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Old 10-19-2012, 06:16 PM   #1
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The ABC's of smoke, CO, & LP detectors, etc.

A friend on the forum asked me to do a thread on the proper selection, installation, and use of smoke detectors. I had mentioned in another thread about having owned a business for 36 years, selling and installing burglar and fire alarm systems for homes, businesses, and industries. We sold the business and retired in 2010. I will be happy to share what knowledge and experience I gained over the years. Iím sure there are others on the forum that are just as knowledgeable as I am on this subject, and I welcome their comments, pro or con.

I will start out by comparing the types of smoke detectors. There are two basic types of smoke detectors commonly used in residential applications, which of course include RVís. The most common type is the ionization detector. This is the one that you buy at Wal-Mart or Lowes for $6.95, and this is the type that is installed in almost every new RV from the factory. There is one main reason for that, they are cheap yet approved by U.L. for residential applications. They are designed to detect ďparticles of combustionĒ which are only produced when the fire has reached a certain temperature. They are very effective on fast-burning fires that develop a lot of heat quickly, such as gasoline or other flammable liquids. The problem is that in independent lab tests they have been known to take as much as two hours to go into alarm when totally enveloped in thick, black smoke from a smoldering fire that produces a lot of smoke but not much heat. A good example of this would be if someone goes to sleep on the couch and drops a lighted cigarette down between the cushions. The person will likely be dead from smoke inhalation long before the ionization detector goes into alarm!

The second type is the photoelectric detector. It contains a light source and a photocell and requires visible smoke to activate. When smoke enters the detection chamber it reflects light back onto the photocell, triggering the alarm. This detector is very quick to detect a smoldering type fire that is more likely to happen in a residence or RV, yet will still detect the fast-burning fires too, just not quite as fast as the ionization detector. Most of them are set to detect as little as 2% smoke obscuration. This type can be used in the kitchen without constantly false-alarming when you open the oven door, as long as you locate it a few feet away from the stove.

Then there is the combination type that contains both ionization and photoelectric detection in one housing. Some people feel better using this type and thatís OK as long as you donít use it in the kitchen area. The down side is the increased cost of this unit.
Now letís talk about proper installation of smoke detectors in RVís. You should have a detector in the bedroom and another one in the LR/kitchen area. If the ceiling level is the same throughout the area it doesnít make much difference where you place the detector in the room. When a fire starts, the smoke will rise to the ceiling, spread all across the ceiling, then start building down from the ceiling towards the floor until the room is completely full of smoke. One exception to this would be if you have something in the room that you feel could be a potential fire danger, such as an electric fireplace, then it would be good to locate the detector on the ceiling close to that object. In the LR/kitchen I would locate it between the kitchen and LR, several feet from the oven or cooktop. If there is an area of the ceiling that is raised then the detector should be in the highest area of the room. Do not mount the detector within 18Ē of an air conditioner vent or close to a ceiling fan. Mount the detector at least 6Ē from any wall. If you put it in a corner, be sure it is 6Ē or more from BOTH walls. This measurement is from the outside edge of the detector, NOT from the center. Always mount it on the ceiling, NOT on the wall. Remember that the smoke will completely cover the ceiling BEFORE starting to build down toward the floor. If you mount it on the wall it will greatly delay the activation of the detector. If you insist on mounting it on the wall for whatever reason, be sure the top of the detector is 6Ē from the ceiling. All corners have a ďdeadĒ area that tend to block the smoke and will slow the detection.

Now a few words about carbon monoxide (CO) detectors. Carbon monoxide is an odorless deadly gas that has resulted in the deaths of many, many people who thought it could never happen to them. If you use a gas furnace you should definitely have CO detectors. I suppose that all RVís come from the factory with at least one CO detector, but lots of folks donít realize that these detectors have an expected life of 5 to 7 years, depending on the manufacturer. After that you cannot depend on them protecting you! This is something that some people donít think about when buying a used RV that is several years old. Just because the detector still goes into alarm when you push the test button is no guarantee it will save you when you need it. It is living on borrowed time after itís recommended lifespan. If your RV is five or more years old, I would urge you to install new CO detectors immediately. Just like smoke detectors, you should have one in the bedroom and another in the living area. The one that came in your RV is wired direct to the 12VDC system. You can get direct replacements for those but they are very expensive. I would suggest going to Lowes or Wal-Mart and getting a battery-operated unit that you can mount anywhere you want. Unlike smoke detectors, CO detectors can be placed just about anywhere. There has been a lot of controversy about the proper mounting height for CO detectors and you will probably find that the instructions for the one you buy does not specify a height. It is generally agreed that carbon monoxide mixes completely with the air in the room so the height is not really important. I put Velcro on the back of mine because I donít like screws in the wall. I mounted the bedroom detector about halfway up the wall right beside my bed so it would detect carbon monoxide at about the same level I will be sleeping. I put the one in the living room on the wall behind one of the recliners so it is not noticeable. Write the date you install them on the back of the unit.
Finally, a word about LP gas detectors. All RVís have one installed at the factory. Normally this detector will be installed in the baseboard of the cabinet directly below the stove. LP gas, unlike smoke or carbon monoxide, is heavier than air and will settle to the floor. The detectors are required by code to be replaced after 5 years. Most of them are made by Safe-T-Alert.

It is VERY IMPORTANT that you test ALL the detectors in your RV on a regular basis! I test mine at least once a week, which I know is overkill, but it gives me peace-of-mind and only takes a couple of minutes of my time. I recommend changing the batteries in all of the detectors once a year. That way you donít have to worry about being out in the boonies without a spare battery when the low-battery beeping starts!
Letís talk for a minute about fire extinguishers. The small extinguishers that come with new RVís are not large enough to do much except to put out a grease fire on the stove. The one in my MH is rated at 1A, 10BC which I suspect is typical of most that are provided with the RVís. This rating determines how much fire they will put out. The A is for normal materials such as paper, cloth, etc. The B & C ratings are for electrical and flammable liquids. I recommend you get a much larger extinguisher and keep in the bedroom. I went to Lowes and bought a unit rated at 3A, 40BC. That will knock down a pretty big fire! I bought one that can be recharged by any company that services commercial fire extinguishers. You will pay a few bucks more for the rechargeable type but that beats throwing it away after one use. Now for the reason I put it in the bedroom. If a smoke detector wakes me up in the middle of the night and thereís flames between me and the door, I can grab the extinguisher and knock down the fire enough for my wife and me to get the heck out of Dodge! Now if something really disastrous happens and thereís a wall of flames between you and the door that you feel is too much to knock down with the fire extinguisher, youíve got a tough decision to make. You can try to cover yourself with a quilt or blanket and run through the flames to the door, or you can escape out the window in the bedroom that is designed for that purpose. If you do choose to try going through the flames, DO NOT BREATHE when you run through! If you suck the fire into your lungs you probably wonít survive! Getting everyone out the escape window can be a real problem, especially if any member of your family is overweight. I read somewhere a while ago about a guy that tried to get out the window and got stuck. He and his wife, who was trapped inside, were killed.

Let me be very clear here. I AM NOT suggesting that you stay in a burning RV to fight the fire! That, of course, is your decision, but it can easily get you KILLED! RVís, like mobile homes, are like giant matchboxes! They burn VERY QUICKLY and you could easily be overcome by smoke before you realize what is happening! Your top priority should be getting you and your family safely out of the RV. This means getting out FAST! Donít worry about putting on clothes, the neighbors have seen naked people before and theyíll loan you some blankets. Something VERY IMPORTANT hereÖget close to the floor by crouching or crawling as you exit! Remember that the smoke goes to the ceiling and then builds down toward the floor. The closer to the floor you are the better air you will have to breathe! For you who have pets, IF you can grab them on the way out then by all means do so. NEVER, NEVER go back into a burning RV to rescue a pet! No matter how much you love them, they are not worth losing your life over! The next thing to do AFTER you are safely out is to call 911 or ask a neighbor to do it for you. If you can safely do so, I would recommend you turn off the supply valves on your propane tanks. Bang on the doors of the RVís on either side of you to get your neighbors to safety. Oh yeah, if you can safely move your vehicles, now is the time. Finally, get WAY BACK and warn others to do the same. If the propane tanks blow, they can do a LOT of damage! You donít want to be anywhere around if this happens!


Joe & Annette

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Old 10-19-2012, 07:14 PM   #2
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good post,thanks

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Old 10-20-2012, 12:34 AM   #3
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Excellent post Joe !!! Thankyou Very Much !!
I will be replacing the smoke detectors in the house and rv this weekend thanks to you . And a great idea to write the date on them too.
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Old 10-20-2012, 06:59 AM   #4
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Seems to me that this should be a STICKY
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Old 10-20-2012, 07:02 AM   #5
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Great post and everyone should read it. I spent 33 years as a fire fighter and saw how smoke detectors saved lives.
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Old 10-20-2012, 08:17 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Rich and Cork View Post
Seems to me that this should be a STICKY
I totally agree !!
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Old 10-21-2012, 12:23 AM   #7
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Good to see an authoritative article that didn't confuse CO and CO2
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Old 10-21-2012, 06:38 AM   #8
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Thanks for the post, Joe. I learned about smoke and CO detectors in a rally seminar with Mac the Fire Guy, but I had forgotten much of what I learned. This post was an excellent reminder.

I agree it should be a sticky.
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Old 10-21-2012, 07:35 AM   #9
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Thanks everyone, for your kind comments!
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Old 10-21-2012, 08:44 AM   #10
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What great info. Just bought a new to me Winnebago and will check and replace detectors this week.
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Old 10-21-2012, 11:05 AM   #11
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Thanks for the post! We replaced our smoke detectors and co detector in the rv when redecorating, but only because of the way they looked we didn't even think about them not working! We will definitely be replacing our l.p. detector as well now. Maybe that's why it kept going off at random times over the past few years! My OCD self will rest a little easier at night now, after I check every knob on the stove 3 times of course
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Old 10-23-2012, 01:53 PM   #12
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Good info. Thanks for sharing your expertise.
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Old 10-23-2012, 02:13 PM   #13
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Good job Joe. See NFPA.org for more info.

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