RV 101® – Portable Generator Use & Safety

Unfortunately, I have worked as an expert witness in several cases involving deaths caused by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in RVs. Please take the threat of CO gas seriously.

Carbon Monoxide Gas is invisible, odorless, and deadly. That’s why it is called the silent killer. Carbon monoxide poisoning happens when carbon monoxide gas is inhaled. The severity of the CO poisoning depends on the level of CO gas you are exposed to, and the duration of the exposure.

The good news is the threat of CO poisoning can be lessened through awareness and education

Every year people die in RVs from carbon monoxide inhalation, so I am a huge advocate for carbon monoxide safety and awareness. I mentioned a moment ago, carbon monoxide gas is invisible, odorless, and deadly. That’s why it is so dangerous,you don’t even know it’s there.

Carbon monoxide is created when any fuel is burned; this includes gasoline, propane, kerosene, natural gas, wood, & charcoal. It is extremely serious when combustion by-products are not vented outside, (or in the case of generator the exhaust does not get inside the RV.) Carbon Monoxide is the number one cause of poisoning deaths in the United States each year.

In RVs, carbon monoxide gas usually results from:

  • Improper use of portable gas-powered heaters.
  • Someone else’s vehicle or generator when camping in close quarters.
  • Exhaust from a vehicle’s engine
  • Exhaust from a generator.

Warning: If your RV doesn’t have a working carbon monoxide detector you need to purchase a battery-operated model designed for use in RVs. It must be UL listed for use in RVs, because it will be exposed to a wide range of temperatures and conditions.

Test the carbon monoxide detector every time you use the RV. Some CO detectors are hard-wired to the RV’s electrical system, and others operate on batteries. If you hear a chirping noise coming from the CO detector or the smoke alarm it is a signal the batteries are low and need to be replaced. CO detectors also have expiration dates. I encourage people to find the expiration date, and write it down on the CO detector cover where it is easy to see. Replace the detector when it reaches the expiration date.

Portable Generator Use with RVs

If you are camping off the grid, and plan to use a portable generator for 120-volt AC power, there are a few things you need to know, and some safety precautions you need to be aware of.

When you use a portable generator, position it as far away from your camping area as possible. If you are camping in an RV, the power cord is about 20-feet long. Locate the generator as far away as the power cord will allow, with the generator exhaust directed opposite from your camping area.

Caution: Do not position the generator in tall grass, or anywhere heat from the muffler or tail pipe could start a fire.

When you use a portable generator with an RV, chances are you will need a special electrical adapter plug or cord to plug the RV power cord in to the generator receptacle. The majority of RVs come equipped with a 30-amp, 120-volt electrical system. If you look at the plug on the end of the power cord you will notice a large 3-blade plug. Do not mistake this for a 240-volt plug, it is a 30-amp, 120-volt RV plug. Some portable generators come with regular 20-amp household outlets, and others use a twist lock receptacle. You need to know what type of outlet the generator has, so you can purchase the correct adapter plug or cord for the RV power cord and generator.

Note: Some generators do come equipped with a 30-amp, 120-volt receptacle that the RV power cord can plug directly in to.

Something else you need to be aware of is, if you use an adapter to plug the RV power cord into a 20-amp household outlet on the generator, you are limited as to what 120-volt appliances you can use at the same time. For example, if you run the RV air conditioner, and turn the microwave on chances are it will trip a breaker. For best results, try to plug the RV power cord directly in to a 30-amp receptacle on the generator.

Here are some more important notes about Carbon Monoxide safety:

  • Inspect the generator exhaust system before using the generator, every time. Do not use a generator with a faulty exhaust system.
  • Check the fuel and oil levels in the generator prior to starting and running it.
  • Avoid leaving windows down and roof vents open when you are in close proximity to vehicle and/or generator exhaust. The exhaust gases can easily enter an RV through a roof vent or window.
  • Follow all directions and safety cautions and warning labels posted on the generator.
  • Follow all directions and safety cautions and warnings when operating gas powered heaters.
  • Never use the range burners or oven to heat the RV.
  • When using the range burners to cook, use the range fan and always leave a window cracked open for fresh air and ventilation.

Read and follow all carbon monoxide safety information in the RV owner’s manual and on labels posted in the RV.

It’s important everyone staying in the RV learns and understands how to recognize Carbon Monoxide Symptoms:

CO Symptoms include:

1)    Dizziness

2)     Vomiting

3)     Nausea

4)     Muscular twitching

5)     Intense headache

6)     Throbbing in the temples

7)     Weakness and sleepiness

8)     Inability to think coherently

If you or anyone else experiences any of these symptoms get to fresh air immediately. If the symptoms persist seek medical attention.

Shut the vehicle or generator off and do not operate it until it is inspected and repaired by a professional.

Make sure all adults staying in the RV or camping area knows this information. It can save someone’s life.

Mark J. Polk
Happy Camping,


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