Sierra Nevada Airstreams -> TT Owner's Guide -> Living - Enjoyment of the whispering winds, the zephyrs, the airstreams of the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin areas of the United States.

Using a catalytic heater to keep warm

A typical catalytic heater installation

One of the first things cold weather campers find out is that the furnace in their RV will run the battery flat in short order. That usually starts the search for how to keep warm and not run the battery down. The catalytic heater is the usual choice to do this. Catalytic heaters are space heaters that provide a hot radiant surface to warm up whatever is in front of them. They do not have a fan (that uses battery juice) to blow hot air around the inside of the rig.

Rules for catalytic heater use

  1. make sure it is installed properly so that it doesn't leak fuels, will run properly, and all safeguards are functioning,

  2. keep anything combustible away from the heater

  3. make sure the heater is not going to be knocked over accidentally

  4. Always provide ventilation by cracking a window or vent when the heater is in use.

  5. Never use a catalytic heater when sleeping or when unattended.

  6. Be aware of the symptoms of low oxygen and carbon monoxide poising and take action if you or someone else in the heated area even thinks they might or appears they might have them. Action is getting outdoors immediately and venting thoroughly.

You do have to vent "any" type of carbon based fuel heating appliance including a catalytic heater.

You can never get rid of by-products of combustion of carbon based fuels without venting. PERIOD!

Granted, there is less combustion by-products with a catalytic heater but they do have to be vented.

Not to vent any carbon based fuel system will cause death under the correct conditions and using them in a RV is just about the most correct conditions you can have for death to occur.

A e-mail, letter or call too the AGA, The American Gas Assc. will prove this to you.

The second consideration is there a fire hazard if not installed correct or not operated with proper clearance to combustible items, like curtains, rugs, pets, coats, paper, shoes, etc, is not maintained.

That could be a piece of paper being blown off the table from the "open" vent and landing on the catalytic heater face while your sleeping.

Are they as safe as your forced air furnace? Absolutely not! Why? Your furnace has a "vented" "enclosed" combustion chamber.

A solar PV, about $320 cost, would be a better solution to keep your battery charged while using your RV furnace.

I spent the past 35yrs designing and installing HVAC systems, and the past 50yrs plus camping.
I sure would hate to see someone get hurt trying to save a few bucks.
- T_Bone, RV.NET

About catalytic space heating

Nearly all means to warm up the inside of an RV depend upon converting propane and air into heat and water and obnoxious and dangerous gases.

RV Furnaces have a combustion chamber that is vented to the outside so the fuel burning byproducts are kept outside the RV. A heat exchanger and fan help distribute the heat inside the RV.

The stove and oven should not be used for heating inside an RV except for cooking as they use a combustion process where all of the exhaust byproducts are inside. Crack the kitchen window when using the stove or oven to provide adequate ventilation!

A catalytic space heater also puts its byproducts inside and depends upon inside air to combine with its fuel. Modern heaters usually have sensors to shut themselves off if they detect too high a level of poisonous gases or too low a level of oxygen around them. They also will have sensors to shut them down if temperatures around them get too hot or if they fall over. These safety precautions are a needed backup for careless use or accident.

I work for a company [that makes] Fuel Cells. Our fuel cells are supplied with natural gas or propane, and they produce electricity. No I am not trying to sell anything, but the chemical conversion process is identical to that catalytic Coleman propane heater, or one made by any other company. I will not quote any owners manual, but I would like to share the chemical reaction that occurs when propane is oxidized.
The chemical composition of propane is C3H8, 3 carbon atoms and 8 hydrogen atoms. Complete combustion of propane is as follows:
C3H8 + 5O2 --> 3CO2 + 4H2O (the equation is balanced)
As you can see carbon dioxide and water are produced. This the same chemical equation doubled for clarity later.
2C3H8 + 10O2 --> 6CO2 + 8H2O

Complete combustion occurs when there is always an abundant supply of oxygen (or air). Incomplete combustion occurs when the supply of oxygen is less than what is required to complete the reaction. So we adjust the chemical reaction by lowering the number in front of O2, but the chemical equation still needs to be balanced so it would go like this:
2C3H8 + 9O2 --> 4CO2 + 8H2O + 2CO
Here we have less oxygen available to perform the reaction so we get incomplete combustion. And look, we get the formation of CO. And in either case we also get the formation of water (in the form of vapor).

I will not make any recommendations about ensuring that there is an adequate supply of fresh air. Everyone should be smart enough to do that on their own (especially when the owners manual makes the same statement).

If this helps everyone understand why an adequate supply of fresh air is essential, and it can save someones life, think that was worth 3 cents.
- drdouger on (with permission)

How much heat?

For space heating, the key factors are how big a volume needs to be heated, how well is this volume contained, and how much of a temperature difference is desired between inside and outside. Catalytic heaters typically produce less than a third the heat of a furnace. This means that they are designed for heating a smaller area and not for distributing heat throughout the RV. But consider that a catalytic heater has a 100% duty cycle and the furnace duty cycle is less than 50% except for extremely cold weather.


Owner's Guide: condensation, keeping warm, winterizing,

Senseless Killer - – what you really need to know about carbon monoxide and combustion safety

RVAA – caveats and cautions and horror stories

RV Solar Electric - – a nice 'How To' guide – see – for power management ideas

Garth W. Cane seasonal topic - – good overview

Hydronic - – how to homebrew an alternate heating system from home power magazine.

a personal story -

Surviving the winter - – as printed in Escapee's

Electric or propane? - an analysis of costs and other factors

Wintering in Alaska - – a blog

Home for Olympian- manufactures catalytic heaters - -

North Star Flameless - -

Camping World product description - -

DukTec - stove, heater, and furnace catalog.

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