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You pull into a campground, excited to have backed your rig into a campsite on the first try. Sensing that a cold drink in your camp chair is near, you busy yourself with the remaining tasks. You unfurl your power cord, drag the long cable to the power pedestal, confirm the breaker is in the “off” position, and push the plug into the outlet. A quick dust of your hands and you turn the breaker on and head inside, expecting to see the flash of your microwave’s clock, but instead you see—nothing. Your rig isn’t getting power.
What Went Wrong
During 7 years of full-time RVing, we’ve found ourselves in this predicament on more than one occasion.
My gut reaction to things not working properly often flirts with the worst-case scenario, but one of the best pieces of RVing advice I’ve ever received is to start simple. This applies to dealing with things that go wrong with your rig.
For this RV mishap, you can usually simplify the problem into two possibilities. Is this an issue with my rig, or is this an issue with the campground’s shore power?
Armed with this base knowledge, you can begin navigating the route for fixing the issue by either calling the campground to repair the pedestal or calling an electrician to repair your RV. If you’re lucky, you might find the solution to your power issue while running the following tests for a DIY fix, on the spot.
While we aren’t electricians, we’ve performed enough maintenance on our own rig—a Class A 2001 Monaco Dynasty 40-foot diesel pusher—to know our onboard systems well.
If you’re wary of performing electrical maintenance yourself, you should always call an expert for help. Electricity can be dangerous, which is why we always use a surge protector in our rig.
Tools you may need if you’re testing the power pedestal and your RV’s electric system:
- Patience and caution
- Your rig’s manual, specifically the electrical system section
- RV power cord adaptors
Before you can figure out if the power issue is your rig or the campground’s shore power system, it’s helpful to have at least a basic understanding of your RV’s electrical system.
RVs tend to have two power systems: 12 volts/direct current and 110 volts/alternate current (or equivalent systems). Your owner’s manual should tell you what systems power your rig and in what ways. It should also provide a basic wiring and electrical schematic.
- The 12-volt system (or equivalent) draws its power from your batteries. For us, this system powers our built-in lighting system, water pump, ceiling vent fans, and similar appliances.
- The 110-volt system (or equivalent) powers the things that plug into standard wall outlets. For us, this includes our refrigerator (when not on propane/absorption mode), TV, computers, air conditioner, and microwave.
The typical U.S. campground’s electrical hookups provide 110 volts to your RV. The 50-, 30-, and 15-amp outlets transfer power to your rig in 110 volts.
Testing the Power Pedestal vs. Your RV
First, take note of which—if any—of your electrical systems are working. If you’re plugged into shore power and notice that your 110-volt system is powering devices, but your 12-volt system isn’t, you’re likely dealing with an internal issue. Drained or dead batteries, a sticky relay, or a battery cut-off switch are possible culprits. If your 12-volt system is working, but your 110-volt system isn’t, then shore power could be the culprit.
If neither system is working, you may have multiple issues, and the power pedestal could still be to blame for at least some of them.
Troubleshooting the Power Pedestal
Sometimes, you arrive at a pedestal and immediately question its integrity. While a shoddy-looking pedestal may be the motivation you need to finally install a surge protector, it doesn’t necessarily mean the power pedestal is to blame for your current power woes.
You can run a few quick tests to figure out if the problem lies with the pedestal.
1. Check the Pedestal Breakers
Is the breaker in the “on” position for the outlet you’re attempting to use? We’ve been fooled by an interestingly placed breaker switch—or a switch that’s mounted inverse to the norm.
If the breaker trips, meaning you hear a click and/or the switch flips back to the “off” position, check that your rig isn’t drawing more power than that breaker is rated for. Turn off any power-draining devices and systems (i.e. hot water heaters, dryers, and heating systems) in your RV and try it again. If it continues to trip after you’ve confirmed that you’re not drawing too much power, contact the campground management.
2. Check Your Surge Protector
Do you have a surge protector? If not, you should. If you do, check to see if it‘s been tripped. If your surge protector is tripping, it’s possible that something is working incorrectly at the power pedestal level. Or, your surge protector could be malfunctioning.
Either way, it’s not irrational to contact the campground management to confirm that all is well with the pedestal at this point.
3. Test Each Outlet
If the 50-amp power is of concern, hitch an adaptor to the power cord and test the 30-amp outlet’s function. If your rig is equipped with 30 amps, use your 15-amp adaptor to test the outlet. An electrical test kit with a polarity tester is an inexpensive tool to have handy for quick testing.
Always test the lower amperage. If your rig’s max amperage is 30, don’t plug it into a 50-amp outlet for testing.
If you find that one of the outlets on the pedestal is able to provide your rig with power but not the other, it’s probable that the issue is with the campground’s shore power system. Contact campground management to rectify the power situation. In the meantime, you can utilize the 30-amp or 15-amp legs within the limits of your rig.
Troubleshooting Your 110-Volt Wall Outlet System
If devices powered by your 110-volt systems aren’t getting power, begin by vetting that system. First, check to see if power is out for all of our 110-volt powered devices, or just one or two. Test a few wall outlets at different ends of your rig to see whether or not there is power flowing to them.
While wall outlet test tools like a ground fault circuit interrupter receptacle tester are available, you can also use a phone charger to quickly see if a wall outlet is providing power.
If power is flowing to some of the outlets, check your rig’s breakers. This is likely going to be an issue inside your RV. RVs with 50-amp service have two different legs of 110-volt power that come to the RV. So if some of the outlets are working, this could indicate that one leg of the power is working, but the other is not.
If power is flowing to none of the 110-volt outlets, checking your breaker is still good practice, and you should double-check GFCI breakers. If they’re all in the “on” position, continue your investigation at the power pedestal.
GFCI outlets and breakers must have power applied to test and reset.
Troubleshooting Your Generator and Inverter
If you have a generator or an inverter, start either of them to get an idea if your RV’s 110-volt system is functioning properly. If your rig’s 110-volt power isn’t working after engaging your generator or inverter, you’re likely dealing with an internal RV electrical problem.
If you turn on your generator or inverter and your rig’s 110-volt system begins powering your devices, you could be dealing with a campground power pedestal issue, a malfunctioning power cord, or a sticky automatic transfer switch. Problems with a sticky transfer switch are difficult to diagnose, so you will want to consult an RV technician if you suspect this is the issue.
If you think that a faulty power cord may be the issue, ask a neighbor to borrow theirs for a quick test. This can save you time and money.
We’ve personally been lucky when it comes to power problems. In nearly 7 years of full-time travel, we’ve typically found that the issue was resolved by campground management changing a breaker at the pedestal. We’ve had one case of a bad extension cord and another case of a sticky relay in our rig.
While power issues can be daunting, remember to start simple. This makes tackling the problem more manageable. Even if you don’t have any electrical or mechanical knowledge, you can figure out who to call to get assistance with an electrical issue.
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