How long could someone ACTUALLY survive in a sealed escape room?

I’ve lost track of the number of escape rooms I’ve played that follow the following premise:

You have 60 minutes to escape before you run out of air!

Whether that’s escaping from a submarine… Or locked inside a safe room without any windows… Or a crew on a space ship with the oxygen rapidly depleting…

It’s a familiar premise and escape room enthusiasts know the drill by now. But let’s rewind for a second and ask the big question:

How long could you survive in a sealed room?

Let’s consider a couple of variables:

How many people are trapped inside the room?

Rarely, if at all, are you escaping from a room alone. Who you choose to bring with you into this death-trap escape room is entirely up to you… But let’s assume you do have to bring at least one other person. Is it your 5 year old kid? Your elderly grandma? Different people consume oxygen at different rates.

But let’s say you want to absolutely maximise your chances of escape, so you invite all your friends to play. You have 9 friends. There are 10 people trapped in this room.

How big is the escape room?

I’ve never measured an escape room, but let’s assume all 10 players want to be comfortable. Our hypothetical escape room is:

3m x 4m x 2.5m

Our escape room has a volume of 30 meters cubed. But don’t forget! An average person has a volume of 0.1 meters cubed, so we want to minus 1 meter cubed. We’ve only got 29 meters cubed left once everyone has crowded in.

Photo (c) Kdwk Leung

How much oxygen is there in the room?

Depending on where you are in the world, air can be made up of different gases and therefore have different quantities of oxygen. The global average percentage of oxygen is around 21%.

We’ve got 29,000 litres of air in our escape room, 6,090 of which is oxygen.

In an average 24 hours, a relaxed person consumes around 550 litres of oxygen a day.

Show me the numbers!

B. Geerts has a formula you can use for this: (total oxygen consumption rate) = (volume of oxygen consumed) / (total time lapsed)

Or to get more technical…

nC = {Vr – nVp}{Li – Lf}/t

Where:

t = time lapsed from initial time to time of loss of consciousness (s)

Vr = volume of enclosure (m3)

Vp = volume of a person (about 0.1 m3)

Li = initial oxygen concentration (21% or 0.21)

Lf = final oxygen concentration (12% or 0.12)

n = number of people in enclosure

C = per capita rate of oxygen consumption (3.33 10-6 m3 s-1)

Less numbers please!

The TLDR is that things look great for our 10 escape room players. They have over 24 hours until they run out of oxygen. However, people pass out at around 10% of oxygen, so in reality they have 21 hours and 47 min to solve the room. Phew.

Except there’s one thing we haven’t thought about…

The Carbon Dioxide Problem

In reality, the carbon dioxide levels will kill our ten players before low oxygen levels will. With each breath our escape room players breathe in 0.04% carbon dioxide and exhale 4% carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is poisonous. I’ll repeat this for those in the back: It’s poisonous!!

When the air in the room reaches 4% carbon dioxide, our players are in big trouble.

With ten players in the room, the carbon dioxide levels will reach 4% at around 2.5 hours.

Oh no.

The Most Important Rule: Don’t Panic!

One more problem. one tiny, itty bitty problem. These calculations are based on a group of 10 people relaxed and standing perfectly still. Why is this a problem? People in escape rooms don’t stand still.

You have to rush around, solve puzzles, talk to each other, and yeah… I’d probably panic too if I only had 2 and a half hours to escape before I suffocated.

The longer our players spend in the room, the more oxygen will deplete from the space and the harder it will become to solve puzzles.

Photo (c) Marten Newhall

After a couple of minutes, the players will feel a headache.

After about an hour players will feel nauseous, clammy, and weak at the knees.

At two hours, players will feel a wave of exhaustion.

At two and a half hours, players will start to pass out.

The Answer

10 players would last 2.5 hours in a small, airtight escape room.

I’m no mathematician so my calculations may not be airtight (no pun intended!), but the verdict is clear: Players will die of carbon dioxide poisoning long before they’ll run out of oxygen.

The moral of the story: Bring a smaller group, maybe some plants to balance the carbon dioxide, and by god try and escape quickly and calmly.

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