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.
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.