We’ve all seen those horrific photos and video footage of RV fires. The way they construct RVs and the materials used helps them burn quickly. If inside, you may only have seconds to escape.
To hopefully keep that from happening to you, I decided to publish some common sense RV fire safety tips, essential advice for a new RV owner to consider. With a little effort, you can dramatically reduce your risk.
RV Fire Safety Tips & Advice Video
Change Detector Batteries
This one is a duh! But worth repeating. Just like in a regular home, make sure your smoke, propane, and carbon monoxide detectors have fresh batteries in them at all times. A good rule of thumb is to change all the batteries every six months. I use the days we adjust our clocks for daylight savings time and back, so it’s easy to remember.
Even if the detector has an extended-life lithium battery or permanently wired into the RV 12V power system, they usually have an expiry date. It’s worth checking. For example, my OEM installed Atwood LP gas detector recently expired after it hit the seven-year mark.
Certify Propane System
Check and make sure a licensed LP technician has certified the rig. It’s a good idea to have it re-certified every few years. In many jurisdictions, there are mandatory inspection periods. They will inspect and test the propane system and check for any leaks.
Check your local laws regarding propane regulations. Here is an excellent article about RV propane safety from the Canadian Propane Association. If you ever smell propane vacate the RV immediately, call the fire department and, if possible, turn off the external propane tanks.
Driving With LP Gas On?
The age-old question. “Can I leave my propane system on when traveling to keep my RV fridge running?” This question always spawns no-win arguments that lead to an endless circle of comments on RV forums and groups. I err on the side of caution. I’m not comfortable driving around with an open flame burning in my fridge compartment. And, I’m too lazy to worry about if I remembered to turn off the gas when I refuel, go through a tunnel or board a ferry, etc.
For what it’s worth in 9 years of full-timing with over 80,000 miles towed, we have yet to have spoiled food in the fridge. When you think about it, the typical RV fridge is really like a giant camp cooler but better insulated than most. I tent camped for years with coolers, not near as good. These days many people are adding extra batteries, power inverters, and solar panels to the RV for off-grid camping. With a little additional wiring, the typical RV absorption-type refrigerator can run off electricity versus LP gas while traveling.
Don’t Overload Electrical Circuits.
From what I’ve seen, the average RV uses the bare minimum quality when it comes to electrical outlets. Most are lightweight and cheaply made. With that in mind, my advice is, don’t plug too many things into one outlet, especially high draw appliances or heaters. Try to spread the loads out between different outlets. Pick up a wattage meter and test how much current/power you may be drawing. If you are consistently maxing out an individual outlet, consider installing a heavy-duty electrical box for it. Maybe even have the wiring beefed up to it.
Occasionally feel the electric outlet plates and main electrical breaker panel and see if anything is getting hot. If you think they are excessively warm to the touch, call an electrician and have them checked out.
Get yourself a good quality surge protector. If an overload in the shore power occurs, it can cause damage and possibly a fire in the RV circuits. See my review on one I use and recommend for our 30 amp RV the Progressive Industries hard-wired model EMS-HW30C. It also comes as a portable unit. The PI EMS will shut the incoming power off instantly if any surge occurs.
It’s especially important to keep the RV’s appliances clean and maintained. Number one on that list is the refrigerator, one of the most common causes of RV fires. Say, for instance, the rig has been in storage, and some critters make a nest near the fridges gas burner. Next time you use the fridge in gas mode, you may have a fire on your hands.
Open the access panels of the RV appliances a couple of times a year and make sure there is no dirt or debris buildup taking place. Also, visually inspect the wiring and circuitry for any signs of overheating or loose/damaged connections. If you spot anything suspicious, call in an RV technician to take a look at it.
Careful Cooking in RV
Our RV kitchens are cramped with tiny amounts of counter space. Therefore we must be extra careful when preparing our meals. Keep the stove area clean and never leave a burner on when not present in the RV. Besides a nearby fire extinguisher, I keep a couple of boxes of baking soda above the stove in case of a flare-up. Fast action may save the RV and prevent a ruined vacation. (More info – Grease Fire HowTo)
Also, remember that the stove and oven’s propane burners eat up oxygen, so make sure to leave open the RV’s roof vents or crack a window to let in the fresh air.
Tires and Axle Bearings
You wouldn’t think tires and bearings would be a fire threat, but think again, they are a not so uncommon cause of burnt-out RVs on the highway. What happens is an axle bearing fails and gets extremely overheated to the point of igniting the tire. Once the tire gets fully engulfed, it is tough to put out. The fire spreads, and the whole rig goes up in smoke.
There are several ways to avoid this happening. First, always maintain the wheel bearings, especially trailers. Get them inspected and re-greased at the recommended times. Second, keep tires inflated to appropriate levels for the load. Under-inflated tires heat up fast.
Third, after traveling, check the wheels and tires for heat. Do it often, and you will get a feel for what is average temps and know when one is out of acceptable range. I picked up an inexpensive IR thermometer gun for the task.
If you can afford it, I recommend installing a wireless tire monitoring system. A quality system will monitor not only air pressure but also temperature alerting you to any changes before a catastrophic failure happens.
The lead-acid type batteries used in many RVs can emit dangerous gasses and need proper ventilation. To avoid any problems, make sure the RV battery storage area is adequately vented to the outside. If you keep the batteries inside a sealed box, a vent hose needs to be installed on the top and a second hole below to create a chimney effect to evacuate the potentially explosive fumes.
Fresh, adequately charged, and well-maintained lead-acid batteries will produce less gas, so avoid using them too long before replacing and always maintain the water levels. Or, if you can afford it, consider spending the extra money for some sealed AGM type lead acids or even better the new Lithium batteries.
Of course, avoid smoking and causing sparks around the batteries and make sure connections are clean and tight. One tip I can pass along – if the metal objects in the area around the battery bank are showing signs of corrosion, then you likely have a problem with insufficient ventilation or the way they are being charged.
Barbeque and Campfire
Keep the barbecue and campfire well away from the RV. It would suck to melt a sidewall area or damage the awning with excessive barbecue or campfire heat. When grilling, we occasionally create significant flare-ups, especially juicy burgers. A little extra distance is only prudent.
Pay attention to local dry season burning bans. Don’t be the guy who starts a forest fire! Rather than burning wood with the possibility of sparks or hot embers, I’d advise (unless using for cooking) trying one of the new LP gas-powered fire pits. I’ve sat beside a few, and they are quite enjoyable and much safer. Plus, no smoke in the eye.
I like to keep several fire extinguishers on board the RV and inside the truck. One is in the entrance/kitchen area, another in the bedroom, a third inside an outside storage compartment, and a fourth in the truck’s cab. This way, an extinguisher is always handy, and I have several backups if needed. It’s good to know the type of fire extinguisher you have. I advise ones that you can use on many kinds of fires. Don’t forget to have them serviced yearly and replaced when they expire.
Our Cougar fifth wheel came with a piddly little extinguisher mounted at the entrance door. I guess the bare minimum they could get away with installing. I quickly upgraded it to a larger, higher quality unit.
Plan An Exit Route
In the event of a fire inside the RV, do you have a plan to escape the RV? Say you are awakened in the middle of the night by the smoke alarm, and there is a fire blocking the main exit. What do you do? It’s essential to think about it. Have an escape plan in place.
In our fifth-wheel trailer, there is an emergency exit window in the bedroom, but it is quite high off the ground. I always leave my foldable ladder underneath the window. We plan to open the window, throw the bedding across the sharp edge of the window sill, and lower ourselves down to the waiting ladder.
Finally, I’d like to say I’m not an RV fire safety expert, just an avid full-time RVer, so take what I say with that in mind. Spend some time and research RV fire safety on the web; there are many excellent resources out there. Educate yourself, who knows you may save your rig one day or even more importantly, you and your loved ones or fellow campers.