RV electrical systems can and do go offline. This means no power in the RV at all, and sometimes, figuring out how to get it back online can be a bit daunting. I am an electrical engineer and RV tech, but you don’t have to be to get things back online.
Today, we’re exploring the intricacies of your RV’s electrical system. We’ll discuss the seven common causes of electrical problems and provide detailed troubleshooting steps. Let’s jump in!
Understanding Your RV’s Electrical System
Before we dive into the common causes of electrical problems and their troubleshooting, we recommend you understand RV’s electrical system basics. While an electrical setup can vary depending on its size, type, and age, some key components and concepts are universal.
Alternating Current (AC) power is what you get when you plug into shore power or use a generator. It allows you to use all your 120-volt outlets. AC power often runs larger appliances like your air conditioner, microwave, and refrigerator. People call it an “alternating current” because it switches direction rapidly as it travels. AC power is most common in houses and businesses, as it can change voltage easily for long-distance transmission better than DC power.
Direct Current (DC) Power comes from solar panels and your RV’s batteries. We tend to use it for our lights, water pumps, and certain 12-volt appliances. This type of power is a “direct current” because it only flows in one direction. It’s often a much more efficient source of power, but it can only travel short distances at its lower voltage in an RC. Nevertheless, you can store DC power in batteries but not AC power. This is why we have to convert our power source back and forth, depending on why we need to use it.
The DC power system is usually on constantly, while the AC power system may shut off when unplugged or going down the road. This is normal, but sometimes you can still have problems with power when you think it should be on.
Just like in a house, there are also circuit breakers and fuses. These protect your electrical system from overloading or short-circuiting. When a circuit overloads or a short circuit occurs, the breaker trips, or the fuse blows to prevent damage. These are crucial to know about when troubleshooting electrical issues in an RV.
7 Common Causes of Electrical Problems and How to Troubleshoot Them
Having some basic electrical knowledge can make all the difference in your rig. We have found that whenever we are having electrical issues, the following seven things are the most common causes. Let’s take a closer look at how you can solve them and get powered back up quickly.
#1 Issues with Shore Power
About: Issues with shore power can range from a loose connection to problems with the campsite’s electrical hookup. Shore power is the primary source of electricity for most RVs. Therefore, it’s crucial to address these issues promptly. Moreover, a faulty electrical hook-up at a campsite can be dangerous and potentially damage your RV’s electrical system. Because of this, we recommend using a circuit testing surge protector and auto-shutoff device. Our recommendation is the Hugues Watchdog EPO units.
Troubleshooting: If you notice that your outlets aren’t working even when you plug into shore power, check the power source. Use a circuit tester to ensure the campsite’s power source works correctly and supplies electricity to your RV. If it is, inspect the RV’s power cord. Look for any visible damage, loose connections, or burnt areas on the power cord and replace it if necessary.
If the shore power and electrical cord are in good working order, test your RV’s electrical system. Use a multimeter to check if power is reaching your RV’s main electrical panel. If not, the issue might be with the cord or connections. It might also be wise to examine your RV’s breaker panel. Inspect the circuit breakers. If any breakers tripped, reset them. If they trip again immediately, you may have an internal electrical issue.
#2 Dead Or Disconnected Batteries
About: Wihtout battery power, usually nothing works in an RV. If your RV is completely dead in the water, most likley the DC batteries are disconnected or completely dead. If you’re someone who loves to boondock, dead batteries are probably your worst nightmare. Dead or depleted batteries can leave you with no DC power in your RV, making it impossible to operate lights, water pumps, and other DC-powered devices.
Troubleshooting: Use a voltmeter to check the voltage of your house batteries. A healthy battery should read around 12.6 volts. If the voltage is significantly lower, charge the batteries using a suitable charger or your RV’s converter. Inspect your batteries’ connections and ensure the terminals are clean, tight, and corrosion-free. It is possible for connections to come loose and prevent power flow.
Also check to make sure the batteries are not disconnected. Yes there should always be a switch or button that completely disconnects batteries from the RV. The purpose of this switch is to prevent the batteries from dying if the RV is not being used. If there is no power, ensure the battery switch is in the on position.
If your batteries are old or faulty and can’t hold a charge, it’s probably time to replace them. We recommend using lithium-ion batteries, for their many advantages, preferably from a company with a solid warranty.
Pro Tip: Ready to power up? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to RV Batteries.
#3 Tripped Circuit Breakers or Blown Fuses
About: Tripped circuit breakers or blown fuses are common culprits of partial or complete electrical failures in your RV. Just like in a house, your RV’s breaker box is the meeting place for all the electricity in your RV. AC and DC power flow through this box and it distributes them to your appliances, electronics, and outlets. If one or more outlets or appliances aren’t working, it could be a sign that a breaker has blown.
Troubleshooting: First, locate the breaker panel or fuse box in your RV. If a breaker has tripped, try switching it off and on. If it immediately trips again, the circuit you’re using is most likely overloaded. Overloading happens when you try to draw more electricity than that circuit can handle. Try disconnecting any high-powered electronics on that circuit and reset it until you’ve solved the problem.
For blown fuses, replace them with fuses of the same amperage. Always resolve the issue before putting in a new fuse, or else you’ll end up blowing the new fuse. We’ve found it’s helpful to always carry spare fuses of various sizes.
#4 Transfer Switch Problems
About: The transfer switch is responsible for switching between shore power and generator power automatically. If it malfunctions, you may lose power or experience electrical issues when switching power sources. This can happen even if you don’t have a generator in your RV, as long as your RV has generator prep. If you are sure shore power is being supplied to the RV but its not making it to the breaker panel, a transfer switch might be the problem. I have seen it many times.
Troubleshooting: Start by finding the transfer switch location. We’ve found that it’s often near the main electrical panel, under the bed, or in an exterior cabinet near the power entrance. Inspect the area for loose wires or connections and ensure they’re secure and free from damage. If you suspect a problem with the switch, try a “reset” by removing all power sources. Wait a bit, and then try testing the transfer switch again.
If it’s still not working, you will have to diagnose further or replace the switch. At this point you will need to open up the switch case and check its function with live power. Do not do this unless you are comfortable with AC power circuits, this can be dangerous. Use a multimeter to test if the switch is working. Power should transfer seamlessly between shore power and the generator. If you are not comfortable doing this have an electrician or tech test if for you.
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#5 Inverter Problems
About: An inverter is responsible for converting the DC power from your batteries into AC power for your appliances. Inverters can be relatively small, connecting to your DC power and providing a few 120-volt outlets. They can also be very large and built into your RV’s off-grid electrical system, automatically powering your RV’s 120-volt outlets when you’re off-grid. Not all RV’s have inverters, but if you do, it’s possible that it could not be functioning. Many inverters will not even pass power through them if there is a problem or if shore power is available.
Troubleshooting: First, ensure the inverter is on and functioning correctly. Inspect the wiring and connections to the inverter. Look for loose or damaged wires.
Next, make sure your batteries are not dead or low. Inverters require charged batteries to function and even if you have shore power, they might not come on or pass power with low battery levels.
If all is well, try resetting the inverter. Some inverters have reset buttons you can press to reboot the system. By resetting the inverter, you can return it to its default settings and potentially solve the problem.
If this doesn’t work, try testing the inverter’s output. Use a multimeter to measure the AC output voltage of the inverter. It should match the standard voltage (usually 120V) when it’s operating correctly. If your inverter appears to be faulty, you may want to consult an RV technician for repairs or replacement. We recommend this, especially if you have a large, built-in inverter.
#6 Damaged Wires
About: Damaged or frayed wires can interrupt the flow of electricity in any part of your RV. This causes issues with running appliances and electronics. Also, damaged wires can be hazardous, and you should address them immediately.
Troubleshooting: First, disconnect your RV from any power sources. This protects you and your RV from potential shocks and electrical fires. Then, carefully inspect the wiring throughout your RV. Look for signs of damage, fraying, or exposed wires in the cord.
If you find damaged wiring, determine the extent of the damage and whether you can repair it or need to replace it. If you have electrical expertise, you can repair damaged wires by splicing and using proper connectors. However, for extensive damage, it’s best to replace the wire.
We highly recommend hiring a professional if you’re not confident working with wires. The situation can get dangerous quickly regarding electrical issues. It’s better to have peace of mind knowing an expert did the job correctly. Lastly, protect the new wires from chafing or damage by securing them away from sharp edges or high-traffic areas.
#7 Surge Protector
About: Surge protectors are crucial for safeguarding your RV’s electrical system from power spikes and surges that can damage appliances and equipment. If your surge protector fails, however, it can leave your RV vulnerable. Some surge protectors will go offline if there is a problem with them or the electrical system.
Troubleshooting: Start by checking the surge protector indicator. Most surge protectors have LED indicators that show their status. The surge protector may have failed if the indicator is off or displaying an error. Some RVs have built-in surge protectors, but if you use a portable unit you can try plugging your RV in without it temporarily to see if it is the problem. Even if this solves the problem, you need to make sure there are no problems with the shore power connection before knowing the surge protector has failed.
If the issue is the surge protector, the solution might be as simple as pressing its reset button. If that doesn’t work, you might want to consider replacing your surge protector.
Pro Tip: Looking to upgrade your gear? Make sure to Protect Your Camper With the Best RV Power Surge Protector.
Other Electrical Failure Points
While the above are the first places I would check for electrical problems causing loss of power in the RV there are many more places and weird things that can happen in RV power systems. Below is a list of things to check that I have seen cause problems.
- GFI breakers or wall outlets: A GFI may have tripped somewhere else, preventing power to your circuit
- Shorts from worn wiring or even screws or nails. I have seen this more than once
- Overloaded and burned plugs and receptacles, many 50 and 30-amp plugs get overheated and damaged
- Grounding problems, both on the DC side where the frame is used for power and AC side if there is a short or improper ground
- Multiplex Wiring system problems: these systems control equipment via relays and when something goes awry they might not provide power as needed. This could be a circuit board or connection issue. These problems can be complicated and might require contacting the multiplex manufacturer.
- Generator malfunction or tripped breaker: if you are trying to run on a generator, there might be a compatibility problem (grounded neutral, etc) or the generator’s breaker might be tripped.
- Solar system problems (if applicable). Solar power systems can be amazing, but if they are not connected properly or programmed wrong, they can mess with an RVs entire power system.
Become an Expert on Your Own RV
It’s best to understand your RV’s electrical system and prepare to tackle common problems. That way, you can enjoy your RV adventures without the frustration of unexpected power failures. With the right care and knowledge, you can keep the lights on and the appliances running smoothly. You’ll have the confidence of knowing you can handle potential electrical mishaps.
While RV owners can usually troubleshoot these common electrical problems, it’s important to recognize your limits. If you’re uncomfortable with electrical work or unsure about any step in the troubleshooting process, it’s best to consult with a certified RV technician. Regular maintenance and inspections of your RV’s electrical system can also help prevent issues.
Has your power ever gone out in your RV? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
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