Dangers of Using A Buddy Heater in Your RV

using a buddy heater

During chili nights,  It becomes tempting to run the RV furnace through the night, at the risk of draining your batteries. Alternatives such as buddy heaters and kerosene heaters can serve to ease the evening chill; though with serious consequences for its use in confined spaces. There are some risks of using a buddy heater in your RV. The number one danger of using a buddy heater in an enclosed space like your RV is the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.  Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas created by incomplete propane combustion usually due to the appliance being improperly adjusted.  Indoor propane heaters use a mix of gas and oxygen to output heat.  If the heater is not vented correctly, it can use up all the oxygen in a defined space, thus replacing it with carbon monoxide.  Even properly adjusted units still produce small amounts of CO. Since CO cannot be detected by odor, color, smell or taste, it is extremely dangerous and can be fatal. 

What Are The Symptoms of CO Poisoning?

 It’s important to know and understand some of the symptoms which include:

  • nausea
  • dizziness 
  • headaches
  • weakness  
  • Dizziness
  • tiredness 

If you are experiencing any of these then, it’s time to get out of your RV and get some fresh air and see if that is still the case.  

Carbon Monoxide Monitors Can Be A Life Saver

Despite today’s buddy heaters coming equipped with built-in sensors, it’s important to also use a separate carbon monoxide sensor within your RV to both tests and continuously monitor the present CO levels.  There are hundreds of different types of carbon monoxide detectors on the market today.  A typical off the shelf CO (consumer) monitor is not sufficient to test the levels in your camper as they are not sensitive enough as compared to a commercial-grade one. You can read more about them here. My Goto Model that I like is the UEI CO71A Carbon Monoxide Detector if you want to get this one from Amazon and get it shipped to you. 

A commercial Detector can detect carbon monoxide from 0 to 1600PPM (parts per million), as where retail CO detectors start generally at  30 PPM, if it is accurate and a from a reputable vendor. If not then it could be higher, which could be quite dangerous. 

Some types of detectors come in various portable handheld formats and are even compatible with smartphones; while others have a classic plugin design and very loud audible alarms.

When purchasing your carbon monoxide detector, be sure to check the level of gas your purchase can detect, specifically the numbered level of PPMs, as well as the type of warning system it comes with and battery life.

What Levels Of Carbon Monoxide Is Dangerous?

When considering a CO detector, it’s also essential to understand the different levels of carbon monoxide poisoning.  What PPMs are safe and at what level does it get dangerous?

According to ASHRAE (The Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers):

  • 0-9PPM of carbon monoxide is considered the “healthy range” and is comparable to the natural amount of CO present within the human body.  
  • 10-25PPM is where things start getting risky.  Prolonged exposure at this rate can put a person at risk for health risks like dizziness, vomiting, headaches and more.  
  • 35PPMs of CO exposure over an 8-hour period of time is the max allowed during a workday according to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).  
  • 200-400PPMs of carbon monoxide exposure takes the beginning symptoms of dizziness and nausea and converts them to severe vomiting, migraines and can be life-threatening if exposure exceeds 3 hours.  
  • 800PPMs of CO exposure for only 45 minutes induces extreme nausea and seizure-like convulsions.  A person will lose consciousness after 2 hours and ultimately: death between 2 and 3 hours.  
  • At 1600PPMs, convulsions, relentless vomiting and unconsciousness occur within minutes and death occurs within an hour.  Anything over 1600PPMs of CO exposure means imminent death within minutes and may not give the person time to escape the RV before the exposure imposes life-long health effects or fatality.

So, with knowing what amounts that are safe, 0-9 PPM is the ideal amount, that would be considered healthy. Even 10-25 PPM for extended periods can be harmful. Most retail CO monitors do not even start to register until after 30 to 35 PPM, which is actually a dangerous level already. 

Here’s a video on it describing the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s a bit older but the information has not changed. 

Considerations If Using a Buddy Heater In Your RV

First of all, I would never use a buddy heater in my RV to keep warm, nor would I recommend someone use one.  It sounds like a great idea, but every year there are news articles about hunters in cabins or people in there RV’s and cars that die from CO poisoning.  If I were to use some kind of heater, I would opt for a small portable generator outside my RV, with an electric heater large enough to heat the inside my RV. This then allows me to do whatever I want and go to sleep and not worry that I may never wake up. 

Now sometimes I get it, you must use a buddy heater, as an external generator is too loud or you are not able to use a generator or it is an emergency situation. First of all, most Buddy heaters are meant to be used outside where there is adequate ventilation for temporary heat. If you must use a buddy heater for short periods of time say 1 or 2 hrs max, then be aware of how to use one properly and know what to do if you think you are experiencing CO poisoning. Here are a few things to consider. 

  1. Always use a commercial CO detector
  2. Make sure that the propane heater is meant for INDOOR USE
  3. Know the symptoms of CO poisoning and at what level they occur at 
  4. keep a cracked window vent according to the owner’s manual
  5. Never go to sleep with a buddy heater on. 
  6. If you feel sleepy, or have other symptoms then get out of that space and get some fresh air and see if you feel better. Do not continue to use the Buddy Heater anymore.

How to vent a buddy heater properly for use in an RV?


What type of ventilation is required?  And is it possible to heat your RV while also venting the heater to ensure it has the correct supply of oxygen?  Certainly! Referencing the owner’s manual of a Mrheater, heater buddy on page 2. “This heater requires a vent area of 18 square inches (example 4 1/4” x 4 1/4” opening) minimum for adequate ventilation during operation. Do not use other fuel-burning appliances inside.”Under no circumstances is it okay to operate your buddy heater inside the RV while ALL windows and doors are sealed and shut and especially not overnight while sleeping.  

Other Dangers Of Using Buddy Heaters

Outside of potential carbon monoxide dangers, another risk of using indoor buddy heaters is fire.  As stated previously, buddy heaters utilize the proper burning of propane gas to heat a room.  Along with the use of propane is the possible danger of that gas igniting.  There are a few known ways that buddy heaters can cause fires.  One of the most common fire causations is a gas leak.  Propane is what some experts call a “heavy gas”; this means that within an enclosed area if leaked, propane will “pool” down to the lowest area in the room.  These “pools” of propane, because of their density and location, are extremely easy to ignite.  These types of gas leaks are enormously dangerous because the location of the gas pools is often near humans, children, pets and other appliances, thus adding to the risk of ignition.  To help avoid leaks when using your buddy heater, be sure to check the gas valve connection, always place your buddy heater on a flat surface and ensure the proper amount of gas pressure is going directly to the heater.

Another fire risk that comes along with the operation of a buddy heater is the gamble that the unit itself can be kicked or knocked over.  If the heating unit is knocked over, this can knock the gas valve loose and create the opportunity for a gas leak.  Additionally, a knocked over unit can cause the heating coils to ignite fibers or material nearby.  Luckily, most if not all the buddy heaters on the market today come with sensors that will cause the unit to immediately shut off if the heater is moved or tipped.  But like with any product in the market, not all components are perfect and the user still needs to ensure proper placement of the heater, on a flat surface, out of the way of human or pet traffic.

Alternatives To Buddy Heaters

There are alternatives to propane buddy heaters in heating your RV, but they all come with positives and negatives depending on the outside temperatures at the moment and the available power (shore or just 12 volt)

  1. Electric portable space heaters
  2. Built-in Furnace
  3. heat pumps 

Portable Electric heaters

Many RV owners and renters have utilized electric heaters during the chilly months to keep the cold away.  Electric heaters are very common and come in hundreds of brands, shapes, styles, and prices.

In order to run an electric heater in your RV, you must keep your RV generator running to allow electricity to your outlets, use a small external generator, or be plugged into external power. 

There are a few different types to choose from. 

  1. Convection
  2. Radiant
  3. Micathermic 

Convection heaters are known to provide gradual, even heating throughout a room or small space using a relatively low amount of energy.  Convection heaters work by circulating air currents across a heated element like a coil. Oil-filled radiators, water, fan, furnace, and ceramic heaters are all examples of convection heaters.

Built-In RV furnace

In some instances, it is just easier to use your built-in furnace for short periods of time.

Here are the pros:

  1. It is designed for the space of your RV and runs on 12v or shore power as well as propane.
  2. The built-in furnace delivers lots of heat quickly
  3. It vents the propane outside so no worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. 
  4. The heat can often be diverted to the basement to keep your pipes from freezing
  5. Additional propane tanks can be added to extend the time your furnace will run

The cons:

  1. If you are running on 12-volt, you can usually run for a few hours depending on your batteries
  2. Can be propane hungry so can run out quickly
  3. Can be very noisy
  4. Consumption of propane is large 
  5. If you run out of propane you have no heat. 

Heat Pump

Another way to heat up your RV outside of your furnace, buddy heater and electric portable heaters is the installation and use of a heat pump.  Heat pumps are built into the RV’s air conditioning units and work great to warm up a chilly RV when used correctly. There are many benefits of using a heat pump to warm your RV.  The first is that they utilize electricity only, no propane!  They create dry heat, which is imperative during the wetter winter months.  They usually come in multiple units so you can heat 2 zones at once and they can be run off a generator.  Be careful of the outside temperature as many manufacturers have stated that their heat pumps do not work in temps below 40 degrees.  This is because the heat pump works like the AC itself, but instead, converts the cold air from the outside into forced warm air inside and this cannot be done if the air is too freezing for the compressor to work.  Another con is that heat pumps are power-hungry, meaning you cannot use them in anything less than a 30- or 50-amp outlet.

Other Sources of Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Are there other appliances in your RV that can potentially be dangerous?  Let’s take a look at the RV stovetop burner.  Most RV cooktops run on propane.  This gives the user the ability to go boondocking and have the freedom from worrying about finding electric hookups.  They also burn cleaner, and more efficiently than electric stoves.  However, they do come with similar precautions to the use of buddy heaters; with propane heating, and propane cooking comes to the dangers of propane leaks and fires. It’s important to check your stovetop connections and ensure they are wired properly. 

Dangers of RV Gas Stove

However, the most important component to check for when using a propane stovetop is the presence of an FFD or Flame Failure Device.  FFDs work to prevent propane buildup to a device in the event that the stove should fail to ignite.  This can happen if the ignitor is faulty, or if the user does not light the propane soon enough.  Because the knobs on a propane stovetop are easily turned, kids playing around or adults moving about the cabin can easily brush up against the knobs, causing them to turn and initiate the flow of propane.  Without an FFD, the propane will then leak and can ignite simply by the flick of a match or lighter.  Be sure to check your RV appliance manual to ensure an FFD is present.

Summary

Despite the many warnings about the different types of RV heating options, do not let them deter you from traveling year-round!  Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy their RVs during the cold months and along with the proper safety knowledge, they successfully heat their RVs and enjoy their continued travels!  Just remember, when working with propane, whether you’re heating your RV or using it to cook a delicious meal on the go, it’s important to always check the connections, sensors, and ventilation.  And when working with electric appliances, be sure they’re stored safely, placed properly and are not around flammable items.  When safety is your number 1 priority, then enjoyment, pleasure, and joy will surely ensue!

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Arthur