Here’s a comment/question from last week’s article “What’s All This Electrical ‘Ground’ Stuff About?“
I have a major concern. We host at a popular state park that has allowed some conditions to develop at several sites that allows water to stand after a rain that covers the pad and extends to around the power pedestal for a depth of several inches. The result is a camper is an island with their power cord in the water and going up to the electric plugs. This can last for 6-10 hours after a rain of only an inch or so. Park staff knows about this as the condition has existed for several years. My thought is that this is totally not safe. Park staff responds that it will drain and dry up. How best to address this? —Michael F.
I’m sure you’ve heard that famous adage “Electricity and water don’t mix.” And they’re completely right! Situations that might be safe on dry land can become extremely hazardous when you add water. Your particular situation is a prime example of two dangerous but different scenarios. Let’s take a look at the two major ways that this can turn deadly in an instant.
Scenario #1: Extension cord laying in the water created electrified puddle
If you have a shore power cord that’s rated for immersion in water (yes, they do make them for the marine industry), and if there are no cuts or cracks in the insulation, and there are no power plugs actually in the water, and there’s been no attempted repair such as electrical tape on an insulation break, then MAYBE it might be safe (as long as scenario #2 below doesn’t occur). That’s because the jacket insulation would prevent the electrical conductors from touching the water in the puddle.
However, if ANY of the above conditions exist, then your power cord in the water would effectively electrify the puddle for perhaps dozens of feet in all directions. So someone stepping in that electrified puddle and touching anything else grounded (the RV door handle in the next campsite, perhaps?) could receive a serious shock that might be deadly. And under the right conditions you wouldn’t even need to touch anything else. Just the voltage gradient in the water can be enough to cause you to lose control of your muscles and possibly die.
For example, last year in Washington, D.C., a mother and her son were electrocuted in their basement when the sump pump developed a broken wire and it electrified the water. When they walked down the steps to see why the pump wasn’t working, they were killed from the electric current going through the water without even touching the pump. There was no GFCI powering the outlet as required by code, which would have saved their lives.
Scenario #2: Hot-Skin RV in the water creates shock hazard
Now let’s assume that your shore power cord and all connections are perfect – no breaks in the insulation and no submerged plugs. But what if there’s a loss of the ground wire somewhere in the power distribution system? Maybe the pedestal has lost its ground through corrosion or a break in the wire. Or perhaps the chassis-bond has failed inside of your RV’s circuit breaker panel. If that occurs, there’s nothing to direct any fault currents in your RV’s electrical system to a safe path. So now your entire RV can be electrified to 120 volts with a hot skin condition.
If that occurred and someone walked up to your RV door on dry dirt, they might only feel a tingle and be warned about the hazard. But standing in a puddle of water while touching your RV’s electrified steps or door handle would be dangerous and possibly deadly. This happened to a teenager in Muncie, Indiana, a few years ago. The power outlet in the shed feeding the RV in the back yard developed a broken ground, and the teen walked barefoot across the wet grass in the middle of the night. When he put one foot on the metal steps with his other foot still in the wet grass, he was killed.
What To Do About This?
If you’re actually a host at this campground, then you could potentially assume some of the liability if someone were shocked or killed. And this goes all the way up to the campground owners (the state), as well as the managers in between. So I would tell the campground managers in no uncertain terms that what they’re doing is dangerous and could cause a death.
I would also suggest you report the situation to your local electrical inspector. Even though the campground has gotten away with it for years without anyone getting injured, it only takes the right set of circumstances to cause an electrocution … and nobody wants that to happen.
Let’s play safe out there….
Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 40 years in the industry. Visit NoShockZone.org for more electrical safety tips. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.