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!
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.
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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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Want more tips for motorhome life?
Here are some more ideas you might find useful:
- Essential Motorhome accessories every van should have
- Best Sat-nav for motorhomes or campervans
- Motorhome Security– tips for at home and on the road
- How to get Internet in a motorhome
- Europe- essential gear for travelling to Europe
- Best gift ideas for motorhome and campervan owners
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