Preventing an RV electrical fire depends a lot on you. Following commonsense rules can go a long way; adding some easy inspection and correction items to your periodic maintenance list will help even more.
Just like in sticks-and-bricks homes, common safety precautions also apply to the RV lifestyle. Still, the design of RVs can sometimes lead folks to forget something as simple as, “Don’t overload the electrical outlets.” Residential homes have plenty of outlets; building codes require it. But RVs often have a very limited number of outlets, and sometimes RVers use “multitaps” to get more juice in the room. While it’s true that circuit breakers should theoretically prevent a problem, it doesn’t always work that way.
Extension cords are another issue—perhaps even more dangerous than overloading an outlet. Here’s the problem: While the circuit breaker may well protect an outlet from being overloaded, it may not protect the extension cord. Here’s how that can pan out: Your RV circuit breaker protecting a given outlet is rated for 20 amps. In that outlet you plug a “lightweight” extension cord—one that can safely carry less than 20 amps. Now say a space heater is plugged into the cord. Sure enough, the space heater draws less than 20 amps, but the cord can’t handle it. The cord overheats, the breaker happily continues to supply current, and your RV goes up in smoke.
It’s best never to use an extension cord in an RV. If you must, make sure you use a HEAVY extension cord, and make sure the load you put on it is well within its safe load capacity. DON’T run any electrical cord under a carpet or floor mat.
Speaking of cords, make inspecting cords a regular part of your maintenance routine. The other day we plugged in a laptop computer “power brick.” There was a sudden “pop!” and the breaker protecting that circuit tripped off. We checked the cord closely—sure enough, the plastic coating of the cord had become frayed, exposing the internal wires. They shorted together, causing the breaker to trip. We got off pretty easy on that one—only a burnt spot on our trailer carpeting. It could have been worse.
On the subject of circuit breakers: If a breaker trips out, you’ll need to figure out what caused the problem. Reset the breaker—and if it trips again, you either have an overload on the circuit, or perhaps a breaker that’s “getting tired.” Should you ever find the need to replace a breaker or a fuse, be it the shore power system or “low voltage” end, always replace the breaker or fuse with the SAME VALUE as originally installed. With fuses, there’s sometimes a temptation to make just a temporary replacement of a fuse rated with a higher value because you’re out of the correct value.
RV electrical fires don’t always happen in the shore power circuit. An improper wiring job in a 12-volt circuit can create enough heat to cause a fire. Hence, before you do any electrical work on your RV, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING. If you aren’t sure, get qualified help. This same disclaimer applies to the balance of this article as we move to regular inspections of your RV electrical system.
Check Loose Connections
Loose electrical connections produce heat, and heat in turn, fire. RVs, because of bouncing down the road, get plenty of vibrations that can lead to loose electrical connections. What’s to be done? Follow a regular schedule of tightening your electrical fittings.
Whenever you check for loose connections, always disconnect the RV from shore power, and disconnect battery connections. Take off your jewelry (especially rings and watches).
Start at your electrical distribution box. Sometimes that D-box contains both shore-power and low-voltage fittings, or you may have two (or even more) boxes to inspect. For shore-power fittings, be sure to check the tightness of where wires connected to circuit breakers. If there is a way of tightening, check to make sure it’s tight. The same holds true for low-voltage connections. The voltage may be low, but the current drawn can be high enough to create a problem if there is a loose connection.
If your shore-power outlets connect to their respective electrical wires with screws, pull them out and check them for tightness too. Where possible, chase down low-voltage wiring. “Wire nuts” used to join wires are famous for coming loose. Some RVers replace them altogether with crimp fittings; others leave the wire nuts in place, but wrap the nut with electrical tape, “tying” it to the wires to prevent it from shaking loose.
When plugging shore-power appliances into electrical outlets, make sure the fit between the appliance plug and the receptacle is tight. If the plug is loose, pull the plug out, and look it over closely. Many electrical plugs can be adjusted: The individual prong may be made in such a way that it can be spread open wider by the use of a bladed screwdriver prying it open. If the receptacle is loose to all plugs, replace the receptacle.
Take a close look at your RV shore-power plug. If the terminals are “off color,” or burnt, the plug is a good candidate for replacement. Here’s another commonsense area, too: Try hard not to use an extension cord to run your RV, but if you must, make sure it is rated high enough to handle the load.
By applying simple rules of safety and taking the time to correct loose connections, you can go a long way toward protecting you and your RV from dangerous electrical fires.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit icanrv.com for more information.