RVelectricity – Just Ask Mike (J.A.M.): Please get a meter kit. Here’s why

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This week I explain why it is essential for every RVer to get a meter kit. One reason is so that if you have a question, one of the really smart moderators or admins of my RVelectricity Facebook group can help you figure out the problem.

By Mike Sokol

Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM.


Dear Readers,

I’ve had more than a dozen inquiries in just the last week about various types of power failures in RVs. Some were due to the batteries dying from a failed converter. At least one (maybe two) of them was because the circuit breaker feeding the charger was tripping due to more current going to the batteries than the breaker was rated for.

Several of them had hot-skin conditions they discovered by being shocked. One hot-skin was from a broken ground pin in an old extension cord. And the other hot-skin shock was from an ungrounded outlet in the garage of a pre-1960s building.

The solution – Get a meter (kit)

Okay, I’ve written about this many times, but there are a lot of first-timer RVers reading this now, so at the risk of repeating myself: GET A METER! Or, better yet, get a meter kit.

Why is this important? Well, electricity isn’t something you can easily guess at. And if you expect me (or my really smart team of moderators and admins of my RVelectricity Facebook group) to help you figure out your problem, we need measurements.

The triple-header of meter kits

Several manufacturers now offer simple digital meter kits for around $30 or so, and I’ve found these products to be reasonably accurate and easy to use. These are great tools to pack with you on the road. Let’s break down the three different things that typically come in one of these kits.

Digital Multi-meter

This is the centerpiece of any meter kit, a basic digital meter that can measure AC or DC volts and resistance. Yes, they can also measure current if you’re very careful, but there are better (and safer) ways for the general public to measure the amperage than current wires and splicing meter leads into it. So let’s stick with AC and DC volts, as well as simple resistance, shall we. To read about how to use a digital meter to measure an outlet, please click HERE

Outlet Tester

This little gadget has two amber lights and one red light. By plugging this into a standard 15- or 20-amp outlet (or using a proper adapter), you can get a quick reading on outlet polarity, grounding and open conductors. I’ll be the first to admit there are lots of failures it won’t detect, but as a basic test it’s pretty darn good. Read what all those lights mean HERE.

Non-Contact Voltage Tester

This is my favorite piece of passive test gear. I say passive because you don’t have to disconnect anything before testing with a NCVT. In fact, you don’t have to even touch the item in question to see if its skin and chassis are energized. I just had a reader find a hot-skin voltage on his RV that made his NCVT light up and beep from 2 feet away. That certainly will get your attention. Read more about how to use one with this video.

Here are the kits I can recommend

I like this kit from Southwire which you can get from Lowe’s or Amazon for about $30.

And here’s a similar kit from Klein tool for about $40 on Amazon.

Either of these meter kits should serve you well, and will help us assist you with any RV electrical problem.

OK, everyone. Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.

Let’s play safe out there….

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.
Join Mike’s popular and informative Facebook group.
And you don’t want to miss Mike’s webcasts on his YouTube channel.

For information on how to support RVelectricity and No~Shock~Zone articles, seminars and videos, please click the I Like Mike Campaign

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Todd Macy
2 months ago

Mike. Is there an easy way to diagnose a weak breaker in a campground pedestal? Recently visiting a campground, when i plugged in and flipped the pedestal breaker on, it immediately tripped. I inspected my cord, my camper. Did not see anything. I turned all my breakers off and the pedestal breaker held. Started turning the camper breakers on one at a time and the pedestal breaker tripped again. Seemed to happen with the same camper breaker. Thought I had a short in that breaker circuit. I was thinking our trip was over and i was going to have to do a lengthy diagnosis of that circuit and did not have the proper tools to do it. Anyways, long story shortened, it ended up being the pedestal breaker. I am thinking a clamp on amp meter over my power cord would have told me my amperage draw and it would have been less than the breaker rating. Is this the case and is there any other way of diagnosing this problem? Thank you, Todd Macy

JBC Cripps
3 months ago

Love your series BUT could you post some information that actually shows how we actually use the meters on our rigs. I have a C class. Use it to test my batteries to assure charged and healthy. However, other than that the readings (ohms, etc.) and level (number) at which set the meter is incredibly confusing (no mental memory file for it). A list and visual would be great. Example: car battery = DVC (DC) setting, 20 and reading should be between 12-14. The list of most common checks for a rig, pedestal, other and the setting on the meter (I have a very basic model and a Southwire 10031S) would be immensely useful. I might add that my basic Harbour Freight model and Southwire are completely different (in what they can do but also in labeling – same but different) which also makes some of your instructions very confusing. A written outline that can be downloaded would be wonderful and a visual that corresponds to it. Thanks

Judith Pupek
3 months ago

Mike, I have a question. For the past few years we have taken an electric heater that looks like a little Ben Franklin fireplace on our fall/winter camping trips. This year, we are snowbirding in FL. where the weather has been exceptionally colder this year. The heater has always been plugged into a household extension cord without problem. This year, we luckily noticed that the cord becomes very hot. We’re afraid to use it! Have we damaged the heater by plugging it into a cheap extension cord? Should we replace the original cord on the heater to a more heavy duty cord and also start using a heavier duty extension cord. The outlets in our Winnebago Outlook are few and far between. The area we have the little fake fireplace in is between the seats on our cab. There is no receptacles available without using an extension cord!! Thank you for being there for us electric-limited people!

Roger V
3 months ago

Great ideas Mike. All critical items. I’ve also found a clamp meter to be very helpful depending on the situation. Thanks for being there. Have found your articles to be very valuable

Mike Sokol
3 months ago
Reply to  Roger V

That’s the 4th part of the road kit, a Tru-RMS clamp ammeter that can read AC and DC current.

David Foxley
3 months ago

Clicked thru to read how to use the Digital Multi-Meter, and learned how to use it. Thank you. Already have the Progressive Industries surge protector. Would you test the post before plugging in the protector?

Mike Sokol
3 months ago
Reply to  David Foxley

I would only use the NCVT to confirm that the pedestal box doesn’t have a hot-skin voltage. I’ve found a few of them…

Skip Nielsen
3 months ago

Used the multimeter just this week to identify an improperly grounded power box. Took the measurements, recorded them on a drawing which I showed to the manager and electrician who promptly corrected the problem.
Thank you for the training Mike!

Mike Sokol
3 months ago
Reply to  Skip Nielsen

Excellent… that’s how you get their attention. I also take a few pictures showing the meter face reading along with the test connection. That’s time and date stamped as well as includes GPS coordinates, so that’s powerful data.

DAVE TELENKO
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Sokol

Mike I like the way you think, as you think the same way I do! Those pictures we take on our phones contain a lot of very important information for now & future use!
Thanks
Snoopy

Mike Sokol
3 months ago
Reply to  DAVE TELENKO

Yes, if I can find a picture on my phone, I can easily determine the date, time and place it was taken.