No Shock Zone: Part XI. Extension cords
Copyright Mike Sokol 2010 – All Rights Reserved
If you've read the survey we did July 2010 in RVtravel.com, you know that 21% of RVers who answered the survey have been shocked by their RV. Review the 21% report at www.noshockzone.org/15. What follows is the eleventh segment of a 12-part series about basic electricity for RV users and how to protect yourself and your family from shocks and possible electrocution.
This series of articles is provided as a helpful educational assist in your RV travels, and is not intended to have you circumvent an electrician. The author and the HOW-TO Sound Workshops will not be held liable or responsible for any injury resulting from reader error or misuse of the information contained in these articles. If you feel you have a dangerous electrical condition in your RV or at a campground, make sure to contact a qualified, licensed electrician.
The Lowly Extension Cord
Few objects in an RV get less respect than the lowly extension cord. They're kicked around, stepped on, run over, and dragged through the mud. And most of the time they don't even get wrapped up neatly. No, they're often thrown unceremoniously into a tangled heap, then plugged in and expected to pass more current than they were ever rated for. If you don't know how much current your extension cord can safely pass without overheating and catching on fire, please re-read RV Electrical Safety: Part V – Amperage.
That being said, please check that your extension cords are heavy enough to supply the amperage needed by your RV before proceeding with any testing or repairs.
Here's what the ends of a typical 20-amp extension cord looks like. Notice there's a male plug on the left side of the picture, and a female plug on the right side. Most everyone should already know that the female plug is the power "output" while the male plug is the "input." That is, the bare metal pins of the male plug on the left should never be electrically energized while it's out in the open, but the female plug can be electrically "hot" at any time. Also note the orientation of the plugs. While holding them both facing you, the sideways "neutral" blades are reversed on the left and right side of the picture. That is, the male plug on has its neutral blade on the left, while the female plug has the neutral blade on the right. That's because they're expected to be rotated 90 degrees to mate when making a connection, in which case the neutral, hot, and ground blades will match up. This single idea is what gets lots of RVers in trouble when putting a new plug on an extension cord.
If you're not comfortable looking inside an extension cord plug, then please find someone with an electrical background before proceeding. And please make sure that both ends are unplugged from power before taking anything apart. Even 120 volts can be deadly, so be careful.
In previous NSZ articles you've read about different color wires and screws, so here's a close picture of what it looks like. Note that the extension cord wire itself has a white colored insulation which is stripped back to let the bare copper go under the white colored screw. That's the neutral connection we're always talking about.
And here's what the green ground wire looks like properly placed under the green screw. Note that in extension cords that wire will actually have a green insulation layer as shown, but installed Romex wiring within your home or RV electrical panels will have a completely bare copper wire that's the ground connection.
And here's the black "hot" wire under the brass colored screw. If you've read any of the previous NSZ articles you'll know how important it is to follow this color code. Anything different is not only illegal, but can cause a dangerous Hot-Skin condition on your RV.
If you don't remember how to use a Digital meter, please go back and reread RV Electrical Safety: Part II – Meters.
Note that this is the only time you'll set the meter to read "ohms" or "continuity". And you must be certain there is no AC voltage on the plugs before inserting the meter leads or you'll "blow" your meter". In this case I've set my Triplett pocket meter to "continuity test" which will "beep" when the meter leads are touched together. That indicates a complete circuit which is what we're looking for in this test.
Notice that when both plugs are facing you, the neutral and hot blades will be on the opposite sides of the plugs. For example, the female plug has the hot blade on the left side, while the male plug has the hot blade on the right side. Again, that's because when the plugs are rotated 90 degrees to plug into each other, the hot, neutral and ground blades need to line up. You should hear your meter "beep" when touching both hot blades at the same time as shown above, but for no other combination of connections.
The same idea holds for the neutral blades. Notice that for a 20-amp plug the neutral blade is turned sideways. If you see a plug with both neutral and hot in the same direction (parallel) then that plug is only rated for 15 amps of current. Again, your meter should "beep" when touching both neutral blades at the same time, but for no other combination.
Finally, check for continuity of the ground blade. It's always the little U-shaped slot or blade and typically has a green colored screw on the back, so the usage is pretty obvious. Green is always ground (in the USA, at least).
You'll want to double-check the wire colors of the connections in any repaired extension cord. That's because something as simple as reversing the black (hot) and green (ground) wires in an extension cord will certainly electrify the skin of your entire RV. There are electrical safety systems from Progressive Industries and others that will shut off the power coming into it if wired incorrectly. But be aware that unless they're hard-wired into your RV's electrical system, it would still be possible to defeat their safety function if you then used an improperly wired extension cord from their output into your RV.
Also, always be aware of any tiny "tingles" you may feel when stepping into your RV from the wet ground. There should be essentially zero volts from the earth to the frame of our RV at all times. Anything more than a volt or two means that something has been wired improperly, either at the campsite pedestal or perhaps inside your extension cord. So don't proceed if you feel a shock of any kind. Shut down the pedestal breaker and get the campsite electrician to determine what's wrong with the hookup that's causing a shock. The life you save might be your own.
There are a number of extension cord wrapping gadgets available, any of which is better than letting your wires become a tangled mess. I think they're a good investment. Also, remember to visually check for any kinks or slits in the outer insulation of your extension cord, and certainly any exposed copper wire is a big no-no. Also, if you notice that the brass colored blades on the plugs are discolored or the plastic is brown due to overheating, it's time to replace the cord, or at least replace the plugs. Once a female plug overheats, the tension of the internal contacts is lost, which causes more heating that leads to more lost spring tension, which eventually leads to a brown-out (low voltage condition) or even a fire. So take care of your extension cords, and they'll take care of you.
In the end, paying a little more money for a quality product is the best way to go. The orange molded extension cords you get from the big box stores are usually not heavy enough for rugged RV usage and they tend to get hot and catch on fire when pulling any sustained amperage (ask me how I know that). So heavier and shorter is better when it comes to selecting an extension cord to power your RV.
Part XII of this series will cover what to do if you find someone who's been shocked and knocked out. So come back next week for a basic lesson in compression only CPR. See you then.
After you've read this article at RVtravel.com, take a trip over to www.NoShockZone.org and send us your comments and suggestions. We love to know how we're doing with this important project.
Mike Sokol is the chief instructor for the HOW-TO Sound Workshops (www.howtosound.com) and the HOW-TO Church Sound Workshops. He is also an electrical and professional sound expert with 40 years in the industry. Visit www.NoShockZone.org for more electrical safety tips for both RVers and musicians. Contact him at email@example.com.