Have you ever felt a strange tingling feeling or slight shock when you touched the outside or frame of your RV? If so, you’ve experienced an RV electrical problem called “hot skin.” RV hot skin can be as insignificant as a slight shock or deadly in other instances. That’s why RV electrical safety is so important.
I’m an electrical engineer with residential and RV expertise, and here’s my advice on how to not get shocked in your RV.
Can You Get Electrocuted by an RV?
Yes, you actually can get electrocuted by an RV. Hot skin on an RV has electrocuted people before, but that’s not the only danger.
You can also get shocked by using the wrong extension cords and adapters or by not using safety devices like surge protectors and disconnect switches.
RV electrocution is not widely understood, but we hope to change that here.
What Is ‘Hot-Skin?’
“Hot skin” on an RV refers to when the exterior of an RV, the frame, and the chassis become electrified by a stray electrical current. Hot skin can vary from a low current that just gives you a bit of a tingling feeling to a high current that can knock you down or even kill you.
It can occur on any kind of RV, new or old. It typically happens when the RV is plugged into an improperly wired outlet or if the RV itself is wired wrong.
Is Getting Shocked by an RV Deadly?
It’s not often that hot skin produces enough current to kill someone, but it has happened in the past. This story about the death of a 3-year-old highlights the dangers of this very real RV electrical threat.
The child was exiting the camper and grabbed the camper door handle while standing on wet ground. The wet ground amplified the current.
This incredibly tragic accident made news stories, but it didn’t start much of a valuable discussion about preventing something like this from happening again. Since hot skin has the potential to be so dangerous, you must understand how to prevent it.
RV Electrical Safety Tips from an Electrical Engineer
Here, I’m sharing my best advice for preventing dangerous electrical situations while camping in an RV. Keep reading for RV electrical safety tips that will keep you and your family safe!
➡ Need a refresher on your RV electrical system? Read this: How Are RVs Wired? Helpful RV Electrical Basics for Beginners
120V AC RV Electrical Safety Tips
120V AC power is likely the type you’re most familiar with, even if you don’t know it by name. This is the power you draw from regular household outlets.
When you plug into shore power at a campground, you are sending a 120V AC current to the electrical outlets in your RV as well as to some of your RV appliances. This power carries more than enough to be deadly, so it’s critical to engage with it in the safest manner possible.
Invest in an Outlet Tester and Voltage Tester
Outlet and voltage testers detect the presence of electrical voltage. An outlet tester can help you determine if the power pedestal at a campground and the outlets inside your RV are working correctly. Always test the power pedestal for potential problems before hooking up your rig. If you find a problem, report it to the campground management immediately.
A voltage tester can detect electric current outside of an outlet. If you suspect hot skin, test the metal on your RV with a voltage tester before touching or entering your camper.
The test is simple, first set the meter to voltage mode. Then take one probe and touch it to a metal part of the RV, take the other probe and touch it to the ground. You should read nothing, if your reading anything above ambient (.1-.4V) then you may have hot skin.
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Turn Breaker Off at Pedestal Before Plugging In
Before you plug in your RV at the pedestal, always make sure every breaker on the pedestal is in the off position. This will eliminate the danger of being shocked while you’re plugging in.
Only turn the breaker on once your plug is securely in the power pedestal. If you experience issues plugging in your power cord or the pedestal outlet is too loose, ask to move to another spot.
Always Plug in Your RV With One Hand
Plug in your RV with one hand, and ensure that your other hand is not touching anything on the RV or pedestal. Make sure your free hand isn’t touching any metal at all.
The reason for doing this is to limit points of contact in case of shock. If you use both hands, the current will flow through your body and pass through your heart. This is how shocks become deadly. Minimize potential shock flow by using one hand, and keep the other in your pocket if possible.
Along the same lines only use one hand to turn on the breaker and look away from the pedestal while you do it. If something goes wrong there will likely be a bright flash that can burn your eyes.
Use a Surge Protector With Shutoff
A surge protector might seem expensive, but it’s an absolutely essential RV electrical safety accessory. Not only will a surge protector protect your RV electrical system from being fried by a faulty pedestal, but it can also save your life!
Get a surge protector with an automatic shutoff feature. These devices automatically disconnect your RV from the pedestal the instant they detect power system or wiring issues.
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Pro Tip: In addition to a surge protector, you should always travel with the 13 Most Important RV Safety Devices You Need For Your Camper.
Use Appropriately Rated RV Extension Cords
If you need to use an extension cord to hook up your camper, ensure that it is rated for RV use. This means the wire gauge is large enough to handle the current flowing through it. Using an RV extension cord will help prevent shock and fire.
Keep Dogbone Adapters and Electrical Plugs Dry
Whether you’re using a dogbone adapter or your RV’s standard power cord plug, you need to keep them dry. These connections can be dangerous if they sit in a puddle of water or make contact with the ground. Water amplifies electrical current and can damage your RV equipment.
Never Bond the Neutral Conductor to the Ground in the Coach
RV electrical systems should be wired with their ground and neutral buses unbonded from each other. This is an important safety measure, and it’s also an RV electrical code requirement by the NEC and RVIA.
If the RV Frame Shocks You, Disconnect From Power Immediately
This is an easy one. If you feel a shock or tingling in your fingertips from your RV frame or handle, disconnect from power immediately. That funny feeling is an electrical current flowing from your RV into your body and means there’s a wiring problem somewhere.
12V DC RV Electrical Safety Tips
Your RV batteries supply 12V DC power. Although it’s not as dangerous as 120V AC power, this voltage can pose other dangers like electrical fires. Let’s look at RV electrical safety from the perspective of battery power.
Use Appropriately Sized Fuses
Be sure that you have appropriately sized fuses for all of your 12V DC electronics and appliances. Fuses that are too small will blow constantly. However, fuses that are too large can allow a problem current to pass through undetected. Don’t put a bigger fuse in to “fix” a fuse that keeps blowing. This is a risk for an electrical fire.
Don’t Use Auto-Resetting DC Breakers
If you use auto-resetting DC breakers, a breaker can trip and reset itself repeatedly without you ever knowing there’s danger or a problem. If you opt for reusable breakers, choose ones that require a manual reset.
One time the RV next to us at a campground actually caught fire! We helped put it out and figure out what started it. Tom tracked it down to an autoreset breaker that kept resetting and heating up a wire that had been punctured by a screw. Eventually the wire caught fire.
This is also a good place to mention that you should never repeatedly reset a breaker without understanding the reason it keeps tripping in the first place. If a breaker trips more than once in a short timeframe, the safest thing to do is investigate why.
Don’t Overcharge Lead-Acid Batteries
Overcharging lead-acid batteries causes them to heat up rapidly. This is called thermal runaway. Thermal runaway can damage your batteries instantly. It can also pose other threats like releasing dangerous gases or starting an RV battery fire.
Always use multi stage chargers that automatically stop charging when they are full.
Use a BMS for Lithium-Ion Batteries
BMS stands for a battery management system, and they’re a must for lithium RV batteries. A BMS manages your lithium batteries to measure temperature, voltage, and more.
Battery management systems are critical to your lithium battery’s safe operation and performance. They prevent under and overcharging the battery to avoid battery fire and extend its lifespan. We recommend purchasing lithium batteries with reliable, built-in BMSs.
➡ Lithium-ion versus lead-acid is one of the biggest debates in the RV electrical world. Check out our extensive battery testing to find out the real winner: Batteries Tested! What Is The Best RV Battery For The Money?
Use a Battery Disconnect Switch
A battery disconnect switch is a switch to the main power line from your RV battery bank. In an emergency, you can flip the battery disconnect switch and remove all 12V DC power from every appliance in your RV.
This switch also comes in handy when you need to replace your batteries, work on your electrical system, or store your RV.
Always install these switches on the negative lead of your batteries. This is because if you disconnect the positive and still have the negative connected to ground, there is a risk to short the batteries at their positive terminals to ground, a very dangerous situation.
Be Careful Not to Short the Battery
Shorting a battery occurs when a wire or fixture from the battery’s positive terminal comes in contact with a wire or fixture from the negative terminal. This can create a huge spark, cause a fire, or even melt metal.
One time I accidentally shorted a battery to the ground of a car with a wrench. The wrench arced and welded itself in place until it got redhot and melted. The battery began to boil inside and released hydrogen gas. Luckily it did not explode but we have seen it happen
Always be mindful when working around your battery terminals.
Alternative Power Sources: Generator and Solar Panel Tips
In addition to 120V power and your RV 12V DC system, there are a few other ways that your camper receives electricity. This section talks specifically about RV electrical safety as it relates to solar panels and generators.
Use Neutral Ground Bond Plug for Inverter Generators
A neutral ground bond plug works by grounding the generator to the frame of the generator itself. This eliminates stray voltage that can cause RV hot skin.
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Use a Disconnect Switch for Solar Panels
Solar panels receive energy from the sun that flows into a charge controller before flowing into your batteries. In an emergency, you need a way to instantly shut off the flow of power from the solar panels.
The best way to do this is to use a disconnect switch on the positive wire of your solar panels. Like a battery disconnect switch, this switch allows you to instantly turn off the electricity flow.
Fuse Solar Panels
You should fuse solar panels on the positive wire to prevent an overcurrent from flowing into your charge controller or batteries. Also, be sure every panel has an appropriately sized fuse. Fusing panels also prevent a short in a panel from allowing current to flow backward and burn the panel.
Use MC4 Connectors for Solar Panels
MC4 connectors are single-contact weatherproof electrical connectors for solar panels that require a tool to disconnect them. This ensures that your solar panel connections don’t come undone and cause a fire or hot skin on your RV.
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Don’t Ignore RV Electrical Safety
RV electrical safety is a critical consideration when it comes to RVing and the RV lifestyle. Yes, RVing should be fun and relaxing. But it’s not very fun when your RV shocks or electrocutes you.
Consider these safety tips to keep yourself and your RV’s sensitive electrical systems protected from stray currents.
Have you ever encountered RV hot skin or other electrical hazards while camping? Let us know in the comments.
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