The accidental electrocution of a 3-year-old Amboy boy as he exited the family camper was caused by something known in RV circles as “hot skin.”
It occurs when a vehicle that is plugged into an electrical source becomes improperly grounded and the shell, or skin, of the camper becomes electrified.
Landyn Gerald Keener was killed June 30 when he touched the camper door handle as he was standing on wet ground. The current went from the camper and through his body, stopping his heart.
“It was determined by an electrician that [the camper] was poorly grounded,” Lee County Sheriff John Varga said. “It’s an extremely tragic accident, and we’re not putting fault on anybody.”
Hot skin is not uncommon. According to a 2010 survey done by RVTravel.com, 21 percent of the 1,200 owners who responded reported being shocked by their RV, most mildly.
If you extrapolate those numbers, though, that meant about 1.7 million of the more than 8.2 million people nationwide who had a family RV that year might have been shocked at one time or another.
If you’ve ever felt that little zing, you just dodged a bullet, says Mike Sokol, an electrical engineer for 4 decades, and the founder of NoShockZone.org, a website dedicated to educating RV owners on electrical safety issues, including the dangers of hot skin, and how to diagnose and prevent them.
“If you ever feel the slightest tingle or shock from your RV, that is a warning that something has happened to your grounding system and you do have a hot skin condition.” Sokol said.
“The skin of the RV itself now has an elevated voltage system on it, it could be 40 volts, it could be 120 volts.”
The problem is, people feel the tingle, but they ignore it “all the time,” he said. And if you’re standing on dry ground and have your shoes on, you might never know there’s a problem, the tingle would be so mild.
It’s not typically fatal, but children and pets are especially vulnerable to hot skin electrocution because they have lower body resistance than an adult. For anyone standing on a wet surface, the shock is amplified.
The problem can occur in a variety of ways: when RV owners plug their vehicle into an older home, garage or campsite pedestal with faulty wiring, or into an outlet with the wrong voltage; or if the RV itself, or the extension cord or adapter being used, has an undetected wiring problem.
“I’ve gotten zapped before, it’s usually a tingle,” said Jeff Bright, owner of Jeff Bright RV Center in Rock Falls, who has been in the business about 30 years. “I’ve seen it quite a few times.”
If you do feel it, unplug your RV immediately and get a certified technician or electrician to diagnose the problem, said Sokol, who also provides safety training for people in the music industry, where a similar problem involving amps and other electrical equipment is commonplace.
Or, better yet, be proactive. For $30 or less, RV owners can get a digital voltmeter or, even better, a noncontact AC tester, available at any hardware store. When pointed at the RV from up to a foot away, it will light up and beep if there’s a problem, he said.
He uses one religiously, every time he plugs in, Sokol said.
“Everybody should have a basic little noncontact voltage tester. They’re 10 to 20 bucks.”
He also recommends owners get an outlet dedicated to their RV professionally installed; don’t rely on electrical systems – even those that aren’t that old – that don’t appear to be causing problems.
“Many garages have improperly wired outlets that you may never notice with a power tool, but once you plug your RV in, all bets are off,” Sokol said.
Bright echoes that advice. He’s seen DIYers who install their own dedicated RV plug use a 220-volt outlet, rather than a 110, “and that fries the system.”
And avoid using cheap orange extension cords and adapters, Sokol said.
The Amboy trailer is a perfect example of how easy it is to overlook a potential electrical safety hazard.
The Airstream was plugged into a rusty outlet with a broken ground wire, and from an external outlet on the trailer that was hanging by its wires. It looks like a hot wire contacted the metal skin, electrifying the camper.
“As is so often the case, it was a perfect storm of problems,” Sokol said.
For more info
To learn more about how to recongize, prevent and repair hot skin and a host of other electrical safety issues relating to RVing, go to No Shock Zone: Electrical Safety Training for Everyone at www.noshockzone.org. Go to www.youtube.com/howtoseminars for step-by-step training.
Electrical engineer Mike Sokol's complete No Shock Zone RV Electrical Safety series also is available as an eBook for $9.99 on Amazon in Kindle format. It includes extended information and graphics in a nontechnical style that’s easy to read and understand.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.