Thirty- and fifty-amp GFCIs in campgrounds – not a good idea

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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.

Thirty- and fifty-amp GFCIs in campgrounds – not a good ideaSo 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.

Keep up with Mike’s latest news and information about RV electricity by signing up for his monthly RV Electricity Newsletter

##RVT912

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George J Herberger

We stayed at a NJ County park that had GFCIs on their 30 amp & it drove me crazy trying to figure out what was wrong. I Ranger comes along and states, “yes , that happens to some rigs because of the GFCI, we’ll move you to another site”. I had a conversation online where someone said it should not happen at all but I believe it matters what sort of inverter you have. Comments?

Arnold Larsen

A few years back I was at a camp ground with GFCI on all 20/30/50 amp plugs. My camper has a 50 amp cord. It tripped the 50 amp and 30 amp GFCI’S. It did not trip the 20 amp GFCI. It was a brand new 5th wheel that we lived in full time for 7.5 years and never had a electrical problem again.

Gary Kim

Mike great article. I gathered leakage current in appliances are the culprit for GFCI’s popping by mistake. Also the purpose of the GFCI is to prevent ground fault electrical shock protecting people, not over current protection of wires. Perhaps the solution would be to have a NEC require GFCI protection of a branch circuit(s) that feed receptacles where a person is more likely to get shocked (e.g. hairdryer connected in a bathroom, blender in the kitchen etc., ) and not connected to receptacles that feed fixed appliances such as A/C’s, refrigerators, chargers etc. Definitely not on the whole 30A/50A shore power circuit. Thoughts?

Also just curious if leakage current be measured by a clamp meter around the ground wire only on the shore power cable or can leakage current bleed out of the RV in other areas in an RV that touch the ground (tires, leveling or tongue jacks etc.?

Don Hutchins

Yikes! I can fully relate, Mike. I brought my 40 DP Coach to my house last year while preparing to build an RV Barn to house it. As an interim measure I plugged it into a 20 amp outside fixture. I’ve found that there is so much parasitic leakage in the rig that the batteries will go totally flat in a couple weeks without the inverter/charger being powered up. Sure enough – within a few minutes the GFCI circuit breaker (my house is brand new and has ALL it’s circuits so protected, but of course the outside outlets would have been anyway) was tripped by leakage in the Coach. I shut down everything in the coach but the inverter/charger – and STILL got the breaker tripping at least once an hour. In desperation, I replaced the GFCI breaker on that circuit with a standard 20 amp breaker, which solved the problem. Yea – I know, now I’m in violation for having an outdoor outlet on a non GFI circuit. I recently finished the barn, which has it’s own 50 amp sub-panel and a dedicated 30-amp non-GFI outlet for the coach. So now, I’ll get a new GFCI breaker for my outside outlet circuit, and I’ll be legal again. AND Happy! Thanks SO much for all you do for us RV’ing folks…

John Martin

I believe the GFCI is meant more for marinas than RV parks. I have never heard of anyone dying from walking past a RV, however there are many cases where people have been electrocuted while swimming near a marina.

Thomas Becher

I believe it’s all about lobbyists for the circuit breaker company’s. I can see no good reason to implement gfci breakers on pedestals as you explained. I am not going to worry about it as here in Wisconsin they take 3 to 5 years in get around changing the code . We are probably working on the 2014 yet. Don’t know because I’m no longer working but that’s the way it was. Just like arc fault breakers. I was told by the head inspector in Madison, don’t use them, we won’t pass NEC for a couple more years yet. It’s all about money.

Pete Sakelarios

Mike, After reading “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.” Since they seem to value your opinion, what was their reaction to your contacting them and explaining the miss-quote and the dangers of their possible change in regulations?

Jeff

I would like to know WHAT Genius (being nice) thought this up! Do they RV or even understand RVing? And then according to Mike Sokol they do this stuff behind closed doors and the End USER (the RVer) has little or No input into the matter.

JJ

How about an article giving your take on the 2020 NEC ban on autotransformers (autoformers)? Nothing in the reasons I’ve read make any sense so what am I missing? Autotransformers cannot “steal” power in excess of the circuit breaker rating on the pedestal.JJ

David Ruggles

How many deaths or injuries have been caused with the present wiring system to justify the REAL need for 30/50 amp for GFCI? Or is this simply a “boogy man in the closet?”

WEB

Please correct me if I am wrong, but the “fix” mentioned by removing the ground connection would not prevent the GFCI from tripping. The GFCI is able to work on two as well as three wire systems, which is a good thing for the very reason that people DO remove the ground connection to use two wire extension cords.
A GFCI works by monitoring the power going out is the same as coming back in (Hot and neutral on 120V circuits).

Stay cool

Ron Seidl

Remember, the 30 and 50 amp services power a distribution center. And the distribution centers support GFCI on the individual circuits. Why not put the 30 or 50 amp GFCI on the receiving end in the RV?

Dr4Film

This conversion will NOT affect me for one nano second. First, I would never use an adapter without a ground pin as my Progressive Industries EMS HW-50C will NOT allow power to my coach when a proper ground in not detected. Second, if the new GFCI 50 amp circuit breaker were to trip while we were gone thereby shutting down our AC’s my Onan Wireless EC-30W would start the onboard generator seconds after a NO POWER situation is detected. Then the AC’s will come back on about one minute later. I always have a FULL tank of diesel before parking for any period of time so that both my generator and my Aqua-Hot will have fuel to keep running for days on end.

James Dresser

If this actually comes to pass it won’t take long for a new dogbone to appear dropping the ground just as the plugs to tie the neutral and ground together on the generators.

Steve flippo

I have a sneaky suspicion that many code requirements are implemented under pressure from industry who just want their new ideas and inventions to be required by code, thus ensuring massive profits. I see dubious code decisions frequently, not just in electrical code, but plumbing and mechanical as well. I think code boards should come under closer scrutiny by law enforcement to check for kickbacks, bribes, and other favors from industry.

John

Well after reading your article I think a possible “fix” would be getting an adapter to connect your RV to the pedestal and removing the ground pin from that adapter. Normally you would not use it. If there is a GFCI on the pedestal and it trips, then you would put the adapter in the path and use it for your stay there. You say someone would still be protected from shock in that scenario. Anywhere else, w/o a GFCI, you would use your shore power line with the ground pin.

mike henrich

That would be a costly upgrade for any campground, figuring 1 breaker is $50 or more. That would also lead to the nuisance problem of having 2 GFI’s tied together. What we see lots of times, if 1 GFI trips, they both will. Here in Pa, a lot of townships are still on the 2014 or before code. So it could be a while until this comes into view around here.

Jeff

So Mike:
If this is such a BAD Idea, and I agree with you, WHY ISN’T ANYONE Screaming to the top of their lungs to Stop this FOOLISH suggestion and find another route??

50 AMP RV’s from Travel Trailers on up draw allot of power, especially air conditioners. The idea of leaving your RV for a Day trip and leaving you pet or pets in the RV on a Very Hot Day happens all the time. Food in your refrigerator should be fine, providing you’re only gone for about 6 hours or less.

Someone, Like YOU Mike, needs to get on the phone with those people you know in the NEC group and stop this non-sense! If you haven’t already done so.

Maybe a GRASS ROOTS Campaign by RVers needs to be started to have this suggestion stopped!

Where can people write to??

Thanks Mike!

Tony Sauer

Mike, your editorial may explain why I’ve been having problems plugging our 30 amp cable into some GFCI outlets. It seems to trip them, especially the newer ones. I also came upon a 30 amp GFCI at a new pedestal at an Idaho State park that tripped as soon as I plugged in. We were only there for a night so I didn’t fret and used 12 volt. Weird though that when I plug into my home 20 amp GFCI, which is thirty years old, it doesn’t trip. We have a 2004 Winnebago Sunova with a Xantrex inverter/charger.