Figuring out generators, CO detectors, fumes – and safety

Exhaust, generator noise, carbon monoxide detectors – Greg tries to figure it all out and not get asphyxiated in the process. 

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.

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 .





5 Thoughts to “Figuring out generators, CO detectors, fumes – and safety”

  1. Darrel

    Smoke, CO, and propane alarms age out and must be replaced on occasion. I use 7 years as replacement time.

    Google replacement times for the devices.

  2. Paul Goldberg

    We were sitting in a service center campsite. We heard the coach the next site over start up and expected the service center driver to move on out. When he didn’t, our CO detector started shrieking. We bailed and I told him we had a problem he said they were diagnosing a failure to close a slide to move the coach out. They shut the engine down and used battery power (and shore power) to work on the slide. Peace and quiet. 20 minutes later they fired up the engine and moved on out. This was a service center so I had no expectation of a spacious site, but we had plenty of space to open the slides and move around, just too close to a dirty gas engine.

  3. Mary Ihla

    Our CO detector is so sensitive it shrieks when we use room spray, apply a roll-on medication for our arthritic joints, or apply aerosol sunscreen. Our occasional flatulence will even set it off. We’ve now learned to turn on the bathroom and stove fans any time we do anything we know will fill our motorhome with a piercing alarm. We don’t want to disconnect the detector, but it sure would be nice to just reach over to my bedside drawer and apply pain reliever to my shoulder at 3:00 a.m. without worrying about waking up my husband, the dog, and our park neighbors,

    1. Wolfe

      Many aerosols use propane as a propellant, but not CO. Maybe you have a combo alarm? Even then, unless you use a LOT right next to the LP detector it shouldn’t trip the alarm. For flatulence, even my Mexican kids and old dogs don’t trigger the combustible gas alarm, so…ahem. You may want to replace your alarm… it sounds defective as well as annoying.

  4. Wolfe

    You can get LCDppm CO detectors for $6 and smoke for $5. At that price, if you have any doubt about yours, get several new ones for each room of your coach. Limited exits requires earlier warning.

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