Issue 881 • April 11, 2018
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RVing Tip of the Day
Since we’ll soon be in lightning season, it’s time to prepare for storm safety. Here’s a typical question about RVs and lightning I receive every year.
“I know an automobile or truck is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm with lightning because you are basically in a metal box. How about our fiberglass RVs? Are we protected in any way from lightning or should we head for our vehicle?” —Walt L. (Boulder, CO)
Ah, yes. The “Why don’t you get electrocuted when lightning hits your car?” question. As many of you may already know, you are safe from lightning when inside a car with a metal roof, but soft-top convertibles are certainly NOT safe in a lightning storm. That’s because as Walt hinted, in a car, you are essentially inside a big metal box, and this box forms something called a Faraday Cage. This cool gadget was invented by Michael Faraday back in 1836, when he coated the inside walls of a room with metal foil and discovered that voltages would flow around the outside of the room but never reach inside of it. See this website for more technical stuff about Faraday Cages.
It also hints that the rubber tires on a vehicle do nothing to insulate you from a lightning strike. If the lightning has already traveled thousands of feet from the cloud towards the earth, another 6 inches of tire insulation won’t slow it down a bit. It’s the metal surrounding you that forms a magnetic field that helps bend the electricity around the exterior of the box. And even though you have windows in a car, there’s typically enough metal in the windshield and door columns to make a nice low-impedance electrical path around you. However, don’t stick your hand out the window in an electrical storm as you could be killed that way.
So let’s think about a typical RV. An all-metal shell like an Airstream is probably as safe as you can get in a lightning storm since they’re shaped like a big aluminum Twinkie, and that same airplane shape allows airliners to be hit by lightning without any interior damage. I’ve actually been on a flight that was hit by lightning, and even though everything lit up very bright, the pilot said it was no big deal and indeed everything was fine. And an aluminum skin toy-hauler or race-car trailer would be just as safe in a lightning storm.
However, fiberglass-skin RVs are a different story altogether. If they’re manufactured with a welded aluminum cage using fiberglass insulated panels, I’m pretty sure the Faraday Cage effect would still work. But if your RV is fiberglass over stick (wood) construction, then I would say you’re not safe in a lightning storm, and you would want to wait it out in the tow vehicle.
Pop-up campers with tent fabric offer zero Faraday Cage protection, so I would never spend time inside one during a bad lightning storm. Plus, if they’re parked under a tree there’s always the possibility of a big limb falling on your head with dire consequences. So pick your campsite carefully to avoid overhanging branches.
In any case, you’ll want to disconnect your RV shore power plug from the campsite pedestal during a big storm, since a lightning ground strike on the other end of the campground could easily get directed into the underground wiring feeding all the campsites, and you could have a several-thousand-volt spike (surge) come in through your electrical panel and burn out everything inside your RV. But your onboard generator should be safe to run since it’s also inside of your Faraday Cage. However, hooking your shore power plug into a portable generator sitting outside on the ground would be a very bad idea in a lightning storm.
I’ve also heard some people recommend lifting the leveling jacks or putting them on insulated platforms for lightning protection, but I’m pretty sure that would have little or no effect on any lightning ground surface charges getting into your RV. If you have a metal-caged RV with either aluminum or fiberglass skin, I would say to leave the jacks down, disconnect your shore power from the campsite pedestal, and turn on your battery-powered fan and interior lights for a little ventilation and illumination. Then break out the deck of cards and whatever social fluids you like and wait for everything to blow over. If your RV has a wood frame and fiberglass skin or is a tent fabric popup, I would head to the campground rec center or your car and enjoy the show while the lightning zips around you. And take your digital camera to try for some time-exposure pictures of lightning strikes. I love watching lightning storms … but only from the inside of a protected place.
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Prevent containers from moving around in the fridge
If you find items in your refrigerator “meander” around while traveling, put empty pots or dishes inside to take up the open space and prevent sliding.
With electricity expert, Mike Sokol
Don’t put your meter test leads in a live circuit and THEN spin the dial to find the correct setting. Doing so will likely cycle through the amperage or resistance settings, which will burn out your meter or pop its internal fuse. Instead, determine what you’ll be measuring first, select the appropriate setting on the meter, and only THEN put your meter leads in the circuit. And make sure you set the meter for AC when testing AC voltage, and DC when testing DC voltage. The wrong settings can either give you a very incorrect reading, or measure zero when there is in fact voltage in a circuit. So, learn how to use your meter BEFORE you need to use it. Try it on a 9-volt battery first, then work your way up to a 120-volt home outlet.
Removing RV window screens
Can’t figure out how to remove RV window screens for cleaning? Most simply need to be lifted up about a 1/2 inch at the bottom to compress spring-loaded gizmos at the top.
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Be careful around these poisonous plants found in some campgrounds
RVtravel.com editor Chuck Woodbury warns you about a poisonous plant found in the American West, including some campgrounds in dry climates or deserts. The plants can be deadly under certain circumstances.
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MORE QUICK TIPS
When installing trailer equalizer bars, hitch the trailer to the ball then crank up the tongue jack an inch or two to raise the tow vehicle. Now hook up the equalizer bars. When disconnecting, leave the trailer hitched and crank the tongue jack to lift the tow vehicle a bit. Now disconnect the equalizer bars. Lift the weight off the tow ball, unlock the coupler and disconnect.
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I’m confused, Oleander is a plant (shrub) that grows freely in the south. I’m from New Orleans and as a kid we played hide and seek, hiding inside this bush. Oleander has to be ingested to have any poisonous effect. Your warning is fair, but it reminds me of warning all bike riders to wear knee, elbow, and wrist pads /braces. Helmets, googles, and bands to gather the cuffs of your pants, along with special shoes to lock into the pedals. I might add that all of my friends who played in the Oleander trees, rode bikes with no safety gear are still in our 70’s with no adverse effects. Oh I do have a facial tick that kicks in every now and then…..LOL .
Oleander also produces poisonous smoke when burned.
Mike, thats a great article about lightning strikes & the invention of the Faraday cage. I was wondering where the jolt goes, wouldn’t it have to be grounded to make it effective, I was thinking when I lived back east some of the farm buildings had lightning arrestors on then & they seemed to be grounded.
Wow, that could be an entire article. Lightning rods and Faraday cages work on two entirely different principles, so it will take several thousand words and half a dozen graphics to explain. I’ll put it in the hopper but it will probably take a while to make it to the top of the pile. So please stand by.
Potential customers of Jayco should know that they are now producing a Jay Feather fiberglass shell trailer with a wooden frame. Previous Jay Feather fiberglass trailers all had aluminum frames. That fiberglass/wood combination will not protect you from lightning.
As you noted there will be zero Faraday cage effect from a fiberglass over wood frame, so you definitely want to get to a safe place if there’s any chance of lightning. It’s still best to get to a large permanent building on the campgrounds, but your car or truck will be the next best thing.
Chuck, you didn’t mention that you should keep your dogs away from oleanders.
We also belong to Passport America. Our social network is RVillage.
I am a lifetime member of GS before dodohead took over! I belong to RVW and Thousand Trails
Several reciprocal camping clubs: ROD, AOR, ACN, Coast to Coast
Member of GS and also SMART. Special Military Active Recreational Travelers. Open to all veterans of all services. Check it out at Smartrving.org.
Mike – You suggest that you think an aluminum skinned steel frame would serve as an adequate Faraday Cage. ShowHaulers skin is stuck to the frame with 3M tape, so I don’t think there is continuity between the frame and skin, or between adjacent panels of skin. Therefore, I don’t think the skin will contribute to the Cage effect. Your thoughts? Or ideas of how to build a model and test it??
Phil, that’s a really good question. I’ve mulled this over before, but it’s complicated to answer because of the lack of empirical data from a well designed experiment. And that experiment would probably require actual lightning-bolt voltages from a Tesla coil. But I’ll have to think about this some more since it’s such an interesting topic.
Mike – I’m getting a new ShowHauler later this year, so the question is a little more than academic. I am retired structural engineer and steel fabricator, so I have time and access to a steel shop. Care to work together to conduct some experiments attempting to address those questions? Contact me direct via email. If you don’t get my email even though I fill it in in the form below, leave me another message here.
Phil, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m curious about what you have in mind.
Concerning your two tips: Containers moving around and Keeping bottles in place.
We have found that using clear plastic bins in the fridge and overhead cabinets will not only keep everything in place but will also help in organizing. Need something in the fridge, just pull out the bin and there it is….no hunting moving things around, things falling out when you open the door…etc. Same thing goes for the cabinets. We use our little label writer and label each bin what is stored in it. The same principle applies to basement storage. Put all like items in clear plastic bins that you can purchase at Walmart or any other department type store. Maybe I’m a little OCD, but plastic bins really keep everything in place and organized.
Yet again great information on a wide set of pertinent items, and not just for rvers. Infinite? May be so.
Mike, you state: “…you’ll want to disconnect your RV shore “. Is this still necessary when using a surge suppressor? I would expect the surge suppressor to be burned out if it took at lightning jolt (mine has a lifetime warranty) but would it protect the RV? I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be going out of the RV when it’s lightning to pull the plug.
I’ve actually witnessed a basic surge suppressor that sacrificed itself to protect my basement freezer when a lightning strike hit in the field about 100 yards from my house. So I do know they help keep the voltage spikes out of your RV. But if there’s a direct lightning strike on the campground’s electrical system I’m afraid that’s probably above even the most robust surge protector to keep the voltage spike out of your RV. So let’s think about it this way. If you’re already inside of your RV and it’s raining and begins to storm, as long as you have a surge protector in place, don’t go out in the storm to pull the plug. But if you KNOW a big storm is coming from a weather alert, then it’s best to pull the shore power plug. Make sure you disconnect any cable TV connections while you’re at it.
Thanks Mike. I have satellite tv with a portable dish . I didn’t think of disconnecting the coax which I sometimes have 100 feet running over the ground. Good point.
We belong to Monaco America, Georgia Funseekers, Passport America, RVillage, Good Sam, FMCA, and Discovery Group.
Member of Passport America, BCAA, Explorers RV Club, Snowbird Club of Canada
I checked what was available, and we are also Lifetime Members of Passport America.
We’re members of Harvest Hosts, RVillage, CC1, Passport America and Explorer. This is in addition to GS, FMCA and the Fleetwood owners group that I checked of above.
I broke out laughing at Mike’s new term “social fluids”. Of course, we will now HAVE to use that term all the time.
Anything I can do to get the party started.
And does that mean you’ll provide the “social fluids” if I show up at your campsite for a visit?
If campgrounds in the West intentionally use oleander to separate campsites it would seem to be in violation of the law if a child or anyone else was poisoned by touching the leaves. Since it has a beautiful flower that would be all the more temptation for a small child to touch it. Very irresponsible campground owners.
there isn’t any thing on the plant that will hurt you you have to ingest it to get sick. other wise how can anyone prune them. I have had them here in my yard for 30 years andn ever had a problem even my chickens don’t eat them. even the state uses them on the freeway. enjoy them and not to worry.
They also grow in the south, as a kid my friends and I played hide and go seek actually hiding in one of the many Oleander bushes growing in our yards. I had no idea they were poisonous. Glad we didn’t eat anything. Good idea to keep pets away from them, and keep in mind that they are poisonous.
Chuck, your survey today is going to be misleading. We are members of CCI, Good Sam, Passport America, and RVillage . I believe many others are going to tell you the same thing. Have an Awesome day. By the way great article on lightening today