By Mike Sokol
I received a number of inquiries last week about possible changes to the 2020 National Electrical Code (NEC) and how it might affect campgrounds and RVs that plug into their shore power. Here’s a link to the ARVC article that got your attention.
Let me explain why I believe this could cause harm to you and other RVers.
For those of you who aren’t aware, the National Electrical Code has a 3-year update cycle, with hundreds of electricians, engineers, inspectors and manufacturers involved in improving the safety and performance of the electrical systems that power our lives. And electrical power systems are vastly safer now than when I first started playing with electricity back in the mid-1960s.
Not only are grounding and bonding required for nearly everything, there have been huge technology advances in the last 20 years that have reduced shock hazards greatly. The best example of this would be GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters) which work by detecting small leakage currents to ground (5 mA or less, which is 0.005 amperes of current). For a refresher on how GFCIs actually work, read my article about them.
So, GFCIs have been required by code on all bathroom, kitchen and outdoor 15- and 20-amp outlets for the last few decades, and in that position they work very well. That’s because they’re protecting a single branch circuit with perhaps a few appliances connected to the same GFCI. And because of the code implementation, I do believe that GFCIs have saved a lot of lives, since their main job is protect humans from leakage currents.
Note that a GFCI is not a circuit breaker (even though it can be incorporated INTO a circuit breaker if desired), so it’s not there to protect wiring from too much current. No, it’s there to protect you from a shock of 5 mA to 100 mA of fault current that can go through your heart, causing ventricular fibrillation and death within minutes.
So GFCI protection has been required on the 20-amp pedestal outlets for quite a while, which I believe is a good thing. However, someone on the 2020 revision code panel got the idea that if a GFCI outlet on a 20-amp branch circuit was a good idea, then requiring them on 30- and 50-amp pedestal outlets would be even better.
And to top it off, someone in that initial meeting was misquoting me, improperly saying that Mike Sokol from the No~Shock~Zone was advocating the use of GFCI breakers on campground pedestals for their 30- and 50-amp outlets.
I never said that, and here’s why. I have anecdotal evidence to back up my theory that total ground leakage currents in an RV shore power connection can easily total more than 5 mA. That’s because everything you plug into your RV leaks a little current to ground. That includes your microwave, stove, battery charger, inverters, air conditioner and control systems.
Most of these leakages are allowed by UL and the NEC, but each one could easily be 0.5 mA or so, with switching power supplies for your 12-volt converter having an exception to allow up to 3 mA of leakage (or thereabouts). Even long extension cords can create leakage currents through inductive coupling of their internal conductors. These leakage currents are additive, so you can see that just plugging in your normal electrical devices in an RV can easily add up to more than 5 mA of leakage current which is the threshold that will trip a GFCI. That means that GFCI protection on 20-amp circuits works quite well, but that’s probably not the case if they’re installed upstream on the 30- and 50-amp feeder circuits.
So here’s the big reason this is a bad idea. If the NEC code were to be fully implemented, I believe there would be lots of random GFCI tripping on the 30- and 50-amp breakers in campgrounds. The first time a camper comes back from a day trip and finds his air conditioner shut down and his or her pet suffering in the heat, or their refrigerator off with a bunch of spoiled food, they will figure out a way around the 30/50-amp GFCI tripping problem.
And they’ll do the same thing that musicians have been doing for decades … breaking off the ground pin of their shore power cord. Now, if they’re still plugged into a GFCI-protected 30- or 50-amp pedestal outlet they should be safe from electric shock. But the next time they plug into a 30- or 50-amp pedestal WITHOUT a GFCI, then they’re putting themselves at risk for electric shock and possible death by electrocution.
The rollback to the 2017 code requirements in the 2020 code is only a temporary fix since it still allows local electrical inspectors (the AHJ, or Authority Having Jurisdiction) in every state and county to decide if they want to force campgrounds to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading their pedestals to 30- and 50-amp GFCI breakers. And once again, forcing GFCI protection on 30- and 50-amp breakers won’t save lives, and may actually increase shock hazards since there will be a ton of YouTube videos showing everyone how to break off their shore power ground pins. (Don’t do it. That’s a very dangerous “fix.”)
What we can learn from this is that there needs to be better coordination and cooperation among campground organizations such as ARVC, RV manufacturer organizations such as the RVIA, RV technician training organizations such as the RVDA, and electrical inspection organizations such as the NEC.
Interestingly, many of those same organizations have been contacting me for an interpretation on what this could possibly mean and, as mentioned already, I’m being misquoted in NEC meetings. So if any or all of the above groups would like me to help figure this out, with perhaps a few demonstrations and explanations of why 30- and 50-amp GFCIs could introduce a lot of additional shock hazards, I’m at the ready. All they have to do is contact me to get the discussion going. Write to me at mike(at)rvtravel.com.
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