Is a warm electrical outlet cause for concern?

16

Dear Mike,
I have a GFI (Ground Fault Interrupter) question about our RV. I have noticed that the GFI outlet in the bathroom was warm when we had an electric heater plugged in to another outlet. The second outlet had a GFI sticker attached to it but was not a GFI outlet. When I tripped the GFI test button on the first outlet the heater also shut off. So obviously this one GFI is protecting more than one outlet, but should it get warm? Thanks. —Tom Toomey

Dear Tom,
Thanks for your question. Anytime you feel an outlet or wiring getting warm, that’s time for concern.

Overheated outlets

I don’t think that the outlet being a GFI has anything to do with it heating up. What you describe suggests that you might be drawing too much continuous current via your space heater. How many watts is it? If it’s rated for 1,500 watts, then that’s 12.5 amperes of near-continuous current which will probably cause the wires and outlet to heat up a bit even though it doesn’t trip the circuit breaker.

While the outlet is rated for 15 amperes, running a space heater drawing 12.5 amps for hours at a time (especially if there’s any oxidation on the contacts) can eventually cause the outlet to overheat and eventually discolor. Any sign of discoloration on an outlet is an indication that it could fail and cause a fire, so it should be immediately replaced. Home outlets are not really designed for continuous power at nearly full amperage.

Overheated extension cord

Secondly, it is also possible that the screws or stab connectors on the back of the GFI outlet have loosened up from vibration due to road travel or become corroded from moisture infiltration. So it’s a good idea to disconnect your RV from shore power, as well as any generator or inverter power, then pull out the GFI outlet from the wall box and check all the connections for tightness. If you’re not qualified to work on home wiring, I suggest you get this important maintenance performed by a licensed electrician or technician.

BTW: I think that ALL RV circuit breaker and power outlet screws should be checked for tightness every few years. However, you generally don’t have to do this for your sticks-and-bricks house since it’s not bouncing down the road at 60 mph.

Let’s play safe out there. —Mike Sokol, The No~Shock~Zone

Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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16 Comments
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H Goff
5 months ago

typical RV receptacle use a compression fitting that can be checked for looseness, but can’t be tightened the way residential receptacles can. i’m not sure how you can add a typical residential box and receptacle to an RV since the RV receptacle has special ears that don’t rely on a stud for support

DAVE TELENKO
5 months ago

Hey Mike I dont even understand your statement “Home outlets are not really designed for continuous power at nearly full amperage.” So are you saying that the electrical code is not correct when it says 15 amp outlet is not designed that much current?
Thanks
Snoopy

Drew
5 months ago
Reply to  DAVE TELENKO

Dave,

A 15a rated outlet and it’s wiring are indeed able to handle that load. If you recall, Mike explains that loads approaching that max rating that exist for extended periods of time can and do melt metal prongs and plastic parts due to heat. I hope you don’t mind me answering on behalf of Mike.

Jayne Kelly
5 months ago

Almost every single outlet in our Motorhome gets warm, sometimes very warm with just my phone or iPad plugged in. After reading this I am now even more afraid of a fire. Should all of them be checked or do I have a bigger problem?

Robert C
5 months ago
Reply to  Jayne Kelly

Yes. You should check, or have checked, all wire connections for tightness and corrosion, if any. As Mike said, vibrations will cause loosening. Have them checked by someone qualified, if you’re not comfortable.

Ray Leissner
5 months ago

Great question-Great answer. I hate to dissemble something so flimsy without it first reflecting a possible issue. Therefore I have 2 followup questions. When conducting the warm-to-the-touch socket survey in the RV, should you draw electricity thru the socket prior to testing or will a socket with loose connections begin to reflect warmth with power running to it but no current flow thru it? Secondly, is your answer the same for both CFI and normal sockets?

Drew
5 months ago
Reply to  Ray Leissner

Ray, no need to “draw” electricity prior to testing. Yes, when an electrical outlet is warm there is current running through it. And, yes- both GFCI and standard outlets will get warm if continually loaded as mentioned in Mike’s answer.

Tom Gutzke
5 months ago
Reply to  Ray Leissner

Power for the second outlet[non-GFI] MUST go through the GFI outlet. An set-up such as this typically will have the power from the circuit breaker go to the GFI. Additional hot and ground wires will then go to the second outlet so that if there is a ground fault the first outlet will trip. This will, in essence, provide you with TWO outlets that have GFI even though there is only one GFI outlet. If you had a 10-amp draw on the GFI outlet and then another 10-amp draw on the second outlet you would have 20-amps going through the first [GFI] outlet and it will trip. That’s the way electricity works. While I’m not an electrician I am a retired firefighter and have had training on detecting cause/origin of fires. This training included information on electricity – more than the average person would have. Hope this helps.

michael
5 months ago

stab connectors I’ve found in my RVs are terrible. They rely on a small area of contact that is basically held in place by the wire insulation or plastic. Any time I need to touch an outlet, I replace it with a real outlet. How can this type of outlet meet any safety code?

Cee
5 months ago
Reply to  michael

so what is a “real” outlet? Seems the hardware store will think I’m an idiot if I go in there and ask for a real outlet, so what should I ask for should I decide to have all of them changed out?

Tom
5 months ago

Great tip! Something to do while social distancing.

C Bonelli
5 months ago

Awesome discussion Mike! This is an item that should be included in your own RV periodic maintenance checklist.

“I think that ALL RV circuit breaker and power outlet screws should be checked for tightness every few years.”