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.

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.

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

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Henry Cameron
25 days ago

Can u tell me what all I need to upgrade from 30 amp to 50,i have 30 amp wfco converter with 12v distribution panel

Steven D'Antonio
5 months ago

A worthy discussion to be sure, and I’m glad you are warning folks against the home hack of severing the ground. I work in the marine industry and we’ve faced similar issues, 5mA is fine for a single outlet, but collective faults for an entire boat often exceed this very quickly, as you noted. Thankfully cooler heads have prevailed and we are moving toward RCD’s or residual current devices on docks, and ELCI’s, or Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter, on boats, both of which trip at 30 mA, thereby reducing the collective fault tripping issue. The problem is, technically, the NEC considers the 30 mA threshold too high for people protection, in spite f the fact that it has been used for just that in Europe for decades. I’ve personally been saved by an ELCI trip, and I lived to tell about it.

Now, boats are different than RVs in that they float in a semi-conductive medium, and one of our concerns is leakage into the water, which can lead to not only electrocution but electric shock drowning as well. On boats braking off the ground pin would only work (well, it should never ‘work’, as it’s very dangerous as you note) for a fault that is returning to the source via the green grounding wire, however, there is another path for boats, the water in which they float.

RCDs and ELCIs have been a god-send in this respect, rendering many faults safe before they could effect a swimmer. We still have implementation issues that are causing frequent tripping, some of which are genuine faults and some nuisance collective faults, but there’s no way to tell the difference without knowing how to test for them. Still, the marine industry is slowly moving in the right direction with 30 mA pedestal protection, and then higher trip threshold devices further up the power supply line.

Given the choice, it seems as if an RCD approach would make sense for RV power supplies, but it would technically be equipment protection, at least according to the NEC.

For more on the marine approach, the ELCI and RCD, you can read this article https://stevedmarineconsulting.com/electric-shock-drowning-and-elcis-explained/

George J Herberger
9 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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.?

Gary Kim
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Nice trick!

So that ground wire measurement would be an accurate of total leakage current and there shouldn’t be any other (or negligible) leaks to ground from physical contacts with the ground by the RV?

Don Hutchins
11 months ago

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…

Denny
9 months ago
Reply to  Don Hutchins

Does the barn have a dirt floor?

John Martin
11 months ago

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.

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
11 months ago
Reply to  John Martin

Hi, John. Here is a link to an updated article we posted a couple of years ago regarding a 3-year-old boy who died from touching an RV: https://www.rvtravel.com/child-dies-from-touching-the-family-rv Very tragic, but we believe that relating this information has helped to save other lives. —Diane at RVtravel.com

Thomas Becher
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Since this issue of RV Travel was posted this morning, I have been researching like crazy trying to get some answers and who are these people on the NEC Board?

Apparently, the time for Public Comments has past and unless Mike Sokol has some very overwhelming influence, these recommendations will probably be added to the NEC 2020 Code. Which hopefully will take a LONG time to implement at RV Parks around the US. Of course if a NEW RV Park is being built, they will of course have to implement this Ridiculous GFCI Requirement.

I have to wonder also how a GFCI Breaker will effect the EMS Smart Surge Protectors?

So, hopefully Mike will have some solid influence on this GENIUS recommendation and get it stopped from being implemented!

Jeff
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Thanks Mike:
As if RVers don’t have enough to worry about with RV Parks that are RUN Down and due to cost, are rarely fixed.

We don’t need anymore requirements piled on top the ones we already have to comply with.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say, Please keep us updated on this situation.
I know you are very busy.
Thanks for all the stuff you do.

Jeff
11 months ago

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.

Jeff
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Mike:
I definitely understand the HUGE Complexity of Electricity and Codes. And the enormous amount of technical knowledge and education required.

You tend to explain things to us RV Travelers in easy to understand language.

I hope these Code Recommendations are NOT approved and we can move on from this subject.

JJ
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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
11 months ago

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.

John
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Hey Mike, in the article you say that breaking off the ground pin would be a fix (seemingly for the problem of excessive GFCI Tripping). But in the Q&A’s you seem to say breaking off the ground pin would not deter spurious GFCI Trips. Could you please update the article and explain this more clearly?

John
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Hi Mike, unless I missed it you never clarified this. As I mentioned, in the body of the story you said musicians took off the ground pin to stop circuits from tripping on GF. But in your response to “WEB” you said that wouldn’t stop it from tripping the GFCI outlets.

Karin S.
11 months ago
Reply to  John

This sounds like a good work around should all this happen. If we find ourselves in such a situation, we would plug the modified adaptor into the pedestal, then our shore power cord into that. THEN…. carrying your non contact voltage tester in your pocket would be a VERY good idea.

Am I assuming correctly, that if there is a voltage issue, then our on-board surge protectors would kick in?

mike henrich
11 months ago

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
11 months ago
Reply to  mike henrich

You are correct Mike:
And I think (not sure) that a Campground that is in Compliance with the older Code is GOOD to go. It would only be required to update or upgrade their pedestals when they replace them!

Mike Sokol needs to chime in on this too!

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

“… but I have a lot of other things to do as well.” Mike’s understatement of the year. Thanks for all that you do, Mike! Now if you could just get a grant to cover your expenses for all that you do for the industry and for the public, especially RVers. Just sayin’. 😀 —Diane at RVtravel.com

Jeff
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Mike:
Didn’t you say that these NEC Codes were suggestions only and NOT Law or required updates to existing installations?

I understand that New Installations must comply with current code. So, if RV Park owners don’t upgrade their pedestals and meet the previous code, they cannot be forced to upgrade to the new code, Correct?

This is one of those things that needs to be addressed quickly and try to stop this from happening.

mike henrich
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

And sometimes those local inspectors make up their own rules, based on “their interpretation of the code.” This will be interesting to see the outcome.