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Electrical Power for Safe Camping

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Camping and Electrical Safety

Ah, the great outdoors! Finally, you are one with nature. There’s just you, the stars, the fresh air filled with campfire smoke, distant campers, and darkness all around. That is… if you are camping in a tent. Most of us though, have some type of camper that comes many of the most modern-day conveniences. These conveniences all use electricity and each have their own hazards if they are not connected to properly wired devices.

1. Electrical Devices to Protect

Outdoor Camping Lights
Timothy Thiele

Among these devices are microwaves, can openers, coffee pots, and water heaters. Let’s not forget about the other everyday things we can’t leave home without. How about your electric razor, hair dryer, curling iron, electric fillet knife, radio, and of course, your camping lights that hang from the awning. All of these items are fine as long as your camper has outlets protected with ground fault circuit interrupter outlets or breakers. Anything within reach of water should have such a protective device.

2. GFCI Protection in Bathrooms

GFCI Outlet In a Camper Bathroom
Timothy Thiele

Camper bathrooms should have GFCI outlet protection. All of your favorite electrical devices end up being used very closely to the bathroom sink. Any time you are this close to water, you must have a GFCI protected outlet installed. If you were to grab a frayed electrical cord while standing on a wet floor, the result could be electrocution if your circuit isn’t protected. Without GFCI protection, any of these electrical devices could slip out of your hands and fall into the water in the sink. Your gut reaction will be to try to catch it, but you'll end up with your hands in the water with the device and in the blink of an eye, you'll be electrocuted!

3. GFCI Protection in Kitchens

Kitchen GFCI in a Camper
Timothy Thiele

Camper kitchens are another place to provide GFCI protection. Appliances are all surrounding the kitchen sink and have the possibility of coming into contact with water. Microwaves, can openers, coffee pots, mixers, and toasters are all appliances that may be used in the kitchen. It is all too easy to be touching an appliance and come in contact with water either in the sink or a spill on the floor around it. Don't become the electricity's path to ground. A GFCI outlet will provide protection for your family.

4. Campground Electrical Disconnects

Campground Electrical Service Disconnect
Timothy Thiele

In order to connect your camper to electrical power, you’ll need to locate the electrical disconnect provided by the campground. The disconnect box has a hinged front cover that will lift up and expose the disconnect breakers and outlets. Notice that this disconnect provides a 30-amp breaker for a camper outlet and also a 20-amp breaker for the regular duplex receptacle. This disconnect is where your camper cord will plug into the outlet. Notice that the breakers used are GFCI breakers. Although this should be the case, be sure that you have GFCI protection downstream in your camper.

5. The Camper Power Cord and Plug

Timothy Thiele

The electrical power comes into you camper via an SO cord. Normally, this is rated for 30 amps and is a black, rubber-coated cord. On larger campers and motor homes, the service feed may be larger. One end is connected to your camper’s electrical panel and the other is connected to a special male plug. The cord connection is a 110-volt connection that has a hot wire, a neutral wire, and a ground wire. This plug is designed to connect to a 30-amp outlet that campgrounds provide for you. This connection is supposed to be connected to a GFCI breaker.

6. The Breaker Panel

Camper Electrical Panel
Timothy Thiele

The other end of the SO cord is connected to the camper's electrical breaker panel. It has a 30-amp main breaker and branch circuit breakers. The breaker panel not only provides 110-volt power to the camper, but also has a transformer to step down the power to 12 volts DC (direct current) to power the lighting and the water pump. This way, a 12-volt battery can be connected to your camper for areas without electrical power available. A standard towing package on your truck or SUV will have a trailer lighing connection that provides a connection to the vehical's 12-volt battery. Although the outlets won’t work in your camper without a 110-volt connection, you’ll at least have lighting and a water source in your camper.

7. Fuses and Breakers

Camper Fuses and Breakers
Timothy Thiele

Your camper comes equipped with either fuses or breakers to protect individual circuits in your camper. When a circuit overloads or is shorted, the fuse will blow or the breaker will trip. That means there is trouble on the line and it needs to be addressed. It’s unlikely that you fuse or breaker died of old age like we do. Instead, a short or overload has occurred. The next step is to find out where and why this has happened.

8. Two Different Camper Power Supplies

Camper AC and DC Power
Timothy Thiele

Campers and motor homes are equipped with two different types of power. They have 120-volt AC power and also 12-volt DC power. The 120-volt power runs the outlets and appliances inside and outside your camper. This will run things like a microwave, a razor, or a can opener. The 12-volt DC runs the lighting and the water pump. This connection is fed from an external 12-volt battery or the connection from your vehical via the light connection where the camper plugs into your vehical's wirning connection. Both come in very handy when AC power is nowhere to be found.

9. How Camper Power is Distributed

Camper Trailer Wiring Connection
Timothy Thiele

The lighting circuit is fed from a breaker in the electric panel to a transformer. The transformer takes the 120-volt AC power and transforms it to a 12-volt DC power. Also connected to the 12-volt side of the equation is a set of wires that run to the front of your camper. These will be located near where you connect the camper to the truck. These wires connect to either you vehicle’s battery through the hitch connection plug or an external battery mounted on the front of the camper hitch.

10. Camper 12-volt DC Lighting & Water Pump Power

A photo of 12-volt DC camper lighting.
Timothy Thiele

Unlike the 120-volt AC lighting in your home, campers are equipped with 12-volt DC lighting fixtures and bulbs. It's the same as the dome light in your car, truck, or SUV. These bulbs are much smaller than household bulbs. Because they run on direct current (DC), they can run off of a normal car battery. My camper uses 12-volt, type 1141 bulbs.

The camper’s water pump is also connected to the vehicles power or to an external battery. This allows you to have running water without having to connect to 120-volt power. This comes in handy for hunting trips, campgrounds where power is not available, and for a quick pit stop along the highways across America. Like the lighting, it works whether the main power cord is connected or not.

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