According to the Home Office, between 2020 and 2021, more than 1200 vans accidentally caught fire in England, as well as 850 other vehicles. The latter includes motorhomes, caravans and minibuses. While there were no deaths related to vans, there were three deaths in those ‘others’, and 116 casualties. With their additional batteries, wiring and gas systems, many extra hazards can be found in a motorhome.
Professionally built motorhomes have to meet numerous safety standards, making fires very rare, but the rise of the DIY ’van and cheap electrical kit from overseas has increased the risks. So it’s more important than ever to think about the safety gear that you carry onboard.
Sources of fire
By far the biggest fire hazard comes from cooking in a motorhome. The vast majority of incidents start with a hob fire, usually involving a frying pan and hot oil. Few campers deep-fry, but many people relish a cooked breakfast when they’re on holiday. It’s all too easy to start cooking something and then get side-tracked. We’ve all done it.
Cigarettes used to be another major source of fire, but in the past few decades, they’ve been overtaken by faulty appliances in domestic fires (according to the Home Office) and, given the vast rise in cheap imported electrical equipment, it’s not hard to see that this could be mirrored in motorhomes.
If you buy an electrical item direct from abroad, how do you know it has passed any UK testing? Source your electrical products and appliances direct from UK suppliers and motorhome dealers. Choosing items on price, not quality, could be the most expensive mistake you ever make.
With a manufacturer-built motorhome, any electrical device that connects to the vehicle battery will be fused, as will all the habitation systems. If your vehicle is a DIY build, then each and every circuit that connects to a battery must have its own fuse. Any wiring circuit lacking a fuse is a potential fire risk. Should a component fail, or a wire rub through its conduit, the fuse will blow and the power will be cut from that wire.
If the circuit lacks a fuse, the wire itself becomes the fuse, the copper will glow and act like a kettle heating element. When the wire’s insulation burns off, the red-hot copper will then ignite anything inflammable along its length. Fabric, furniture foam and wooden boarding all burn when the temperature is high enough.
Wiring is often hidden behind the furniture and carpeting, so these fires are difficult to stop – they keep burning until the wire is ripped off the battery. But it’s entirely preventable – fuse everything! There is no such thing as too many fuses.
It’s also well worth adding a leisure battery master switch – close to the positive or negative battery terminal – so you can easily kill all power should you need to. In addition, this will be useful during winter lay-up.
Fires caused by a failure of the gas system are thankfully few and far between, thanks to the many safety systems built into a motorhome’s set-up. As well as a shut-off valve on the bottle and inline in the piping, gas hobs and cookers are fitted with flame-failure shut-off valves.
Vintage motorhomes might lack these features, so always shut off the bottle at the cylinder when it is not in use. Make sure all vehicles have a gas safety certificate and an annual habitation service.
Should a gas leak occur in a motorhome, the issue is that any spark can easily trigger a fire. LPG fires tend to flash up very rapidly, owing to the speed at which the gas expands. The fire service will not tackle an LPG fire – they will evacuate the area and let it burn out. If you ever smell gas in your vehicle, leave it immediately, keeping the door open.
Do not touch any electrical switch or reach for the lights – just get out. If you can safely switch off the master valve on the gas bottle, do so, but don’t put yourself at risk.
Most motorhomes operate on diesel and fires caused by diesel are rare, because the fuel is so difficult to ignite at normal pressure – it is ignited at around 20 times atmospheric pressure in the engine. However, if you have a petrol-powered vehicle, any fuel leaks, or the smell of fuel, must be investigated immediately. Like LPG, petrol explodes with enthusiasm if any spark is present.
The other cause of fire is poor placement of items inside the ’van – for example, storing aerosol cans in lockers above the hob, or covering the heating vents with bedding. Anything that heats, cools or is electrical must be considered when you’re packing.
Types of fire
Although the traditional image of a fire is of large flames engulfing everything in an instant, it’s those fires that start in a small, smouldering way that pose a greater threat. If wooden laminates, foam in cushions and soft trim catch fire, lots of smoke can be produced. This is more of a risk in older ’vans, because modern motorhomes use flame-retardant materials. So if your ’van has 20-year-old foam-filled cushions, it would be wise to replace them.
Slower-burning fires tend to be much more of a threat than large obvious fires – they are harder to spot initially and can smoulder away unnoticed for quite some time. It’s the smoke that is most deadly – it can kill in a matter of minutes – making smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors essential.
Smoke and CO detectors
All NCC-approved dealers and manufacturers will fit a smoke alarm in their new and used vehicles. If yours needs replacing, or your vehicle lacks one, always buy a smoke detector from a trusted UK supplier and make sure that it conforms to BS 5446 Part 1, EN 54-7.
It’s also worth noting that there are two different types of detection: ionisation and photo-electric. Ionisation types measure ions (electrically charged particles) and will trigger when they sense a change in the electrical balance of the air, and can react earlier than photo-electric types.
Photo-electric versions use a beam of infrared light and a sensor – when they see smoke particles, it reduces the light output to the sensor and triggers the alarm. Photo-electrics tend to spot smouldering fires more rapidly than ionisation alarms.
The best smoke detectors use both methods of detection. If your smoke detector has an ‘i’ moulded into its case, or the ‘radioactive’ symbol, it will be an ionisation type. Photo-electric detectors have a ‘P’ or ‘photo-electric technology’ on the case.
As well as smoke, a major worry in any enclosed space is CO, which is produced when gas, coal or wood do not burn fully.
Failing to have an annual habitation check increases the risk of your hob, fridge or heating system not burning efficiently. Barbecues brought inside a vehicle (for example, because it’s raining) are the most serious risk – never bring a barbecue inside your vehicle, tent or awning.
CO is deadly. If this odourless and colourless gas is inhaled, it mixes with haemoglobin in the blood and prevents it from carrying sufficient oxygen, causing the body’s cells to die. Warning signs of excessive CO levels are tension headaches, dizziness, nausea, tiredness, confusion, stomach pain and shortness of breath.
While you can get passive CO detectors in the form of self-adhesive panels that change colour, they won’t alert you to an issue, so you need to invest in a CO alarm. These usually last for about 10 years and cost under £20. Again, only buy them from a trusted UK source and make sure they meet part one or part two of BS EN 50291.
If your smoke detector keeps triggering when you are cooking, reset its test/silence/hush button and try opening some more windows or skylights. It’s tempting to remove the battery – but don’t do this, as you’ll invariably forget to replace it.
If, no matter what you do, your smoke detector keeps being triggered, read the manufacturer’s instructions and see if it can be repositioned. Or try a different type or brand of alarm. Do not remove it.
Types of extinguisher
Fire extinguishers come in various types to tackle different types of fire. Ideally, you would pack one to deal with each and every possible kind of fire, but
in the real world, most motorhome extinguishers are designed to manage the types of materials that are commonly found inside your vehicle.
Again, ideally, you’d want a fire extinguisher to tackle all of the classifications above, together with electrical fires; but no one extinguisher can
do that, so you’re best using a combination of a fire blanket and at least one extinguisher.
Traditionally, motorhome makers used to supply dry powder extinguishers (usually a red bottle with a blue flash), because they can deal with the widest range of fire types you might find in a ’van.
Their downside is that for fires in confined spaces, they can cause some loss of visibility and breathing difficulties (they have been known to trigger asthma attacks). The other issue is that once the fire is out and you are cleaning up the mess, dry powder is corrosive to metals and electrical equipment, and notoriously difficult to clear away.
For this reason, aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) extinguishers are now fitted in motorhomes. This type of extinguisher works by smothering the fire in a layer of foam and cooling it, preventing any oxygen from contacting the fire source. AFFF is far easier to clean up afterwards and much less harmful to humans, but like all water-based products, it will damage electrical equipment.
AFFF can tackle both Class A and Class B fires, but it can’t be used on Class F cooking fat fires. That’s what your fire blanket is for. If you ever have a hob or cooker fire, the key thing is to throw the fire blanket over it, switch off the gas (at the tap or the bottle) and get out.
Having the fire blanket close to hand is essential and it needs to be firmly affixed.
Have all your fire extinguishers and fire blankets fitted where they’re easily accessible – around the entrance door or kitchen is usually best. They won’t be much use to you if they’re hidden away.
Bigger is better
If you have a fire extinguisher that’s the size of an aerosol can, you’ll be surprised how little discharge it has. Forget the image of it squirting away merrily for several minutes: most last less than 10 seconds. That’s not a lot of time to put out a fire.
Fire extinguishers also go out of date – check the expiry date on the bottle and if it has expired, either replace it, or have it refilled and redated.
The general advice is that when a fire extinguisher is five years old, it will need replacing or refilling. You can buy fire extinguishers with a 10- or even a 20-year lifespan, but these cost more.
Old fire extinguishers that have passed their refill date might not work, or could simply work badly.
With regard to size: opting for 1kg of dry powder or one litre of AFFF is the bare minimum, but the larger the capacity, the more time you’re buying.
A two-litre AFFF type should be the minimum size to think of (or several one-litre units dotted around your vehicle if space is tight). Higher capacity is always better.
What to do in the event of fire
The number one priority is to get everyone safely out of the vehicle. If your smoke detector or CO alarm goes off, or you see a fire, get out.
Only tackle it if you have the correct equipment, have identified its cause and it’s not too large. If you are using an AFFF extinguisher, you will need to aim above the fire, not at the base, so that the foam can blanket it. If in doubt, get out.
Fire safety equipment is designed to primarily protect you and then put out the fire. Your vehicle is insured and can be replaced – you can’t.
If the fire starts when you’re on the road, pull over as quickly as you can, switch off the engine and get out. If the base vehicle has an engine fire, never open the bonnet fully – this will cause a sudden rush of oxygen to the engine bay and make the fire stronger. Call the fire service and stand well back.
Modern vehicles are built to very tight safety standards; older vehicles and any DIY builds with unfused or cheap electrical appliances are the risk.
If you’ve never updated or checked your safety kit, now is the time. Make inspecting your fire prevention kit part of an annual checklist. Check the batteries fitted in the smoke and CO detectors every year, and check fire extinguisher dates and pressure. If you only have a 1kg/1-litre extinguisher in your motorhome, consider adding a larger one. Make sure you have a range of equipment to deal with fires and that all occupants know where it is and how it works. You will probably never need to use it, but it will give you peace of mind.
You can find out more great tips and advice for staying safe on tour by heading to our Back to Basics: Safe and Secure category.
Future Publishing Limited, the publisher of practicalmotorhome.com, provides the information in this article in good faith and makes no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Individuals carrying out the instructions do so at their own risk and must exercise their independent judgement in determining the appropriateness of the advice to their circumstances. Individuals should take appropriate safety precautions and be aware of the risk of electrocution when dealing with electrical products. To the fullest extent permitted by law, neither Future nor its employees or agents shall have any liability in connection with the use of this information. You should check that any van warranty will not be affected before proceeding with DIY projects.
Taking the right awning on tour with you can be a great way of improving your touring experience – our guide to the best motorhome awnings is a great place to start when you’re looking for the ideal one.
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