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by Haldane King

Recreational vehicles can be one of the best ways to get out and about the American Highway system. They come in different sizes and classes, and most allow for sitting at a table to visit with other travelers during a long roadtrip. 

But just like all other enclosed spaces, RVs have their own unique air quality needs and the best RV air purifier will be able to handle chemicals, mold, or allergy triggers. There are many ways these contaminants can be produced both inside and outside your RV. Let’s take a look at some of the pollution problems and some of the different ways they can be handled. 

A couple working in an RV

Air Quality Inside RVs

There are a few different ways that air quality inside an RV can become polluted, though almost all of them may happen in stationary homes, as well. There are natural hazards such as pollen and mold in addition to artificial ones like off-gas from newly manufactured materials or added scents. Let’s take a look at each one and how an air purifier might be able to help.

RV pollutants to watch out for

There are two pollutants that no air purifier can remove and can lead to fatal consequences, not a runny nose. Never rely on an air purifier to deal with carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide.

  • Carbon dioxide or CO2 is quite familiar to most if not all of us as the gas we exhale. It can build up in enclosed spaces very quickly to levels that cause drowsiness, which is a very dangerous and potentially deadly combination with long hours behind the wheel. CO2 is insidious because you usually won’t notice that you have become sleepy. To keep CO2 under control, keep a window cracked and the vent open as much as possible considering the weather. For added protection, hang a CO2 detector (about $50) where the driver can see it and avoid driving if you aren’t feeling well-rested. 

This is the symbol for an open vent:

Line diagram of the symbol for an open vent

Not this one:

Line diagram of the symbol for a closed vent
  • Carbon monoxide or CO presents a completely different and deadly problem even though it’s one atom different from CO2. CO is a product of burning gas, wood, or other fuel. It is odorless, colorless, and will make you sleepy before it kills you. All enclosed spaces where fuel is burned for any reason must have a carbon monoxide alarm. Not a detector to just monitor the concentration level, but an alarm that will wake you from sleep. The loudest CO alarms are best because if you are suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, you may not be able to wake but hopefully someone nearby could hear it and save your life.
RV in parking lot at night

Off-gas from building materials

The wooden or plastic composite materials that compose your RV may release unhealthy volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particularly when new. 

There aren’t any green building standards for RVs that have been recognized by the whole industry like there is for more stationary forms of housing. If you are buying a new RV and want to avoid exposure to carcinogens like formaldehyde off-gassing from the walls and floor, there is a burgeoning green RV certification program called TRA. Its air quality standards require little or no carpet (carpet adhesives are often sources of VOCs), low-VOC materials and finishes, and adequate ventilation with ductwork off the floor. 

These low-VOC materials are defined as being CARB II compliant, which means they have passed standardized testing agreed upon by the construction industry and don’t emit problematic levels of VOCs. Finding out if a wooden product is CARB II compliant requires a bit of effort. The California Air Resources Board maintains a page with a list of compliant wood mills, so it would be necessary to contact the manufacturer and find out where they source their wood. 

Also, remember that there is a finite amount of VOCs that off-gas so only new materials are worrisome. After a few months their emission will drop off considerably, and after years should be totally gone. This process happens faster in warm climates and slower in cold areas. Re-using old wood is a great way to avoid this issue, as is using most metal, glass, concrete, or stone, though these materials are heavy and can decrease gas mileage. Airstream trailers, while not RVs, are made almost entirely of metal.

The best air purifier for off-gas in RVs

These gaseous chemicals aren’t individual particles and need a chemical solution to remove them instead of being sifted from the air. Activated charcoal, also known as granular activated carbon (GAC), can chemically bind to VOCs and remove them from the air. Formaldehyde and toluene are both dangerous pollutants that result from off-gassing and their removal can depend on changing temperature and humidity. However, destruction-based technologies like Molekule’s PECO can permanently neutralize formaldehyde and toluene that it captures.

The best air purifier for scents and other VOCs in RVs

Air fresheners, essential oil diffusers, scented cleaning products, or anything else that leaves a palpable artificial smell in the air can have a negative impact on air quality in enclosed spaces. So-called secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) are particles that form from the combination of VOCs and trace amounts of ozone. Even very low amounts of ozone well below the EPA recommended limits can cause these particles to form. SOAs can be harmful because they start out as individual molecules and are usually small enough to penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream. What’s worse is that they are likely to bear free radicals or other reactive substances on their surfaces. 

The safest way to avoid SOA is to not use artificial scents and to rely on warm soap and water to clean your RV. For persistent issues, vinegar or baking soda can eliminate odors without a huge impact on air quality. If the lack of your favorite scent detracts from your vacation, just try to keep the windows down so VOCs and SOAs don’t accumulate. 

Like off-gas, scents are chemicals in the air that must be removed using a chemical solution. Unlike formaldehyde, scents tend to be larger molecules that are more easily captured, and carbon is the best solution to reduce these types of VOCs. On the flip side, scent molecules' large size makes them more likely to form SOA. While carbon can capture this chemical as well, PECO destroys both VOCs and ozone to offer protection from more than one angle.

Camping trailer that looks old and dirty

Allergy and asthma triggers like pollen or mold

Avoid tracking in pollen and eliminate other allergy triggers. There aren’t many experiences worse than getting to your destination then finding that sleeping in your RV leads to a morning with a stuffed up nose or a tight chest. Most of the time this is due to a new allergy trigger in your environment. There are a few key steps to take to avoid this fate.

  • Get an outside rug and take clothes off before getting into the RV. It certainly depends on the amenities available and the weather, but try to leave any pollen that has stuck to you outside your sleeping space. Get a decent piece of rug to lay by the entrance and wipe your shoes off, or better yet, leave them outside. The same goes for coats, jackets, and other articles of clothing that will have picked up some pollen.
  • Minimize dust and dirt. Dust mites are one of the most common allergy triggers, but without much dust there won’t be very many of them. They like to live in fabrics and textiles, so removing carpet and replacing any porous upholstery with leather or vinyl can take away their habitats. There are also dust mite-proof mattress covers so they can’t get into your bed with you. 

Take moisture and mold control seriously. Exposure to large amounts of mold can lead to serious consequences like mold sensitivity, which could mean that any building you enter in the future that has at least some mold somewhere could trigger allergies or asthma. An acquired mold allergy, like any other allergy, can leave you fatigued and generally less fun on vacation. If there is any kind of water leak from outside or inside, take immediate action to stop it. Otherwise mold may grow in the weeks between use. If you smell or see mold, check out our post on how to find mold and get rid of it

RV-specific steps to dealing with mold might include sealing the roof, inspecting plumbing, or adding year-round ventilation. Ideally the interior should be no more than 50% relative humidity during storage. Wireless relative humidity meters that can send the number to your phone from a hundred feet away (depending on obstacles) are around $20 which is worth the price. RVs are close quarters, so mold growth is likely to affect many different things. If there is mold behind the sink in the kitchenette, it could lead to the whole thing from countertop to cabinets needing removal and replacement. A relative humidity meter could save you thousands or even save the whole RV.

The best air purifier for allergy and asthma triggers in RVs

A good particle filter like a HEPA is going to be the best solution to keep pollen and mold fragments out of the air. Do remember that particle capture is a numbers game – taping a furnace filter to a fan will help to remove at least some allergy and asthma triggers and is better than no purifier.


Header photo by KoolShooters, photo by of people working in an RV by Thirdman on Pexels, photo of RV in a parking lot by Hanson Lu on Unsplash, photo of old trailer by Markus Spiske on Unsplash  

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