Fridge Flues Can be Alarming

To say we were thrilled to have survived the night without being poisoned by carbon monoxide (CO) would be an understatement. We were wild camping in the Cabo de Palos area of Spain and had noticed a strange sooty smell in the van but could not determine the cause. We'd kept the windows open overnight as I was worried about the strange aroma. While walking back to the van after a short mooch around town we  heard a high pitched alarm emanating from 'Dickie', our 2008 Hymer 508. Worried that someone had tried to break in while we were on our stroll we dashed back to discover the sound was coming from our CO alarm which, thankfully, we had fitted when we first bought the vehicle a couple of years ago. As the windows and doors were all locked tight the CO had been able to accumulate. The meter was reading 61 which, according to the information on the meter itself, is a fairly dangerous level.

'Dickie' had undergone a habitation check about 6 weeks before so we were stumped as to what could be the cause. Being a weekend we could not do much about it but we emailed our British dealer who gave us the details of a Spanish motorhome mechanic in Almeria for us to contact. Unfortunately they were unable to fit us in for a couple of weeks and we weren't keen to risk it so it was lucky that the following day we met a chap with a similar problem who knew of a local dealer who could help us out straight away. Luckily the weather was good enough for us to keep the windows and skylight open to keep air flowing in the van.
Freeing the flue at Caravanas Lorca

Caravanas Lorca was a couple of hours away but, with a typically laid-back Spanish attitude, the mechanic grabbed a ladder and small chimney sweep-style brush and got to work. 'This is a common problem', the mechanic said, and proceeded to clear a huge pile of soot from the refrigerator flue. A few sweeps and around 40 Euros later we were on our way with a perfectly cleansed flue and perplexed expressions on our faces. How on earth can a habitation check miss such an important detail as a blocked fridge outlet? We decided to investigate.

When we contacted our dealer about this situation they responded:  'Our habitation service complies with industry standard which all reputable Motor Caravan dealers follow'. They were right. According to 'The Approved Workshop' (a joint enterprise between the National Caravan Council, The Caravan Club and The Camping and Caravanning Club which is the benchmark for motorhome and touring caravan servicing) website: Gas appliances will be safety checked but not serviced as part of the basic service; you can ask for this to be carried out (at an extra cost). Please note some appliance manufacturers will not continue any warranty into the second or third year unless the appliance has been serviced annually - check with your appliance manufacturer. Whilst the flues should be routinely checked for correct attachments, and be free from damage and corrosion, the pipe itself is not checked and cleaned unless requested. The vehicle is checked for leakage of gases at the time of service but, as shown by our experience, is no guarantee that in a few weeks' or months' time a leak will not occur and cause CO poisoning.

The sample Annual Motorhome Service Habitation checklist which can be downloaded from the Approved Workshop website ( states 'Fridge not serviced unless requested.' Had we been made aware of this at the time of service we would have had it done. According to the Camping and Caravanning Club website, motorhome and caravan owners '...should advise your workshop if you require the appliance to be serviced rather than just checked for function'. I think this needs to be made clear by the dealers when booking in for a habitation check as the consequences of CO poisoning can be very serious indeed.

The gas itself is odourless and colourless so cannot be detected unless you have an alarm. It binds with the haemoglobin in your red blood cells so reduces the amount of oxygen that can be carried in your bloodstream and can cause serious brain injury as the body is starved of oxygen. If you do not have an alarm the symptoms to look out for are: headache, nausea, and general malaise. They then worsen to include confusion, dizziness, shortness of breath and even chest pain. Death is the final symptom. As you can see the early symptoms can be confused with common illnesses like flu, food poisoning or even a hangover. CO Alarms are designed to alarm before there is an immediate life threat so you will be alerted to the danger and be able to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. They cost anywhere between £15 and £25 so are not a great expense. We are very happy to have had one and we test it regularly to make sure the batteries are working.

In our situation, the industry standard was followed and our motorhome dealer acted within the regulations when performing 'Dickie's' habitation check. We weren't informed that an extra check on the refrigerator flue was required and we presumed all necessary safety checks were being undertaken. Perhaps it's time for the industry standard to be improved and for all motorhomers to be made aware verbally of the extra checks that could be undertaken to ensure gas appliances are in the safest shape possible. This does cost a little extra (we've been quoted around £25) but is nothing when your health and, indeed, your life can be in danger from 'the silent killer'.

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