Where Is The Circuit Breaker In My RV? Common RV Electrical Issues and How to Fix Them

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the lights in your travel trailer dim unexpectedly. Maybe your air conditioner doesn’t sound right, or the food in your refrigerator isn’t staying cold. These and many more issues may point to an electrical problem. It’ll likely have you asking, where is the circuit breaker in my RV? Fortunately, you can identify—and fix—many issues quickly and cheaply.

A Lesson in Power

Class A motorhomes and smaller campers typically run on both AC and DC power. The former is your electrical hookup at the campground. It runs the energy-demanding thing like your air conditioner, refrigerator, and other appliances. The latter takes care of lighting, your thermostat, and other components through a 12-volt battery. Your travel trailer may also have propane.

The next thing you need to understand is how to calculate the power needs and usage of your rig. The number of watts describes that figure. Volts is a measure of the electrical force. Amp is the flow. The equation to determine power equals volts times amps. You can get that information from the back of your appliances or in the owner’s manual.

Determining your maximum wattage allows you to stay within the correct range to avoid losing power. Most sites have either a 30- or 50-amp hookup for 120-volt electricity, sometimes, both. Knowing which you’re using is an essential step to avoiding power issues. All it takes is some simple math and knowledge of what you have in our RV.

The maximum wattage supplying your rig is 120 times the amps. At 30, the amount is 3,600 or 120 times 30. At 50, it’s 6,000 watts. This figure represents the threshold for your energy usage. If you’re running everything in your camper at the same, you’ll probably exceed it and pop a breaker. That, by the way, is its purpose, along with fuses.

What Triggers Electrical Problems?

When you see issues crop up, it’s often a symptom of something else that’s going on that you need to fix. Sometimes, the cause and effect are evident, like running the microwave while someone is drying their hair. Other times, it’s a mystery that requires some detective work. The things you need to determine are whether it’s in the rig or outside of your control.

You also need to figure out what power source is involved in narrowing it down to a shortlist of problems. Then, you must find out if it’s something minor or if you’re looking at a repair or replacement of a faulty device. The wisest RVer knows not to jump into the deep end of the pool unless he or she is prepared with knowledge.

Bear in mind that electrical problems happen. Your rig gets jostled around every time you head out on the road. You’ve probably lost count of the number of dirt roads you’ve had to traverse to get to your campsite. All that movement loosens connections and puts things out of whack. Issues are inevitable, so it pays to know what you should do.

Troubleshooting Power Issues

Before you begin tinkering around, remember that electricity is a dangerous thing. It’s not something you should mess with unless you’re sure that you know what you’re doing. Besides, boondocking one night isn’t going to kill you. Think of it as reliving your tent camping days at a primitive site. The next day, you can get some professional advice about what you need to do to restore power.

Most problems involve at least one of four things. They include:

  • Breakers
  • Fuses
  • Device Draws
  • Power Supply

Breakers are the easiest out of the bunch to solve. The electrical box is likely within an external storage compartment for ready access. When you open it, the tripped one is evident. The switch sits midway between ON and OFF. Turn it off then on again to restore power.

If it happens frequently, pay attention to what is going on before it occurs. Does it happen when the refrigerator kicks on? Perhaps the condenser in the air conditioner is the culprit. Knowing what triggers the power surge can help you prevent it. Maybe you can run the AC a bit warmer so that it does start up as often. Offseason maintenance is also essential.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of a loose connection or an exposed wire. Moisture contacting it will cause a problem to prevent a larger, more extensive one. If it seems erratic, that is an excellent place to start to pinpoint the cause. Most failures, whether it’s an appliance or power supply, are either all or nothing.

Fuses

You’ll find fuses on both AC and DC systems. Their purpose, like breakers, is to stop the flow of power if something fails to prevent damage or a fire. They also protect whatever appliance or component uses that source. It’s imperative to replace a blown fuse with another of the same amperage. There’s no such thing as powering it up with a higher one. RV manufacturers design these systems for optimal safety.

The trick is sometimes finding them. Often, the fuse box is with the electrical panel. Other times, you’ll find it in a cabinet in the kitchen area. The wise RVer will keep a supply on hand in all the amperages that your rig uses.

Device Draws

Your appliances are typically the biggest electricity pigs. They are the things most likely to cause power failures. However, they often draw on it differently. For example, when your AC’s condenser kicks on, it’s using about 12 to 14 amps, depending on the BTUs. When it’s just running, it dips down to 5 to 8 amps. That’s why it’s essential not to turn on several devices at one time.

The trick is to keep things running at their peak efficiency without overburdening them. Of course, it’s a different situation when you’re at home where you can just plug something in and not worry about throwing the house into darkness. RVing is not the same. It operates on an energy budget without a lot of room for error.

Power Supply

If everything that runs on AC is out, it can mean one of two things. Either the master switch is off, or the electrical hookup at your site has lost power. One, of course, is a quick fix. The other, not so much. The savvy traveler will test the unit with a polarity tester before plugging in their RV. You should do it before you start unpacking in case you need to move to another campsite.

Be sure to check in with other campers to see if it’s just your site or the entire campground. If the park is filled to capacity, the electrical system just might not be able to support the extreme draw. That is especially true during hot, humid days when everyone is trying to get comfortable.

Look to your 12-volt battery if you only notice issues with other DC-powered devices like the potable water pump or lights. Most RV batteries are deep-cycle. That means you tap it at higher levels without damaging it, unlike an automotive one which cannot handle this usage. However, it doesn’t mean you can drain it at every outing. You’ll get the maximum life out of it if you don’t let it go below 50 percent.

If you’ve plugged your rig in the electrical hookup, the battery is recharging. If you’re having issues, then that means something is wrong with it. You can do some quick troubleshooting for a ready fix. First, check the terminals for corrosion and loose connections. You can clean any buildup using a baking soda solution.

If it’s a flooded or wet battery, it may need water. Only use distilled water, and make sure to wear eye protection. Add liquid when it’s not charging to play it safe. Remember, it’s called a lead-acid battery for a good reason. Wipe the outside of the batteries with a damp cloth to remove debris that could end up on the terminals.

Even a deep-cycle battery has a limited lifespan. One that isn’t holding a charge is probably on its way out and in need of a replacement. You can expect up to about eight years for a quality product. However, you must use them regularly to get the most out of them. An alternative to a single 12-volt one is to swap it out for two 6-volt batteries instead, assuming you have the space.

What to Do If Nothing Works

Sometimes, you might hit a brick wall with electrical issues. It may be a sign of something more serious where you need to bring in an expert. Been there, done that. Bear in mind that you’re dealing with potentially expensive problems that are well beyond the knowledge and skill of the DIYer. That’s why you have a warranty. Use it.

They typically cover defects in equipment and components. Sure, it’s a pain to drive your rig to the shop or dealership. Your electrical system is not something to take lightly. Doing repairs yourself is risky to say nothing of the collateral damage you may inadvertently cause. Boaters may have the on the edge on brake-out-another thousand, but RVers know the prefix, RV, adds a lot of cash to a fix too.

Preventing Power Issues in an RV

The best ways to avoid electrical issues and have you wondering where is the circuit breaker in my RV are smart planning and regular maintenance. That includes both during the season and offseason. The steps you take when you’re not on the road will save you frustration and perhaps a hefty repair bill. Many things are simple and only require forethought, starting with your campsite.

Things to Do When RVing

Try to choose a shady or partially shady location for your rig. Direct sunlight will heat the inside quickly and cause your air conditioner to run continuously, setting up the perfect storm to pop a breaker. Also, make wise use of your awning for the same purpose. If you have the real estate, park your tow vehicle in the path of the morning or evening sun to keep your RV cool.

Likewise, keep your curtains and blinds pulled down inside your rig. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference it can make. Also, run appliances like your oven during the cooler times during the day. Don’t forget your outdoor kitchen—your fire pit. After all, that’s one of the reasons you’re enjoying the outdoors.

When you first set up your RV, make sure that all power is off before you plug it into the hookup, after you’ve tested it, of course. Then, you can start to turn things on, one at a time. You might also want to consider investing in a surge protector. Bear in mind that your camper has a lot of fail-safe protections in place with circuit breakers and fuses. However, you’ll likely appreciate the added assurance.

If you do purchase one, make sure it’s adequate to handle the demands of your coach. You can expect to pay north of $200 to $300 for a decent one. Compared to the cost of an insurance claim, it’s pretty darn cheap. It’s also helpful to set ground rules if you’re camping with your kids. Make sure they know not to turn on all the appliances at once or leave the refrigerator door open.

Take advantage of tapping the hookup for your electricity needs. Most have several outlets in addition to the main service. Plug in an extension cord to run a fan or two inside of your RV. The benefit of doing that is you’ll have a constant source of circulation instead of the cycling that occurs with an air conditioner.

Tasks During the Offseason

There are also some measures you can take at both the end of the season or before your first trip that will go a long way to preventing electrical problems. For example, you can keep your deep-cycle battery on a continual trickle charge to avoid too much of a depth-of-charge. Remember that 50 percent is ideal. You’ll get twice the life out of it than if you let it go down to 80 percent.

The material can act as an earth ground and discharge your battery quicker. That will defeat the purpose of trying to maintain it. Also, it’s a safe practice because of the lead acid inside of it. Leaks can burn holes through finer materials. Check it periodically to make sure it’s staying at the correct level. Add distilled water as necessary too.

If you bring it inside, put it on cardboard instead of a concrete basement floor. Even so-called sealed batteries can leak no matter what the sellers claim.

Bringing your RV’s battery inside is a smart move. The cold weather and spikes in temperature will take a toll and reduce its usefulness. Increases in temperature can increase its capacity and extend its life. Variations also affect its charging ability. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not vital for it to discharge completely, nor does it have any kind of charge memory that will affect its performance.

If you’ve had issues during the season, now is the ideal time for a permanent fix. You can replace energy hogs like your microwave with something more RV-friendly. It’s not just the appliance that wreaks havoc with your electrical system. Mundane items like coffee makers and hair dryers can also pack a strong current too and trip a breaker or pop a fuse.

You might also consider a makeover of your interior with insulating window treatments to keep the inside more comfortable. Another option is to go solar. It’s an excellent choice if you want to add more boondocking to the mix. It opens up other possibilities to camp at non-electrical sites. Like residential setups, the upfront costs are steep. If you are a full-time RVer, it’s worth thinking about it.

The offseason is a perfect time to check your insulation, ductwork, and air conditioner. Take the time to vacuum all ducts and vents so that your system is running efficiently. Don’t forget the outside of your RV. Clean out the exhaust and intake vents to ensure that there is adequate airflow. Little things add up and take the burden off your AC and DC systems, which can trigger a tripped breaker or worse.

Electrical issues with a camper are not just annoying. Sometimes, they signal a major problem and a considerable cash outlay that may have you looking at RVs for sale. Luckily, you can approach them proactively with things that you can do to prevent trouble during the offseason and other ways you can make everyone more comfortable.

Perhaps the best lesson anyone can learn from RVing is resourcefulness. If you plan well and understand the capabilities of your electrical system, you can prevent many issues that could put a damper on your outdoor time. It also pays to prepare for the worst-case scenarios to keep the good times rolling.