RV Safety

Every RVer needs to understand that special RV safety precautions must be taken due to the circumstances of our unique lifestyle. Lives are lost annually due to RV fires, Carbon Monoxide poisoning, lightning strikes and other forms of electrocution. Our RV’s are built differently from houses and we must be ever vigilant to avoid injury. We’ll discuss Electrical Safety, Road Safety Equipment, Fire Safety, Weather Safety, and Personal Safety.

Electrical Safety

In our opinion, RV Safety starts with electrical safety. all RVs should be protected from power surges as well as over and under voltages. A power surge or a lightning strike on power lines can destroy electrical and electronic items in your coach such as stereos, satellites, microwaves, televisions and refrigerators. Surge protection is protection against voltage spikes on power lines. Direct lightning strikes are so catastrophic that no device can effectively protect against a close or direct lightning strike. Over or under voltage protection is effective for a gradual increase or decrease in voltage, exceeding the maximum or minimum voltage for which appliances are rated. Over voltage and under voltage protection removes primary power from the RV when the voltage drops below 102V or above 132V (safe mode).

One of the most insidious electrical hazards associated with RV’s is “Hot Skin.” Basically, this occurs when the RV is above ground potential. It could be life threatening to anyone who touches your rig while standing on the ground.

There are several things that can cause Hot Skin on your RV. Most of it starts at your shore power plug. it could be improper grounding; no grounding, or reversed polarity. Other causes include improperly wired extension cords, improperly wired 30 amp adapters, loose or worn power receptacles, and reversed polarity on outlets in your RV.

Mike Sokol has written a wonderful eBook titled “No Shock Zone RV Electrical Safety”, available on Amazon. It covers a host of electrical issues that RVers need to know including information on the “Hot Skin” condition.

Devices are available that can protect from these conditions as well as improperly wired electrical pedestals in RV parks. They can be directly wired into the RV or connected to the electrical pedestal and the RV plugged into the protective device. If you have a fifty amp electrical system in your rig, be sure to purchase a fifty amp power protector. A good place to look for these is at Camping World or the RV Upgrade Store www.rvupgradestore.com .

Road Safety Equipment

I’m sure you’ve seen semi-trucks along the side of the road with three triangular reflectors spaced out behind it. They are there to alert people to move over a lane as the rig is disabled for some reason. These triangles are inexpensive and should be in your RV Safety emergency kit along with several flashlights and road flares to signal a night break down. You might also want to have an orange vest with night vision strips on it. Obviously, the best piece of emergency equipment is a cell phone to call for help.

Fire Safety

Fire safety is a key element of RV Safety. Most RV’s come with at least one fire extinguisher, usually of the powder type. This type of extinguisher has a pressure gauge with a red/green indicator. While the gauge may read green, the unit might not function correctly after sitting in one position for a long time; the powder settles and clumps in the bottom of the extinguisher. Pick this type unit up and turn it upside down several times every six months or so to loosen the powder. This is also a good time to check that the gauge is in the green area.

Kathy and I have been to a number of RV safety seminars, including some with live fires to put out. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of this vital safety training. It is available at most large rallies. Check out http://macthefireguy.com/ for information on the location and times for this training.

Here are 34 tips on fire safety from Mac McCoy (aka Mac the Fire Guy) that can save your life. These are reprinted with permission from Mac McCoy:

  1. A pinhole-size leak in a radiator or heater hose can spray antifreeze on hot engine parts. Antifreeze contains ethylene glycol concentrate and water. When the water boils off, the remaining ethylene glycol can self-ignite at 782 degrees F. During your monthly fire inspection, check all hoses for firmness, clamp tightness, and signs of leaking.
  2. Rubber fuel lines are commonly used to connect metal lines to the electronic fuel injection system, or to the carburetor in older coaches. Check all the lines and connections between the fuel tank and the engine on a monthly basis. If there is any sign of a leak, have the lines replaced and the entire system inspected by a qualified mechanic as soon as possible.
  3. A hard-working engine manifold can get as hot as 900 degrees F. The heavy insulation in the compartment reflects the heat back to the top of the engine, and a fire can easily break out. Inspect your radiator and have any problems repaired by a qualified person as soon as possible.
  4. Grease, oil, and road dust build up on the engine and transmission, making them run hotter. The grime itself usually doesn’t burn, but if combined with a fuel leak or short-circuited wire, a fire could start. Keep your coach’s underpinnings clean, and it will run cooler, more economically, and longer.
  5. A dragging brake can create enough friction to ignite a tire or brake fluid. Some of the worst fires are those caused when one tire of a dual or tandem pair goes flat, scuffs, and ignites long before the driver feels any change in handling. At each stop, give tires at least an eyeball check. When tires are cool, tap your duals with a club and listen for a difference in sound from one tire to the next. You can often tell if one is going soft.
  6. Spontaneous combustion can occur in damp charcoal. Buy charcoal fresh, keep it dry, and store it in a covered metal container. Rags soiled with auto wax or cleaners that contain petroleum products or other oil-based cleaning materials can also spontaneously combust if disposed of in a combustible container. Put dirty cleaning rags in a metal container with a lid.
  7. A hot exhaust pipe or catalytic converter can ignite dry grass.
  8. Driving with propane on can add to the danger if you are involved in an accident or have a fire. Most refrigerators will keep food cold or frozen for eight hours without running while you travel. Shut the propane off at the tank.
  9. If you store your coach, be sure to check the flue before starting your refrigerator on propane. Birds and inspects can build nests and clog the flue, causing a fire or excess carbon monoxide to enter your coach.
  10. Batteries produce explosive gases. Keep flame, cigarettes, and sparks away. Be sure your battery compartment is properly vented. Keep vent caps tight and level. Check your battery monthly. Replace swollen batteries immediately. Use extreme care when handling batteries—they can explode.
  11. Have any wiring in your coach done by a capable electrician, and use common sense in using any electrical aid. Check all 12-volt connections before and after every trip. Most coach fires are caused by a 12-volt short.
  12. Gasoline and propane can pose an immediate, explosive danger. Though diesel fuel is less volatile, it dissipates more slowly, so it remains a danger longer. Deal at once with any leaks or spills, and use all fuels in adequately vented areas.
  13. Even if the flame on your galley stove goes out, gas continues to flow and could result in an explosion. A stove should never be left unattended or used to heat your coach. Open propane flames release high levels of carbon monoxide.
  14. In a compact galley, all combustibles—from paper towels to curtains—are apt to be closer to the stove, so use even more caution in your coach than you do at home. A box of baking soda—the ingredient in powder extinguishers—can be used in lieu of a fire extinguisher for minor galley flare-ups.
  15. Develop a plan of action before a fire occurs.
  16. Make sure all travelers knows what the smoke alarm sounds like and what to do when they hear it. Test your smoke detector regularly.
  17. Have at least two escape routes—one in the front and one in the rear of the coach. As soon as they’re old enough, teach children to open hatches and emergency exits.
  18. Review with everyone the “Stop, Drop, and Roll” rule so they know what to do when clothing is on fire.
  19. Make sure visitors can open the front door. Not all manufacturers use the same lock and latch assembly.
  20. Choose a rallying point where everyone will meet immediately after escaping, so everyone can be accounted for.
  21. Show travelers how to unhook electricity (screw-on cords can be tricky) and how to close propane valves, in case either of these measures is called for.
  22. Practice unhooking your tow vehicle as quickly as possible to avoid spreading the fire to other vehicles.
  23. Re-emphasize to everyone aboard that objects can be replaced, people can’t. Never stay behind or re-enter a burning coach to retrieve anything.
  24. There are plenty of fire and life safety tools that can save lives, but for them to be effective, they must be in working condition and you must know how to use them properly.
  25. You should have three fire extinguishers for your coach—one in the galley, one in the bedroom, and one outside of the coach in an unlocked compartment or in your tow vehicle. Make sure family members know how to use the extinguishers and understand which extinguishers are effective on various fires.
  26. During your monthly inspection, check the fire extinguisher gauge to determine if there is pressure in the extinguisher. If the gauge indicates empty or needs charging, replace or recharge the extinguisher immediately. To test non-gauged extinguishers, push the plunger indicator (usually green or black) down. If it does not come back up, the extinguisher has no pressure to expel its contents. If you need help testing your fire extinguishers, check with your local fire department.
  27. Do not pull the pin and expel the contents to test your powder extinguisher. If you use a portion of the powder extinguisher, have it refilled or replaced immediately. When you have a fire extinguisher refilled, ask to shoot off the charge first (most refill stations have a special place where this can be done safely). This lets you see how far it shoots and how long a charge lasts.
  28. Invert and shake your dry-powder or dry-chemical extinguisher monthly to loosen the powder. The jarring of the coach does not loosen the powder; in fact, it packs the powder, which may make your extinguisher ineffective.
  29. Deadly, invisible, odorless CO usually results from exhaust leaks or misuse of heating devices. Be sure to put your CO detector in the bedroom. The proper location is on the ceiling or on an inside wall at least eight inches from the ceiling and at least four feet from the floor.
  30. Liquid petroleum gas, like gasoline fumes, tends to pool in low spots in the coach until a spark sets it off. Newer motorhomes are equipped with an automatic shut-off for when its sensor detects an LPG leak. If you have a leak, be sure to shut the propane off at the tank.
  31. The first rule of RV firefighting is to save lives first and property second. Get yourself and your family to safety before attempting to extinguish a fire. Only if you can do so without endangering yourself or others should you use firefighting aids on hand.
  32. Get help. Adults and older children should know how to dial 911 or 0, and how to get emergency help on any CB, VHF, or ham radio available.
  33. It’s crucial to know your location so firefighters can find you.
  34. If you have a quick-disconnect fitting on your water hookup, these hoses can be unhooked instantly to fight a fire. If a nearby coach is burning and you cannot move your coach but can safely stay close enough to keep it hosed down, you may be able to save it.

We were given advice to have a number of extinguishers on hand. You should have one for your car or truck, one for an outside compartment, one in the bedroom, and one near the kitchen area. These small extinguishers will not put out an RV fire that has been going for more than a couple of minutes. You have them to beat down the flames so you can get out of your rig. Even the largest RV can be reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes in five or six minutes. There are many videos on the internet showing this. For that reason, you must get out quickly. Your “stuff” isn’t worth your life or your family’s life. These four extra fire extinguishers can be purchased for as little as sixty or seventy dollars.

There are automatic temperature activated units for the both engine and the generator compartments. These use a gas such as Halon to displace the oxygen and extinguish the fire. There is also a Halon unit available for the refrigerator compartment to combat refrigerator fires. These units are expensive, but they provide peace of mind as part of your RV Safety plan.

Every RV has at least one emergency exit besides the entry door. It is usually a bedroom window with a hinge on top so the window can be tilted out to allow escape. Check and exercise this emergence exit at least twice a year. Put gasket lube on the gasket to keep it soft and pliable so it will be easy to open when needed. A short stick the size of a broom handle cut to around 18 inches long is a great tool to keep the often heavy window open when using it as an exit. Paint it fluorescent orange and place it where it will be available in case of emergency. The window edge is usually thin and painful when you go out. There will also be a drop from the window to the ground several feet below. For these reasons, drag your bedding out the window with you to cushion yourself.

You and your spouse and passengers should do a fire drill every year where you find all fire extinguishers and at least simulate going out the emergency exit. Just remember that the fire extinguishers are to beat the fire back so you can get out quickly, not to put out the fire.

Smoke Detectors (Fire Alarm)

Certainly, a key element of RV Safety is early detection. If your rig has a fire alarm, or smoke detector, test it for proper operation and change the battery at least annually. If not, go out and get one immediately. We have found that the alarm is usually placed outside the bedroom and near the gas range. Consequently, it will go off every time you fry bacon. We switched ours to a unit made by Kidde that has a push button switch that turns the alarm off for ten minutes, and then automatically returns the unit to normal operation. We highly recommend it. There is no reason not to install additional smoke detectors in the bedroom and up front in your rig.

Gas Alarms

Another aspect of RV safety involves Carbon Monoxide and LP Gas detectors. None of these detectors have a lifespan of more than 5 years. If you have just bought a used RV 5 or more years old, replace these vitally important devices.

 Today’s RVs have several propane gas appliances including the hot water heater, range top and stove, refrigerator, and at least one gas furnace. Most RVs will have a propane gas alarm mounted near the floor by the kitchen. This is because propane is heavier than air and will sink to the floor. These alarms may be battery operated or permanently connected to twelve volts from the RV battery. In either case, test these units twice a year according to the manufacturer’s instruction book.

 If your rig does not have a carbon monoxide alarm, get one immediately and place it in the sleeping area near head height. Carbon monoxide or CO is odorless and colorless and will displace oxygen. Carbon monoxide gas is produced by combustion such as from a generator set or even an engine running outside your rig. CO can kill you and your loved ones. Don’t take a chance without having a functioning CO alarm. Check and replace the alarm battery annually with the smoke detector battery.

Weather Safety

We consider our weather radio an essential piece of RV Safety equipment. We turn it on and tune to the one of seven frequencies that is strongest, and we get National Weather Service (NOAA) forecasts and severe weather alerts for our area. Our radio also can use the Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) system. A programmed NWR SAME receiver will turn on for the alert message, with the listener hearing the 1050 Hz warning alarm tone as an attention signal, followed by the broadcast message. At the end of the broadcast message, listeners will hear a brief digital end-of-message static burst followed by a resumption of the National Weather Service broadcast cycle. To program NWR SAME receivers with the proper county(s) and marine area(s) of choice, you need to know the 6-digit SAME code number(s) for that county(s). Once you have the number, follow the directions supplied the manufacturer of your NWR SAME receiver for programming. The number is available either online at the http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/indexnw.htm , or by telephone at 1-888-NWR-SAME (1-888-697-7263) for a voice menu. Your campground management will have information on the name of the surrounding counties. We use a Midland Model WR 120, which has the SAME technology. It retails for about fifty dollars but can be found at many stores for around thirty. We don’t always program our radio as it will give broad area information including severe weather alerts constantly. Our radio is on constantly, so we check its internal battery often.

We also use weather apps on our Android smart phone. These are “The Weather Channel” and my favorite, “Radar Now” which uses the built-in GPS and shows live weather radar in your area.

All these apps and radios will only alert you to the fact that you must find a safe place when severe weather is imminent.  Ask the campground personnel at the front desk where the severe weather shelter is located. If there isn’t one designated, look for a building of block construction. Most bath houses fit this description. The worst place to be in this type of emergency is in an RV which can be blown over by strong winds, or set afloat during a flood.

What do you take with you when evacuating to a shelter? Good question. The answer to this RV Safety issue is a “Go” bag. A go bag will contain the essentials to get you through a stressful period away from your rig. Certainly you should have copies of essential documents like insurance policies on your vehicle(s), copy of drivers licenses, and an address book with key phone numbers and addresses of relatives, doctors, etc. A small flashlight, preferably one with a LED lamp will enable you to find your way in the dark. Certainly an extra set of vehicle keys should be in there. Several bottles of water and perhaps a few protein bars will tide you over ’til help arrives. If you have a cell phone handy when you leave, throw it in the bag. What you take with you in that bag may well be all you have after the weather passes. Choose wisely and give it some thought. I would never consider bringing a laptop computer, but I have a large capacity flash drive on my key chain with up to date copies of all my important files. RV Safety is serious business and preparation and knowledge can save your life.

Personal Safety

A key aspect of RV Safety is personal safety. You must be aware of your surroundings. Are you comfortable with those around you? When you check in to an RV park, ask where the storm shelter is located. You should know how to get to the nearest emergency room. A question that always comes up is “should I have a gun?” I am reprinting with permission from Nick Russell an essay he wrote on just that question.

The Armed RVer

Used by permission of Nick Russell

Gypsy Journal RV Travel Newspaper www.gypsyjournal.net

 A frequent question posed by Gypsy Journal readers is whether or not they should carry a firearm in their motorhome or trailer for personal protection, and if so, what kind. It is a question that does not have one answer that fits every situation. There are too many variables. 

As a long time gun owner, shooter, and advocate of personal protection, I have always said that every American who can legally own a firearm should have the right to do so. But I always qualify that statement with the addendum that just because we should all have that right, it does not mean that all of us should exercise it. A firearm is a dangerous weapon, and in the wrong or untrained hands, it can cause far more harm than it ever can good.

Gun ownership carries with it a terrible responsibility. Only you can decide if you are willing and able to accept that responsibility. Before you make the decision to carry a gun in your RV, you must understand the legal ramifications that come with gun ownership and use. Understand that the possibility of ever having to use a firearm for self-defense is very remote, and that if you ever do, you will probably find yourself facing criminal prosecution to prove you were justified in your actions, as well as civil litigation from whoever you used the weapon against, or their heirs. You can be completely in the right and still face a prison sentence and years of legal battles and mountainous legal fees. Be aware also that the emotional impact of using deadly force will stay with you the rest of your life. Are you willing to shoulder that responsibility? Only if you are completely aware of the consequences using, or even possessing a firearm can bring, and are completely willing to deal with those consequences, should you have a gun in your RV.

Nobody should own a firearm unless they are well trained in its safe handling, as well as the circumstances where it can be legally used for defense. The laws vary from state to state, and you must comply with the rules where you happen to be at the time.

In some states, firearms laws are fairly easy to understand, and many states will issue concealed carry permits to residents who meet the legal criteria, pass a background check and training class. In other states, the mere possession of any firearm, even unloaded and cased in your vehicle, can lead to stiff penalties. Know before you go.

In several years on the road, and many nights spent boondocking in out of the way places, truck stops, roadside rest areas, and shopping center parking lots, we have never felt threatened enough to feel the need to put a gun in our hands. That said, we also have a firearm or two within reach, and that has probably added to our sense of security. But long before I would ever consider using a gun against a threat, I would drive away from the situation if at all possible.

Having a firearm presents problems whenever you have children or grandchildren visiting your RV. Make sure that it is unloaded and locked away out of sight. Likewise whenever strangers, such as service technicians or mechanics have access to your rig. 

The first rule of firearms ownership is safety, while the second is discretion. Nobody has to know you have a gun, and the fewer who do, the better. Never display your weapon except when you feel a real threat to your life or safety. The fellow who brandishes a gun to “scare away” suspicious characters is looking for trouble and will more than likely find it. That person you find suspicious may well be a fellow RVer or truck driver out for an evening stroll to work the road kinks out of his back, or possibly even a police officer checking on the welfare of people parked in a roadside rest area. Even if someone is busily engaged in taking the tires off your tow car, they are not a threat to your life. Drive away, call the police on your cell phone, honk your horn and flash your headlights, cry for help on the CB. But whatever you do, do not get into an armed confrontation. There is not a material thing in this world worth a human life. The only time I would consider using deadly force is when somebody is actually entering my motorhome or directly threatening the lives of myself or someone else.

The type of firearms best suited for RV use are varied. A short barreled shotgun, loaded with bird shot is very effective at close range, and the lighter load will not penetrate a neighboring vehicle like buckshot will. Often the mere sound of a round being chambered in a pump shotgun will ward off trouble.

Handguns, while easiest to maneuver in the close confines of an RV, carry the most severe penalties if discovered in states with strict gun laws. While you may be able to convince a policeman or judge that you have a shotgun for sport hunting, it’s hard to explain that you go after squirrels or ducks with a short barreled .38 revolver.

The type of handgun also varies with the user. What works for me may well not work for you. For a relatively inexperienced gun owner, my first recommendation would be a .38 revolver with a two to four inch barrel. It makes a combination that is easy to point and accurate at close range. The four inch model would be the one I would suggest, since the shorter barrel revolvers lose some accuracy and bullet velocity.

I feel that any handgun less than .38 caliber is too small for defense, while most heavier caliber handguns are either too hard to control in inexperienced hands, or have the risk of over penetration that can harm innocent people nearby. Magnum calibers run too much risk of over penetration to be considered in RV situations.

Semi-automatic handguns are the favorite of the military and most modern police agencies, and the high capacity models are the current rage in all of the shoot-em-up Hollywood movies.  That may be fine on the big screen, but in real life if you can’t get the job done in two or three shots, you’re probably dead anyway.  Semi-autos are harder to master and their safety features can confuse inexperienced shooters. Those who may have become familiar with semi-automatics in the military would probably feel more comfortable with their use than first-time gun owners.

I recommend the use of Glaser Safety Slugs in handguns. They are designed to provide maximum stopping power while not penetrating walls to endanger people in neighboring homes or vehicles. If Glasers are not available, my next recommendation would be hollow point or round nose bullets. Some people have told me they carry snake shot in their handguns for defense. Their feeling is that the small BB sized shot will ward off an intruder while not being lethal. To me, this is foolish thinking. If things get so bad that I have to use a firearm, I want it to stop the threat, not make somebody mad enough to do me even more harm. 

Whatever you decide, if you do feel the need for a weapon, do your homework first. Go to a good gun shop and look over the selection. If possible, find a shooting range where you can try and compare several different firearms before you make your purchase. Then enroll not just yourself, but anyone you travel with, in a firearms safety course to become comfortable with your weapon. 

And if worst comes to absolute worst, and you find yourself reaching for your firearm, first ask yourself if there is any way to avoid its use. If there is, choose the alternative.

Some material on this page is reprinted from the book "So, you want to be an RVer" by John and Kathy Huggins. The material is reprinted with permission from John and Kathy Huggins

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