OUR MOTORHOME CAUGHT FIRE…!!

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Concerned about motorhome fire? Honestly, we weren't… until it happened to us. Here's the story and how to prevent RV fire in the future!


No, this is not the post I thought I'd be writing.

I thought I'd be writing about our trip to the Verdon Gorge and the south of France and beautiful places we discovered along the way, to inspire your next road trips.

But, sadly, something more urgent happened– we had a fire in the motorhome!


Motorhome Fire- what happened

Now, before I go any further, let me reassure you that the van (and us) are all fine. Here's what happened:

  • We were heading out of the Verdon Gorge, admiring the incredible scenery around us.
  • I'd just jumped out of the van to take some photos (I do that a lot) but when I got back into the motorhome I could smell burning. Badly.
  • Couple of things weird about this. Firstly, my sense of smell is AWFUL. Like, really really bad. Secondly, Mr WB couldn't smell anything at all (and that was REALLY scary, especially as he has the better ‘smell-detector' in our relationship)
  • We had a quick hunt around, but couldn't figure out where it was coming from, although it smelt strongest in the bathroom, which made no sense at all. Eventually, we lifted up the cushions and checked the fuse box- to find the fuse for the fridge melted into the next one and almost burned totally away.
  • The smell was actually coming from the plastic lid of the fuse box where it was near the burning fuse!

Oh boy.

Ok, deep breath.

We removed the fuse, turned the fridge off, and looked in shock at each other. We'd heard stories about motorhomes and RV's catching fire, but NEVER thought it would happen to us. Whether that was ignorant or arrogant I'm not sure- possibly both.

Motorhome fire RV fuse box refrigerator
Burning Motorhome RV refrigerator fuse (and plastic lid!)

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Motorhome RV Refrigerator fire

It made no sense at all why the fridge would suddenly have a problem- and certainly why it would cause the fuse to start melting.

Even weirder, the fridge light was still on- the fuse hadn't tripped BUT it was not working on battery, it was working on gas- or at least trying to.

Here are some other facts about the situation:

  • The fridge was on full power, which is what we normally have it on when using battery, especially when we have things in the freezer
  • It was working absolutely fine and had been for the past week, with nothing to make us concerned or worried about it
  • The fridge is under 3 years old and still under warranty, so it's not an ‘old' unit
  • The leisure battery was working fine (still is)
  • The fridge is between the bathroom and the fuse box, so we don't know why it smelt so strongly in the bathroom, but the ducting for the heating runs near the fuse box, so that might explain it.

What we did next

Once we'd stopped staring at each other with shocked expressions, we knew we needed to figure out what was going on. So we:

  • replaced the fridge fuse and the one next to it (2 x 15amp- ALWAYS carry spare fuses with you)
  • Turned the fridge back on to full power (using the leisure battery)
  • Waited for 5 minutes, at which point the fuse became too hot to touch. (Fuses get warm with normal current normally, but should NOT be too hot to touch without burning yourself)
  • Turned the fridge down to setting 2, and the fuse immediately cooled down
  • Drove for 10 minutes, then stopped to check again, leaving all cushions/ covers up
  • Continued this for an hour or so until we were confident the new fuse wasn't going to melt/ catch fire. We still check it regularly, even 3 days later!
This was the photo I got out to take

What caused the motorhome fire?

Now, here's the important thing. It wasn't really a ‘fire'. There were no flames leaping into the air or singeing our eyebrows. BUT, this is exactly how many motorhome, campervan or RV fires start- with a fuse melting. Which is why this is so important to share, so you can be aware of the dangers too.

Now that we've had time to think everything through, here are some theories about what happened. (DISCLAIMER: we are not qualified electricians. These are just our thoughts and opinions, not technical fact.) Oh, and we will be getting a qualified electrician to check the motorhome before we use it again- just in case.

The fridge had been working fine for the entire time we've owned the van, including the last week. BUT there are several things which could cause increased resistance and possibly lead to fire:

  • First is a ‘dry joint'. Now, I'll be honest, I have no clue what that means (surely ALL joints are dry… but apparently it's a thing.) I know on our first motorhome we had a problem with a dry joint which caused some issues, although no fire thankfully!
  • Second option is the cables coming loose behind the fuse box. We had been down some bumpy roads, so this is a possibility.
  • Also, if the fuse itself became loose or dirty somehow, that could increase the resistance, which generates heat… which results in fire (Thanks to Geoff (a qualified electrician) for this insight)
  • Last option is the electrics in the ‘rustic' campsite we'd just been staying in caused some issues.

The campsite electric looked fine, but the water was undrinkable as they were too far off-grid to get mains water. Perhaps that should have been a warning.

However, we'd been plugged into the electric supply at this campsite for 2 days (waiting out yet another rainstorm) and had been using electric without any problems at all. Fridge, heating, laptops, hairdryer- everything worked absolutely as normal. There were no signs at all of anything amiss

BUT, we believe unplugging from that supply did something ‘odd' to the electrics, as it was within 30 minutes of leaving that site that we smelt the burning, which means it must have started almost immediately once we unplugged from mains and the fridge was back on battery power.

We don't believe the campsite was reverse polarity, but we do wonder if there was something that messed up the system somehow.

Motorhome fire- RV refrigerator fire and prevention
Motorhome fire- burnt fuse for the fridge

Lessons learned from this

Up until this point, our most terrifying moment in a motorhome was when the brakes failed on our first ever trip to the mountains.

This was nowhere near as terrifying to live through, but the consequences could have been just as horrible. Here are some things we've learned:

  • Do NOT ignore any smell of burning
  • Check your fuse box if you smell anything odd
  • Just because something is still ‘on' (like the fridge light), doesn't mean it's all ok
  • BEWARE of ‘rustic' campsites and their dodgy power- (although honestly there's probably not a lot you can do to avoid this- it didn't LOOK dodgy or we wouldn't have used it!)
  • Similarly, beware if you've been down any bumpy roads… and then smell burning
  • A fire can start at any time. ANY time. Even on a van you've owned for ages and spend a lot of time looking after.
  • CHECK YOUR SMOKE DETECTORS

Leaving animals alone

Another thing to consider is leaving animals alone inside the motorhome (I'm assuming you don't leave kids unattended, but if you do, it's worth a thought.) We have, on occasion and when it's not baking hot, left Mac for a couple of hours while we explored, usually in a town or museum. We always use a surveillance camera so we can check him but, if a fire broke out, that wouldn't help at all.

The thought that this might have happened whilst he was alone in the van makes me feel physically sick. I've always believed there's not much difference between leaving a pet alone in a house or leaving them alone in a motorhome and, in a way, I still believe that.

But…

I think it will take both of us a very long time to be happy leaving him alone for longer than a few minutes. And I don't think we will ever just pull up somewhere and leave the van while we explore. It took less than 30 minutes for the burning to start, so I think we will always wait at least that long before we're happy to go.

Funnily enough, this came up in our Facebook group about a week ago and several people mentioned they were reluctant to leave their pets. And now, I get it. I really really do. As always, you have to make your own mind up and do what works for you, but those are our thoughts after this… let's call it a near-miss.


Final thoughts

There's no neat way to end this post. We didn't do anything ‘wrong' or different from what we usually do, but it could have been catastrophic.

If I hadn't decided to stop to take photos, and therefore smelt fresh air before getting back in the van, maybe it would have been much worse. Heck, our bed is above the fuse box… and the smoke detector is down the other end of the van. Let's just be pleased it wasn't night time!

If nothing else, I hope sharing this makes you check and/ or change the batteries in your smoke detector and know to check the fuse box every now and then, especially after a ‘rustic' campsite or bumpy road. None of this is supposed to put you off motorhoming or road trips- it certainly hasn't put us off- but it's definitely worth being aware of potential issues.

Whilst we're on the subject, when was the last time you checked if there are any motorhome recalls for your van?

Stay safe x


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25 thoughts on “OUR MOTORHOME CAUGHT FIRE…!!”

  1. Just a wee point on the fuse melt I have heard people say this can happen if you turn engine on will plugged into electrics.

    Reply
    • Thank goodness you are all OK. A few years ago a chap at bottom of our road was packing his van to go away for bank holiday, I went out in garden to put out washing and could smell a horrible smel, thought someone was having a flat roof done with bitumen. Went to walk my dogs later and there was the motor home (or what was left), a mess of melted fibreglass and twisted metal and scorched tarmac. It had been plugged into mains charging leisure battery, not sure why it happened, the chap had gone back indoors to get more stuff and postman alerted him to fire, was burmt out before fire brigade could get there. 😢

      Reply
  2. Thank you for warning of this possibility. We are also in France a few days ago in la rochelle someone tried to break into our van at 4am with us in it. Fortunately my husband was awake and scared the person off

    Reply
  3. On no, thank goodness you are ok and you hadn’t left your dog alone. Very good advice, I just always assumed that it would trip to prevent this. Take care.

    Reply
  4. How awful. Glad you’re all ok. I hate leaving Bella alone when I’m at home never mind on a trip out, it doesn’t bare thinking about does it. Stay safe. Hope the trip improves from here on in.

    Reply
  5. Hi there,

    Read your article regarding burnt out fuse on fridge circuit.
    Assuming the engine was not running this sounds like a faulty auto change over unit in the fridge which should’ve switched over to gas not the leisure battery !
    Auto electrician should check the fridge circuit which is likely to be faulty. Even so the fuse should’ve tripped or blown without causing further damage!
    Please let us know what the professional result was.

    Reply
  6. Glad all is OK with you all. When you are travelling the fridge switches to 12v to maintain the temperature. Within the refrigerator tube which is insulated there is a heating element and I think this has gone faulty and is shorting out. If you have not already removed the fuse make sure the fridge is on manual changeover and don’t keep anything other than a freezer block in the freezer compartment. Hope this helps and may point you in the right direction.

    Reply
    • I agree that this is the likely cause – it sounds like a partial overcurrent rather than a complete short.
      A fuse will run hot for a long time carrying 50% overcurrent without blowing – but will be hot.
      It takes a very heavy over current to make one blow quickly.

      Reply
  7. Ours didn’t switch automatically from our mains to gas the other day, an 8 year old van new to us. I have just worked out how to open the grill flu covering all the gubbins to check/clean the burner. After your story I will be cutting all power inside the van before switching sources, it seems to flip to the correct energy source doing that, and may prevent a fire in the future

    Reply
  8. Hi Kat
    That was a very scary read, glad all was OK with everyone and the van.
    I don’t know much about electrics except the assumption that a fuse should blow if overheated! Keep us posted, please.
    On the last point of motorhome recalls, we recently MOT’d our van and was watching the online gov.uk MOT checker to see if it had passed and there is a link to check for recalls on your vehicle which makes it easy to check at least once a year at that stressful time!
    Happy travels for the future!

    Reply
  9. This sounds as though the fuse was overloaded. They are meant to melt quickly when the load is too high through a short, but in your case it must have been red hot for some time. My guess is that you have the wrong fuse installed and need a heavier one to cope with the load from having your fridge full on. Your van’s manual should tell you which fuse to fit.

    Reply
  10. A dry joint is were two items are ment to be soldered together to make one solid joint. If the solder doesn’t stick to one of the items then you are liable to have a resistance at that joint when power is applied resistance causes heat and possibly fire. That explains a dry joint.
    Secondly only buy fuses from known electrical suppliers. The metal in the fuse, the plastic holding the fuse is very often a problem in cheap Chinese products

    Reply
  11. Hi Kat, Sorry to hear of your traumatic experience. I think it unlikely that it was connected with you mains hook-up, as the fuse in question is on the 12v circuits. The fact that reducing the current load by turning the fridge down helps might give a clue. If the connection to the fuse is poor (i.e the fuse box bit that you shove the fuse into) it could cause arcing when heavy current is flowing. I am talking about normal heavy current, not a serious short that would blow the fuse. So, my prime suspect would be the fuse box itself.
    I hope that might help.
    Best wishes, Neale

    Reply
  12. It can be really useful in instances like this to have a dedicated digital Battery Monitor, eg Victron BMV-7xx series. By looking at the battery monitor in the past I know that my compressor fridge takes 2.5 Amps when running. If I had a problem with the fridge like you had the first thing I would do is check the battery monitor. If it is running and still taking 2.5 Amps then the fridge is OK, but the fuse is “overheating”, then the problem is in your fuse box. As you say it could be the fuse, the fuse socket, or the wiring behind the fuse socket. But very quickly you can identify the “area of interest/concern.” If however the fridge was taking 10 Amps rather than 2.5 Amps, then a 10 Amp fuse would get hot, as it is getting close to melting, but the problem is the fridge. If the battery monitor is showing a current flow with everything off, then you have a wiring problem, and you can remove the fuses one at a time to identify the circuit. Thank fully you are all OK.

    Reply
  13. Just a thought. When plastic fuse carriers blow their fuse with a big overload the fuse melts and cuts off the electricity, end of problem. But if the fuse gets really hot before blowing, because of a small overload, the plastic can carbonise, then, even if the fuse melts, the plastic continues to conduct electricity now with a much higher resistance, which compounds the issue. Your picture looks like the fuse has melted but the carbonised plastic is still conducting electricity – hence why the light was still on.

    Reply
  14. My fridge is rated at 170watts, on 12volts that’s 14 amps. Check the fridges power rating. My fuse does get warm but it won’t take much to increase this. Dirt on the fuse blades or the fuse holder will increase the power used by the circuit. On your next habitation check have each circuit checked to ensure you haven’t got a short between two appliances. Hope this helps, Derek

    Reply
  15. Just a point, I don’t think that anyone has mentioned that a bad neutral connection will increase resistance in the circuit, however I would hope that the fuse would blow before melting!
    Our campervan uses the same fuse box which is again under our bed.

    Reply

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