The Biggest Danger To Van Life: Carbon Monoxide

 Biggest Danger To Van Life: Carbon Monoxide

Vanlife is a unique way to experience the world, but with this fun lifestyle comes a few important things to keep in mind, especially one particular nemesis. Every VanLifer needs to be aware of carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that can seep into your vehicle and cause major health concerns and even death. Below is more behind what carbon monoxide is and how you can stay clear of it.

What is Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a type of odorless gas that is created when burning gasoline, propane, wood, and charcoal. It is formed when the combustion lacks oxygen and is considered to be a type of incomplete carbon dioxide. While it can be found outdoors, it is most deadly when in enclosed spaces.

Why is Carbon Monoxide Dangerous?

Carbon monoxide is dangerous for numerous reasons. One of the main problems is that it can cause your body to lose oxygen which can drastically hurt your vital organs. In other words, this gas will convert your red blood cells (the blood vessels that create oxygen) into carbon monoxide which limits the amount of oxygen in your body. Because of this, if you breathe in too much carbon monoxide, it can cause you to suffocate and could end up being deadly if not treated immediately.

Unfortunately, a few people have learned too late the dangers that carbon monoxide brings. In 2019, a man and his dog were found dead in their van from carbon monoxide poisoning. The culprit? A heater that was attached to a propane tank and blowing air into the vehicle.

In 2018, a family of four was found dead in their van because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Apparently their van was parked next to a grass median, which blocked the exhaust system and caused lethal levels of carbon monoxide to fill the vehicle.

A three-year-old boy was also killed from breathing in too much carbon monoxide because his father’s van didn’t have the proper catalytic converter installed. As you can tell from these examples, carbon monoxide is a huge risk in vanlife that needs to be watched out for.

What Causes Carbon Monoxide in a Van?

There are quite a few things that can cause carbon monoxide to form inside a van. Some include exhaust fumes and portable items like stoves and grills. This is because a van is a small space that can collect odors easily as there isn’t usually good ventilation inside them.

Besides camper appliances, carbon monoxide can also form in a van because you’re running the vehicle in an enclosed space. If your van is parked inside a small garage or similar area, there is no place for the gas to escape causing it to continuously circulate in the air and filling your vehicle with it.

What Level of Carbon Monoxide is Dangerous?

All levels of carbon monoxide can be dangerous, but high amounts of it can be fatal. However, as this gas reaches 70 parts per million (ppm) things start to be a little more concerning. If not stopped, carbon monoxide can eventually reach its most dangerous point which is over 100 ppm which can cause significant health problems and even death.

How Do You Know if Carbon Monoxide is Present?

Thankfully, there are a few ways you can tell when carbon monoxide might be present in your van.

You’re Experiencing Strange Health Symptoms

One way you can tell if carbon monoxide is present is by looking at your health. If you’re suddenly feeling lightheaded, nauseous, or dizzy, it could be a sign that carbon monoxide is around. While some sometimes brush these symptoms off as a sign of them getting a cold or the flu, they occur under very different circumstances. For instance, if you start to experience symptoms in a short amount of time or find yourself feeling better after leaving a space, these effects are probably caused by carbon monoxide.

Your Carbon Monoxide Detector is Going Off

One of the best ways to tell if carbon monoxide is present is when a carbon monoxide detector alarm goes off. This device is designed to test the air for even the smallest traces of this harmful gas. If it senses some, it will alert you immediately.

What are Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?

As mentioned above, carbon monoxide poisoning comes with a few symptoms to keep an eye out for. These include shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, loss of consciousness, and nausea. While it might not seem concerning at first, these symptoms can end up becoming more intense causing you to faint and even stop breathing. If you find yourself experiencing symptoms such as these, it’s vital that you immediately visit a medical professional to receive treatment.

Will Cracking a Window Help with Carbon Monoxide?

Yes, cracking a window can help with removing carbon monoxide from your vehicle. However, you need to make sure to turn off any devices that are making fumes when you do so. Otherwise, they will only collect in the air as they pass through the window.

Keep in mind that while opening a window can be very helpful, it will not instantly remove carbon monoxide from the van. In fact, sometimes it can take a few hours for it to be completely removed from the vehicle. Due to this, you want to keep your van’s windows open, but also remove yourself from the vehicle and the surrounding area for a bit to prevent breathing it in.

Where Should a Carbon Monoxide Detector be Placed in a Van?

Carbon monoxide detectors should be placed close to where exhaust fumes might be made, such as at the back of the van. This way, it can quickly detect any traces that might escape into your van and quickly alert you. You can attach them to windows or install them into the walls of your van depending on the model you buy.

After installing the detector in your van, it’s a good idea to test the device to make sure it’s functioning correctly. You can do this by pressing the buttons on it to ensure the alarm sounds at a high level and can be easily turned on/off. If you already have a camper carbon monoxide detector, give it periodic checks and, if necessary, change the battery.

Tips to Stay Safe

If you’re concerned about carbon monoxide forming in your van, there are a few tips you can use to stay safe.

Keep Your Windows Open and Use Fans

Airing your van out is very helpful when it comes to removing carbon monoxide in it. However, when doing so, make sure your van is turned off. Otherwise, it will defeat the purpose of why you’re opening the windows.

In addition to keeping your van’s windows open, you should also make sure to have some fans on hand. This can help with keeping the air circulating well and flush heavy fumes out through the windows. Many fans also have filters that can remove dust and contaminants from your van to ensure your vehicle has good ventilation.

Try to Limit Exhaust Fumes

Another way to prevent carbon monoxide is to try limiting exhaust fumes from your van or from devices that might make some. You can do this by keeping your van turned off at certain times or ensuring that you keep your vehicle in an open space when running it. By limiting exhaust fumes, you’ll not only be able to stay clear of carbon monoxide, but can conserve gas as well.

Take Care of Your Van

Believe it or not, sometimes damages to your car, like a fender bender, can create carbon monoxide. This is because it damages the vehicle’s exhaust system which can cause it to malfunction and blow fumes into the interior of your van. Because of this, it’s vital that you consistently check your van to make sure the exhaust pipe is functioning correctly and there aren’t any strange dents around it, something which might otherwise cause gas to unknowingly leak into your vehicle.

(Related: 20 Van Life Safety Tips To Protect Yourself And Your Property)

Don’t Block the Exhaust Pipe

A blocked exhaust pipe means that the fumes being emitted aren’t able to go out into the air. Due to this, they will usually end up recirculating back into your van. To prevent this, you want to make sure that your van’s exhaust pipe isn’t blocked in some way, such as with keeping it backed up against a wall, thick dirt pile, or mound of snow.

Keep an Eye on Appliances Inside Your Van

If you’re a VanLifer, you probably have a collection of appliances, such as camper stoves, ovens, and grills. While these can be very handy, they can also sometimes emit carbon monoxide, especially if they run on gas, wood, or charcoal. If you do have appliances such as these, you want to make sure to use them in open spaces so any fumes created will dissipate. You should also check to make sure the appliances adhere to environmental and safety regulations to ensure they will be safe to use around your van.

Always Close Your Van’s Trunk

Some VanLifers might run their vehicle to provide power to appliances while also keeping its trunk open for easy access to things inside. While this might be convenient, it also invites carbon monoxide to collect in the van because this is the area where the exhaust pipe is. You should always make sure to close your van’s trunk to prevent fumes from getting into it. If you do need to get something inside your trunk, it’s ideal to turn your vehicle off before opening it.

Vanlife can be a thrilling adventure, but you need to watch out for one of its biggest dangers – carbon monoxide. By keeping the tips listed above in mind, you can enjoy this fun lifestyle without fear of this dangerous gas causing problems.

Mariska Lee

Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit. She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.

Recent Posts