By Greg Illes
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.
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.
• 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.
Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it. You can follow his excellent blog at www.divver-city.com/blog .