through the campground. Often people cannot go anywhere without their dogs, and they leave them outside to bark day & night.
Campground management cannot be contacted or located. Maybe Chuck knows a solution.

Lynn Hudgens

Our detector has been replaced twice. Why? Because it goes off in the middle of the night with loud shreiking. It is enough to wake the dead and campers 3 sites away. And…our 3 little terriers start barking and shaking uncontrollably. It’s interesting that the smoke detector must have a slightly different sound pitch because it does not affect the dogs the same. I have sought help and nothing worked. I gave up one night and cut the wire. Now we can sleep…it may be an eternal sleep, but that device is poorly designed and a huge nuisance. Campers did without those things for years, so I guess we’ll be rolling the dice until a manufacturer makes one that will work properly and has a pitch that doesn’t affect our dogs. BTW, we checked for the source of the CO and could find absolutely none. My only remaining guess is that our batteries possibly put off some form of CO (their within 4 feet of the detector underneath the RV ). And, to add insult, the CO “reset” button has never worked on any of the ones installed. I have to kill the power to the RV before it will shut off (all 3 we had). Safety should not be a design nuisance!

Kenneth Hanigan

I am a new fifth wheel owner. Is it a good idea to have a humidifier, and if so can you give me recommended namebrand and size, how often you should run it when it is parked in the driveway much of the year, I read with concern about CO detection. My 2008 titanium has a generator added in the storage space under the bedroom. When I run it I keep both doors open to the storage area. I have a co detector but still feel concerned now that I have read your article. About its safety.

Cindy Trombley

Good advice. Several years ago we were camped in close quarters next to a MH whose exhaust was below our 5’er bedroom. Our CO detector went off. We had to vacate the camper and stay up quite a bit later than planned because even upon politely informing them, our less than considerate neighbors wouldn’t check their generator until they were done watching TV. Be considerate of others even when you’re with in the guidelines of the generator rules.


Also, these devices have a ‘life’. I just replaced my last year in my trailer very similar to replacement of a smoke detector. Please refer to your manufacture of the device for when to replace.


Don’t forget there’s also a propane detector. Get one and mount it low as propane is heavier than air.