Northern Lite Truck Camper Explosion Underscores Importance of Propane Safety

Closeup of the Hamlin’s Northern Lite camper. Note the fractures in the camper as well as the damaged/missing windows and roof hatches. (photo courtesy of New York State Police).

Propane safety is no laughing matter as a Spafford, New York couple discovered after a propane explosion in their Northern Lite truck camper.

On September 26, Barbara and Robert Hamlin, ages 74 and 75, respectively, woke to find their Northern Lite 8-11 camper filled with the smell of propane. The explosion occurred after Barbara ignited the stove.

State police responded to a 911 call reporting the explosion. Troopers found a totaled Northern Lite 8-11 camper sitting in the bed of Chevy Silverado 2500 pickup truck. Spafford Fire responded immediately to find Barbara in the camper buried under a load of debris.

Propane Companies add a harmless chemical called mercaptan to give propane gas a distinctive, “rotten egg” smell to allow easy detection in the event of a leak. This odor was detected by the Hamlins before the explosion, but was ignored. Robert Hamlin, who was standing outside the camper when the explosion occurred, was knocked to the ground, suffering visible burns to his face. His wife suffered a fracture in her left ankle, but was conscious when responders found her.

The couple is fortunate to be alive. Their Northern Lite camper, however, didn’t fare as well with the rear of the fiberglass, clam-shell camper blown wide open by the force of the blast. The Chevy Silverado appears unscathed.

The gas explosion caused significant damage to the surrounding area, including to the outside of the couple’s home where they had parked their truck and camper.

Interior view of the Hamlin’s Northern Lite camper. Note the missing windows and roof hatches caused by the force of the blast. (photo courtesy of New York State Police).

Robert Hamlin thinks that the propane tanks and stove were left on overnight, which would have flooded the camper with the propane gas.

This incident underscores the importance of propane safety. NEVER ignite an appliance or use an open flame with the smell of propane in the air. Doing so can result is a catastrophic explosion as this incident clearly illustrates. It’s also important to point out that incidents like these usually involve exploding gas rather than exploding propane tanks. In this particular incident, the Northern Lite camper’s propane tanks are totally intact.

Why wasn’t this camper totally destroyed by fire after the explosion? That’s a great question. Situations vary, but in this case no additional sources of fuel, such has rags, clothing, or flammables, were ignited after the initial blast. However, the combustion of large amounts of gas in the air is destructive enough to cause severe damage to an RV through expansion when the gas is ignited. Well-built, air tight campers, like those made by Northern Lite, can make the damage even worse.

Of course, an important part of propane safety, whether at home or in an RV, is to have a working gas and CO alarm. Did the Hamlins have a working gas and CO alarm in their camper? Did the alarm sound-off before the explosion? Was it disabled? No doubt, the Hamlin’s insurance company will want to know the answers to these important questions.

Propane must be used with caution and respect. If propane safety isn’t followed at all times, it can explode, resulting in either death or severe burns. A leak can also cause asphyxiation and death. If you suspect a propane leak anywhere in your RV’s propane system, close the valve to your propane tank, vacate the RV, and have a qualified technician perform a propane leak test.

Incidents like these have prompted some recreational vehicle owners to use alternative sources for cooking and heating. Popular options include diesel heaters as well as electric cooking using an induction cooktop powered by lithium batteries and an inverter. Lithium batteries have also made it possible to switch from propane-fired, absorption refrigerators to more efficient DC compressor refrigerators.

Closeup of the carnage outside the camper. (photo courtesy of New York State Police).
About Mello Mike 895 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a certified RVIA Level 1 RV Technician, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. A communications expert and licensed ham radio operator (KK7TCA), he retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years, holds a BS degree, and now runs Truck Camper Adventure full-time. He also does some RV consulting, repairs, and inspections on the side. He currently rolls in a 4WD Ram 3500 outfitted with a SherpTek truck bed with a Bundutec Roadrunner mounted on top.

9 Comments

  1. This is a lesson to us all.
    The Northern Lite 8-11 is one of two models on my shortlist.
    I’d like to see some articles on retrofitting alternative cooking and heating to truck campers. 🙂

  2. I’m surprised you make no mention of the main way to avoid any propane dangers: to not have something as inadequate as propane in your camper. In our day and age, that 99% of campers are still outfitted with propane is a testament to the dinosaur state of the RV industry.
    I have a diesel heater, water heater, cooking range, and electric for all the rest.
    A full tank of diesel (6.5 gallons) lasts me 2 months, cooking every meal, and 1 month in winter.

    • Actually, Peter, the last paragraph mentions the alternatives: diesel for heating and electric for cooking. We are big proponents of both.

  3. Our Dometic stove has thermocouple controlled gas safety valves which would have turned off the gas supply after the burners cooled down. I have a friend that was killed from gas asphyxiation in a camper van. Its not just explosion risk to consider.

  4. As new truck camper owners, when I smelled propane earlier this year, no one else smelled it along with my wife and 3 men at an RV dealership. It was setting the propane alarm off which we thought might be out of date or defective. Turns out it wasn’t the propane detector. We finally had a mobile service company check and they found a quick connector leaking inside the camper due to the connector being split. Capped it off and corrected the issue.
    We were very lucky this didn’t happen to us.

    • I’m former RV plant engineer (Safari Motor Coaches).

      Quick connectors are NOT legal to use inside ‘unvented spaces’ (such as ‘inside’ your camper) nor are rubber connection hoses (soft copper is the only flexible means allowed).

      The propane tank compartment is officially a ‘ventilated space’ where they can be used but for similar reasons, it has to be separated and sealed from the interior.

      Rubber hoses can only be used in exterior vented spaces, separated from the interior such as the propane or generator compartment.

  5. Propane is fairly dangerous and installations must be done carefully and planned well to be safe. Honestly, the sealed nature of the fiberglass construction probably retained more gas then a conventional camper would have. I used to work insurance claims on yachts, and propane explosions were always one of the highest damage claims we used to see. Another company I worked for used to make remote gas shut off valves for yachts, with a switch near the stove so the gas was only live when you used it, but that’s not that practical if you use gas for heating and the fridge (not common at all in the marine world) as the shut off solenoid drew about 0.5 amps constantly when on.

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