Whether occasionally camping, frequently traveling, or living in one full time, RVs can become home to a ton of different smells. After all, it often functions as a living space for multiple people plus pets, just on a much smaller scale. That, alongside the inclusion of its own water supply, sewage tanks, and more, can contribute to a wide array of different smells.
Luckily, most smells in your RV are fairly harmless. Just the typical byproducts of so much being included in one small space. However, there are 10 smells in particular that are quite offensive and recognizable that can signal a greater problem.
Ammonia and urine smells can indicate issues with the sewer, but in more severe cases are indicators of an ammonia leak from your refrigerator. A smell of ammonia or urine is often just the result of maybe a clogged toilet, sewage leak, or a black tank that needs to be emptied. As frustrating as these things can be, they are harmless. When an ammonia smell becomes dangerous however is when it is the result of an ammonia leak.
Many RV refrigerators use ammonia to help facilitate the cooling process. For a rig, it is more efficient for a refrigerator to be gas powered, be it propane, ammonia, or a combination of various gases, than for it to run on electricity. It is safe and effective while helping keep the rig’s electrical load as low as possible.
However, if the smell of ammonia begins to persist in your RV, and it is primarily detectable around your fridge, you have an ammonia leak. Your first instinct may be to open your refrigerator door to see if the smell is most severe inside, but you don’t want to do this. Exposing yourself to higher concentrations of ammonia only increases the risk for you.
Instead, use an ammonia detection cloth to determine if your fridge is truly the source. They will turn blue once in the presence of even the smallest amounts of the gas, allowing you to detect ammonia without exposing yourself further.
Ammonia exposure comes at the risk of both topical and respiratory irritation. Initial contact with the skin can cause a burning sensation with prolonged contact leading to permanent scarring. Respiratory irritation comes in the form of chest tightness, difficult breathing, and persistent coughing. In more severe cases, ammonia exposure can cause blindness or even death. That’s why it is very important to act quickly if you smell ammonia in your RV.
Burned rubber is the result of a few different automotive problems. It can be the result of worn-out brakes, a faulty transmission system, or old tires. Smelling burned rubber in your RV most likely occurs after driving. There are a few reasons for this, some are harmless, and some should be taken care of right away.
Often when on the road, bits, and pieces of rubber from other vehicles’ tires can enter your RV’s exhaust system resulting in a burning rubber smell. When this smell becomes a problem, however, is if it indicates a problem with your rig’s brakes, tires, or transmission.
All of which can become worn down over time, with a burning rubber smell being a huge indicator that they are nearing the end of their shelf life. The last thing you want is for your rig’s brakes or tires to fail while on the road. That can quickly result in a devastating accident, threatening your safety and that of others.
Your brakes, tires, and transmission are all responsible for ensuring that you have control over how your rig drives and operates on the road. If you are smelling burned rubber after driving and especially after excessive hard braking, you need to have all 3 of these areas immediately checked out.
The smell of burning plastic can be dangerous as it often indicates an electrical problem. At its best it may only affect a single appliance, at its worst, it may trigger an electrical fire. Any wires that have been burnt out or cut can produce a burning plastic smell.
If it is related to a specific appliance, it is often due to the power cord being loose in an outlet. Over time a loose connection can cause the wiring to heat up more than it should and slowly burn out. If that is the case, that appliance, be it a portable heater or a blending machine will need to be replaced.
If the smell is due to wiring problems for your RV itself, this is far more severe. Once you’ve found that all your independent appliances are fine, you’ll want to cut power to your rig. Trying to inspect active wires runs the risk of exposing yourself to high voltage.
However, it is best to simply cut power and allow a professional to inspect the source of the burning plastic smell. To the untrained eye, an RV’s wiring can be a maze of cords and wires, and trying to fix it yourself may exacerbate the issue.
The smell of exhaust in your RV is usually due to improper ventilation or a problem with your generator. Exposure to exhaust is very dangerous. It’s why it is often recommended to not be in an enclosed garage with a vehicle engine running. If the smell has made its way into your RV, the first thing you’ll want to check is your ventilation.
Are outside winds easily able to enter your rig even with the windows and doors closed? If so, winds can carry your RV’s exhaust fumes from outside and into your living space. Although, usually not at enough concentrations to cause any serious issues.
Your generator, however, is another source of exhaust. If the exhaust pipe on your generator is loose, then most of the fumes will be blown into your rig rather than outside. If you know you have adequate ventilation, then this is most likely the culprit.
Your generator’s exhaust pipe can be loosened naturally over time due to the movements that occur when you drive your RV. Therefore, it’s a good idea to routinely check it and ensure that it is tightened.
The smell of propane in your RV is a strong sign that you are dealing with a propane leak. This can be dangerous as propane exposure poses health risks alongside being extremely flammable. Propane can leak from your RV’s propane tank or even from appliances that are powered by it. As it is not the most easily detectable smell, if you smell it, chances are the leak is severe.
You’ll want to open all windows and doors in your RV to air it out and lower the chances of you inhaling a large amount. Then you’ll want to cut the supply of propane to your RV if possible. Check the stove as well, most RV stoves are propane powered, and leaving it on will slowly flood your rig with the gas. Be sure to not ignite anything, be it the stove, a match, or a lighter. Propane is highly flammable and when ignited can cause an explosion.
Inhaling it can also displace the oxygen in your lungs leaving you with shortness of breath. If you are unable to detect the leak, the moment you feel unable to take in a full breath, you should assume it is a propane leak and act accordingly.
Burning Or Dusty smells
A burning smell can be attributed to electrical problems while the smell of dust can be concerning as it may aggravate certain health conditions. Problems with your rig’s wiring or with a particular appliance can sometimes cause a normal burning smell rather than a plastic one. Most commonly, however, it is the result of a burnt-out fuse. This is obvious if sections of your RV are not receiving any power.
A dusty smell on the other hand is a sign that your RV needs to be cleaned. Especially if you have a lot of carpeting as dust can quickly accumulate in it. Constantly smelling dust can be a problem if you are either sensitive to it or have respiratory conditions such as asthma. Even without these conditions, it is best to avoid constantly inhaling dust, especially if you have pets as well. It never hurts to keep your RV clean.
A musty smell can be attributed to dust build-up as well, but it can also be a sign of dirty appliances. When it becomes more dangerous, is when the smell comes from mildew and mold. Your RV’s refrigerator and water systems can all become musty without proper cleaning. Leaving old food in the fridge for too long is a huge culprit. That is why it is important to keep your fridge clean and to properly empty your tanks.
It is also especially important to keep these clean as hot and damp spaces are perfect for mildew and mold to grow. Your bathroom, showers, and kitchen are the main hotspots. While the musty odor is very annoying, it is the least of your worries.
Mildew and mold are fungi and exposure to them can cause a ton of irritation and even infections. It can give you the symptoms associated with a common cold and can infect the lungs of those with weaker immune systems or existing damage. Those with asthma will have their condition drastically worsen with mildew and mold exposure. Removing mildew and mold once they grow is important, but it is better to prevent it by keeping your RV dry and clean.
A fishy smell may seem like a problem with maybe your trash after cooking, but that’s not always the case. Like a burning plastic smell, fish smells can indicate an electrical problem. When wires or certain electrical devices become very hot, but not quite at the burning point, they can produce a fishy smell.
Common culprits are your rig’s ceiling lights. As the bulb overheats, the combination of that heat and the plastic surrounding it create that smell. Other times it can be a hot circuit board, an unstable electrical connection, or even water damage to an electrical device. Melting wires can also create this smell as the chemicals within reacting to the intense heat.
This can be dangerous as melted wires and overheated devices can lead to an electrical fire. Your outlets may also be a source of this smell, as the wires connected to them overheat or are exposed to water. That is most common for the outlets near the kitchen as water splashes on them while washing the dishes or cleaning the counter.
Metallic, Electrical, Or Overheating
Speaking of overheating, Metallic or electrical smells are usually the result of major appliances overheating such as your furnace. Your furnace is meant to turn off automatically if it gets too hot internally. For it to overheat, means this safety feature is no longer working. Parts within it may be beginning to burn once you smell anything metallic or electrical coming from it.
If this occurs, you’ll want to have your furnace serviced or even replaced as soon as possible. Trying to run your furnace after parts have overheated this much can not only worsen the issue but potentially cause an electrical fire.
Rotten Egg Smell
The smell of rotten eggs is usually an indicator of bacteria growth in your rig’s holding tanks. It becomes dangerous however when it is the result of a propane leak. Rotten eggs are a common sewer smell to encounter in your RV, but that is not what makes it potentially dangerous.
Depending on where you receive your propane from, the manufacturer may add a rotten egg smell to it to make it more detectible in the event of a leak. If you know your holding tanks are maintained well and are clean, then you should immediately check your propane supply.
If the smell only arises when you turn on your water, then it may be due to the water hookups at the area you are staying at. Not all campgrounds provide clean water, and you may need a filter for certain areas.