RV Electrical Safety: Part X – GFCI Testing

Oct 25th, 2010 | By | Category: RV Safety

The No~Shock~Zone: Part X — GFCI Testing

Understanding and Preventing RV Electrical Damage

Copyright Mike Sokol 2010 – All Rights Reserved  

If you’ve read the survey we did July 2010 in www.RVtravel.com, you know that 21% of RV owners who responded have been shocked by their vehicle. Review the 21% report at http://new.noshockzone.org/15/.  What follows is #10 in a 12-part series about basic electricity for RV users and how to protect yourself and your family from shocks and possible electrocution. In addition, this series could protect your RV’s appliances, entertainment systems and computers from going up in smoke.

This series of articles is provided as a helpful educational assist in your RV travels, and is not intended to have you circumvent an electrician. The author and the HOW-TO Sound Workshops will not be held liable or responsible for any injury resulting from reader error or misuse of the information contained in these articles. If you feel you have a dangerous electrical condition in your RV or at a campground, make sure to contact a qualified, licensed electrician. 

GFCI review

If you don’t already know what a GFCI circuit breaker is, please read part VIII on basic theory and operation of this lifesaving device. GFCI devices are among the least understood of all electrical safety circuits, but their function is really pretty simple once you understand their basic operating principles. 

It’s All About Balance

Here’s the illustration we used in Part XIII to demonstrate what a GFCI is looking for electrically. Note that a perfectly isolated electrical appliance should have exactly the same amount of electrical current going out and coming back in. For example, if an applicance draws 7.000 amperes of current from the black/hot wire, then exactly 7.000 amperes of return current should be coming back in the white wire. However, if there’s any secondary connection to the earth/ground from something like our happy camper poking a piece of metal in a socket while standing on the ground, there will now be more current going out the black wire than is returning from the white wire.

GFCI breakers in America are designed to trip when there’s any more than 5 milliamperes (5/1000 of an amp) of difference between the black and white wires. Note that a GFCI breaker doesn’t really need the green/ground wire at all to function. The GFCI detector circuit only cares about what’s going out of the black wire compared to what’s coming back into the white wire.  

Nuisance Tripping

 What bothers many campers and home owners about GFCI breakers is that they’ll occasionally trip for no apparent reason. So if you plug your shore power to the GFCI outlet in your garage to run your RV refrigerator while you’re stocking for an extended trip next week, you may come back the following  day to find the power out and your food spoiled. Nobody was in the RV and nothing looks out of place. Or you plug in a power drill to your exterior RV outlet and BAM! it trips before you can pull the trigger on the drill. Why would that happen when the drill runs just fine in your basement workshop? Those sorts of situations are what makes home and RV owners suspicious of GFCIs and want to replace them with a non-protected outlet — which, I might add, is illegal to do.

Less Than Perfect?

What could cause an appliance or electrical circuit to behave badly and fool a GFCI into tripping? Glad you asked. Every appliance has at least two separate wires connecting it to the power outlet, and many will have a third “green” wire known as the safety ground. The purpose of this ground wire is to drain off any electrical leakage within the appliance itself that might occur from deteriorated insulation, a pinched wire or perhaps a failed component such as a power transformer or light bulb socket with water inside.

This deterioration or component failure often occurs in old electrical appliances. So if you’re plugging in a Fender guitar amp from your teenage years, the amplifier probably has a lot of heat damage to the power transformer from those extended bar jams of “Smoke on the Water.” That overheating is what causes that peculiar “burnt transformer” smell that we also associate with a bad fluorescent light ballast.

An appliance’s or amplifier’s insulation breakdown doesn’t always result in a complete short circuit that would trip a regular 20-amp circuit breaker. It can be like a small leak in a pipe that’s dripping water just a bit. So let’s assume that there’s 10 milliamperes of electrical leakage from the hot/black wire of the power cord to the chassis of your amplifier. That’s way less than the 3 or 4 amperes of current your amp is drawing from the circuit to run the tubes and power the speakers. Therefore, a 20-amp circuit breaker thinks that all is well. However, plug that same guitar amplifier into a GFCI breaker and it sees there are 4.010 amperes of current going to the black wire and only 4.000 amperes of current coming back from the white wire. Where did those extra 10 milliamperes (0.010 amps) of current go? Well, back through the green wire that ties to the white wire way back at the electrical panel. But since the GFCI doesn’t know or care if that extra 10 mA of current was properly disposed of via the green ground wire or your hand touching the electrified chassis of the amplifier, it trips the breaker in an attempt to save your life. Let’s not call this nuisance tripping, but rather life-saving tripping.

Charting Fault Combinations

So here’s two ways to determine which of your appliances is tripping the GFCI. The first is pretty simple. Just unplug every appliance from its own electrical outlet and begin plugging them back in one at a time and turning them on. You’ll want to cycle the appliance on and off a few times since there can be ground fault current “spikes” when you turn on a microwave or light switch. But here’s where it gets tricky: ground fault currents are additive. So if you have two appliances that are each leaking 4 mA (milliamperes) of current to ground, turning on either one of them won’t trip your GFCI, but turning on both appliances at the same time will allow their fault currents of 4 mA and 4 mA to add up to 8 mA. And, of course, 8 mA is greater than the 5 mA limit of the GFCI breaker so it trips.  

This might require a little detective work, but I usually make a simple chart or spreadsheet of all my appliances and turn them on singly and in combination with every other possible appliance. Charting seems like an unnecessary step, but that’s when you’ll see obvious combinations that cause a problem, like in my chart above.  It shows that when I turned on both the porch light and the microwave, the GFCI would trip. Now I know there’s something electrically leaking to ground in both the porch light and microwave. The porch light might have a water leak in the wall, which is letting moisture into an unsealed electrical box, while the microwave could have a chafed wire from bouncing down the highway for the last few years. Both problems should be corrected since they’ll only get worse, not better, with age.

Measure It

There is, however, an even better method if you’re an RV tech or can borrow or buy a clamp-on ammeter such as the Fluke shown in the picture. To do this properly you’ll need a meter that can display down to 0.001 amperes, which is 1 mA resolution.  Clamp-on ammeters have a current transformer that looks for current flowing through the wires placed inside their jaws. However, if you simply clamp them around the entire power cord of an appliance, you’ll be summing the current going out from the black wire with the currents returning from the green and white wires and you won’t know the actual ground leakage current. Because the GFCI ignores the green wire current in its own leakage calculations, we need to do the same thing with our clamp-on ammeter to get the real current levels involved.  

You can do this ground fault leakage test by sacrificing a short extension cord to make a test cable. (Don’t you feel like a scientist, now?).

With the extension cord unplugged from everything, just slit off the outer covering, being careful not to nick the insulation of the black, white or green wires. Get rid of any nylon filler and untwist the group of wires until you get something that looks like the picture to the right. 

This is perfectly safe to use for testing, but because you’ve removed the outer protective layer of insulation, you’ll need to retire this particular extension cord from your regular hookup inventory. That why I typically do this modification to a short 6-ft extension cord which I then keep on my test bench.  

This modification allows you to plug your appliances one at a time into a non-GFCI outlet using your test cable to see how much current is leaking back to ground.

Clamp the ammeter around the black (hot) and white (neutral) wires as shown in the picture, keeping the green (ground) wire out of the jaws.

Your ammeter will now be registering how much current is going out the black wire minus how much is coming back the white wire. So any currents you read on the meter will be the ground leakage that can cause the GFCI to trip from that appliance.

Note that there’s going to be a certain amount of leakage to ground from anything plugged into a wall outlet. So 1 mA or so is not a problem. In this case I have 0.0008 amps which is 0.8 mA of current flow, just less than 1 mA. That by itself shouldn’t cause a GFCI to trip. But you can see that if you have five appliances plugged into a single GFCI (like a campsite 20-amp receptacle) and each one is leaking around 1 mA of current to ground, then that GFCI breaker is going to trip whenever it feels like doing so.

Troubleshooting each appliance for ground fault leakage is beyond the scope of this article, but once you’ve identified the problem, you can either replace or repair each item, checking again with your clamp-on ammeter to confirm you’ve fixed the current leak to ground. Once your total ground leakage current is below 5 mA, then your random GFCI tripping should become a thing of the past.

Wrap Up

GFCI breakers always trip for a reason, and that reason is that they see an imbalance between how much current is going out to an appliance from the black wire compared to how much is coming back in from the white wire. If you clamp an ammeter around the black and white wires at the same time, any current flow detected will be ground leakage within the appliance itself. Over 5 mA of leakage to ground is supposed to trip a residential GFCI, so it’s only doing its job.  

Future Shock

Part XI of this series will cover extension cord wiring and testing, so come back next week. See you then.


After you’ve read this article at www.RVtravel.com, take a trip over to www.NoShockZone.org and send us your comments and suggestions. We’d love to know how we’re doing with this important project.

Mike Sokol is the chief instructor for the HOW-TO Sound Workshops (www.howtosound.com) and the HOW-TO Church Sound Workshops. He is also an electrical and professional sound expert with 40 years in the industry. Visit www.NoShockZone.org for more electrical safety tips for both RVers and musicians. Contact him at mike@noshockzone.org.

7 Comments to “RV Electrical Safety: Part X – GFCI Testing”

  1. […] the curious – Here are a couple of web sites explaining the GFCI theory of operation: RV Electrical Safety: Part X ? GFCI Testing | No~Shock~Zone http://www.nfphampden.com/gfci.pdf __________________ Bruce Johnson A/A42G-11 _______________ […]

  2. Hi, This is indeed a topic which has been ignored by many experts & professionals. You have done a great job by bringing this topic into light. I hope quality discussions follow this post. Great job.

  3. wayne says:

    my camper shocks me when feet are on ground ive put in ground rod and hooked wire to body and wire to frame but still shocks please tell what i can check to stop this

    • Mike Sokol says:

      The key thing to remember is that putting a ground rod in the earth and hooking it to the body or frame of your RV really doesn’t “safety-ground” your RV. That’s because the earth itself has a pretty high resistance to electrical current, typically more than 25 ohms or so. And that means you could electrify your RV and the earth connection of the ground rod can’t get rid of the hot-skin voltage. So you need two things to be safe. First, there has to be solid low-resistance connection on all the way from the frame of your RV to the ground pin on your shore power cord. Secondly, your RV’s shore power cord needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet that has a solid “safety-ground” connection all the way back to the building’s or campground’s service panels Ground-Buss/Neutral/Ground-Rod bonding point. This is an artificially created “ground-plane” that’s common to all building and campground power systems in the United States.

      But’s there’s one more thing needed to energize the skin of your RV…. something inside your RV is leaking current from the “hot wire” to the chassis. Could be a microwave, or a screw through a wire inside a wall, or any of a hundred other things. But if your safety-ground is properly wired, the circuit breaker will trip long before any voltage can occur on your RV’s body or frame. If your safety ground isn’t properly connected back to the service panel’s “safety-ground”, then anything that goes wrong inside your RV’s electrical system (even an appliance like a blender) can energize your RV with a hot-skin condition.

      So the first thing to check is that your RV shore power cord’s ground is correctly connected to the frame and that any extension cord and dog-bone or pigtail is wired correctly. Then you’ll have to confirm that whatever power outlet you’re plugging into is correctly grounded. You should also confirm that the electrical outlet hasn’t been incorrectly wired as an RPBG outlet. See http://www.rvdoctor.com/2001/07/friends-of-gary-mike.html for an article I wrote about this very dangerous condition that can occur in older outlets that have been “grounded” incorrectly.

      Also, see the thread at http://www.popupportal.com/index.php?topic=66438.0 where I show how to build a simple ground tester for checking RV safety ground continuity.

      Mike Sokol

  4. Wayne McClain says:

    My 2007 Diesel pusher seems to work fine on shore power, but when I disconnect and try to run from the inverter, my GFCI trips and will not reset. Do I have a ground leakage problem?

  5. Lee says:

    Reading this after getting distracted from looking up G-N bonding on a caravan and generator here in the UK and thought I would share the story with you guys..

    I thought I would mention an experience I had in Cornwall while on holiday. As young lads do when on one of our first ever independant holidays, one of us headed off down to pick up the beers. When my friend arrive back at the caravan (RV for a better description), he did a double backwards somersault with quite strong profainity.

    He said he had got a shock from the aluminium table in the awning as he placed the beers onto it and could only assume that the table had been pushed against the caravan thus picking up voltage from the skin of the van itself.

    Not long after this and while we were investigating the cause, my partner at the time walked back to the caravan and said ‘wow, that was the best shower I have ever had’ when I asked why, I went white with shock when she told me that while putting the coin into the shower meter, she got a tingle so I asked how she had managed to get the money in, she said by holding the coin with a towel and then jumped under the water.

    She had managed to have a ‘very refreshing tingly’ shower and felt fantastic for it, until I explained that what had happened could have killed her where she nearly fainted..

    Returning to the caravan, I inserted a meter into the grass and touched the caravan shell where I measured 175 volts (UK voltage 230 volts) on the chassis. At this point thinking there was a fault with the van I disconnected the mains and measured voltage on the plug which again from Ground to Earth was 175volts.

    I drove down to the caravan site manager and explained there was a problem with the campsite mains supply and asked him to switch off the power to which he refused claiming as it was a dry day, we had all suffered a static shock from our clothes.

    Not happy with this, I drove up to the toilets and shower block, broke open the cupboard and threw to main breaker where I was soon pinned to the floor by the site manager threatening me. Two of my friends pulled the guy off and held him down, explaining to him it would not be too pleasent for him should he then put the breaker back on when he is released.

    As we walked out the toilets, a van pulled up with signage all over it for a plumber. I shouted over to him what work he had been doing and he said he had been replacing pipework in the showers for MDPE plastic. I asked him if he had re-bonded the metal pipes after exchaning for plastic where he gave me a blank look.

    The manager was still threatening me at this point which resulted in the police being called (1993, the Panasonic cell phone was my new toy) as well as SWEB (the electric company). The police turned up and after explaining the events, kept the site manager away from us until SWEB arrived.

    It turned out that the Neutral return cable on the pole feeding the site had burnt/corroded out and looked like it had been in a poor condition for some time and pretty much all the return current from the site was passing via the Earth but had not tripped any breakers (until the point the metal pipes had been removed) therefore making every caravan skin as well as any ‘earthed’ pipework and water fittings live and as it was a dry day, the current was not leaving to Earth effectivly, therefore raising the voltage to 175volts we were reading.

    Eventually the inbound supply was fixed, an electrition turned up and rebonded the shower block and the tourist board turned up and gave a few ‘warning notices’ of contraventions to installation code and 48 hours to fix or face having the site closed down, the main being every pole on the site was not Earthed at the pole by a spike.

    The site manager even offered me a job of helping as I had certification to work on electrics from the job I had at the time and you can only imagine the response he got.

    Moral is, learn how to ‘CHECK’ your supply before you connect your RV or van to the mains supply, even if its only a short plug in cable with a cheap socket tester plugged into it. Quickly plug this in and check for faults prior to connecting the RV inlet as you just dont know what you are walking into. After checking, I normally leave the tester plugged into a spare socket inside the caravan as visual confirmation that the supply is safe all the time we are on power – 4 neons lit, all is ok.

    Hope this is a lesson 🙂