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Thread: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

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    Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    In 2008, my husband and I purchased a new 2007 Trail Runner. We went from apop up camper to a pull behind RV and we felt we made a very gooddecision. Since then we have welcomedtwo sons and have been camping thru the summer & fall months.

    Last week we had the unit plugged in at home & we weregetting ready to head out for the 4th of July weekend. My Aunt & my oldest son went out to thecamper, so that she could see the inside. They both went in with no problem. Next, my youngest son (who just turned 2) went up to the camper. He had just climbed out of the pool, so hewas wet. He leaned against the step andwas getting ready to climb up. All of asudden he jumped back and started to scream & cry. I thought that the step was hot and that heburnt his stomach. So, I am standing therelooking at his stomach and trying to calm him down. All of a sudden my husband (who is also wetfrom the pool) leans against the step and starts acting funny. He was all leaned into the camper and he letout a scream. I didnít know what washappening. All of a sudden he goesflying across the yard. He is now layingin the yard and he is jerking and convulsing around. He gets himself somewhat under control andyells for someone to unplug the unit. Asit turns out he was being electrocuted! Which means that my 2 year old son did NOT get burned, as I thought, hegot shocked. This could have ended verybadly for our family and we are thankful that everyone is fine. My boys were scared to death to see theirdaddy lying on the ground like that. Itwas a very freighting thing to witness.
    We called my dad over who is a Master Certified Technicianhere in the Elkhart area. He wastroubleshooting the problem and measuring out the voltage. It turns out my husband had 110 volts shootthru his body. I thank god my 2 year olddidnít lift his leg, because I can guarantee he could not have handle 110 voltsthru his little body. Anyways, my daddiscovered that the element in the water heater was bad. Basically, that problem was causing theentire trailer to be ďliveĒ & my husband being wet made it worst.
    So, hereís my problem. As Iíve said before, this could have had an entirely differentending. A neighbor kid could have beenelectrocuted, my children could have been electrocuted & my husband wasalmost completely electrocuted. If wehad been at a campground when this happened and some random child touched ourcamper, could you imagine the outcome? Shouldnít this trailer be equipped with some sort of sensor that makesit blow a breaker when there is a problem? Isnít there some sort of safety prevention? If there are safety procedures in place, didour camper mal function? I understandthat our warranty has expired, but if this is a common occurrence within RVísthan I think it needs to be corrected. Idonít consider our RV to be ancient & understand that it has to bemaintained, but I think we need a little warning. A breaker that keeps tripping or no hotwater, something a little better than being knocked on your butt by anelectrical shock.
    My husband is now completely freaked out by the camper &we are considering trading it in. Theproblem with trading it in is that we wouldnít feel right about trading acamper that has issues. What if thissame thing happens to the next family that owns the unit?

    We have been in talks with Heartland. The first gentleman we talked to was very sympathic, the second gentleman basically told us where to stick it and the 3rd guy told us that since our unit is older we can expect problems. In his opinion, a bad heating element that almost eletrocuted 2 people in my family is normal. He then proceeded to tell us that we could have purchased an additional add on that would ensure that if we had a problem with our camper the breaker would trip and shut everything down. Now, is it just me or does anyone else think this should be standard issue??

    In my own personal opinion, Heartland is so concerned with pushing out units and making money that they are foregoing important safety checks. If our unit would have been inspected they probably would have caught the electrical problem.

    I just want to put that warning out there to people. If you google "electrocution by RV" it will bring up tons of stories many of which are fatal.


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    Moderator danemayer's Avatar
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    KiCar6375,

    First of all, let me say that I'm sorry this happened to your family. This must have been a horrible experience for you.

    I'm not an electrician, but I'm pretty sure you have a 2nd problem beyond the failure of the water heater element. I'd hazard a guess that the ground line on your trailer, or on the power source, also had a failure. The design of 110V AC devices is such that a failure leading to an unsafe condition should be neutralized by the grounding in your trailer. That is, if 110V is applied to the trailer body by a failing device, the electricity should take the easiest path to ground, which by design is through the trailer ground wiring to the power supply at the pedestal. If the electricity's easiest path to ground was through a person, it usually means there's a failure in the grounding wiring.

    Since you were plugged in at home, this might be caused by a bad extension cord, or improperly wired outlet, having nothing to do with the trailer itself. For example, if the ground pin was broken off the extension cord, that would interrupt the ground path. Then when the heating element shorted, there was no way to take the electricity to ground, except through the people who touched the trailer body.

    Yes, it could also be a problem with the trailer wiring - maybe the ground wires came loose somewhere.

    Anyway, my main point is that you need to get a qualified electrician to find out where the 2nd problem came from. Fixing the water heater alone will not be sufficient.
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:35 AM. Reason: edited post title


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    Past Heartland Ambassador kakampers's Avatar
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    Very sorry to hear this happened to your family...but I have to ask, when was the last time your water heater element was checked?

    For the entire coach to be "live", something would have had to short out causing it to "ground" thru the frame. The water heater has a sacrificial rod that needs regular replacement to protect the tank and the element from corrosion...this needs to be check at least once a year. This is an industry wide standard, and if maintained, the water
    heater should not cause any shock issues.

    Again, very sorry this happened and hope everyone is OK...
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:34 AM. Reason: edited post title
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    Moderator danemayer's Avatar
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    Some additional information about RV Electrical Systems and how they are designed to protect you from what happened when the ground system is working. I've highlighted 2 portions.


    Safety Practices
    GroundingGrounding ensures electrical safety. Grounding can be divided into two areas: 1) system grounding, and 2) equipment grounding. System grounding is the intentional connection of a current-carrying conductor to ground (earth) or something that serves in place of ground (vehicle chassis). System grounding does not occur in the RV but is accomplished when the power cord is connected to a power pedestal in the park or some other power supply receptacle, where the neutral is intentionally grounded. Equipment grounding is the intentional connection of all noncurrent carrying metal parts of the electrical system to ground. In the RV this is accomplished by the ground wire in the conductors of the 120 VAC system. There are four reasons for grounding:1. To limit the voltage caused by lightning or by accidental contact of the supply conductors with conductors of higher voltage.
    2. To stabilize the voltage under normal operating conditions.3. Grounding provides a low resistance electrical path for current flow, so if a person comes into electrical contact with a piece of equipment, the current will follow the ground path to complete the circuit instead of flowing through the higher resistance of the human body.4. To facilitate the operation of overcurrent devices such as fuses, circuit breakers, or relays, under ground fault conditions.Grounding SystemRVs are wired differently than houses and the differences are based on the grounding system. In an RV, the white or neutral conductor is isolated from the ground conductors. This means there is no electrical interconnection of the white wire and the bare ground wire in the RV. These two wires are not interconnected until connected at the power supply at the park pedestal or other suitable power source. In a house, the white and ground wires can be interconnected without concern because in a house, polarity cannot be reversed. Reverse polarity occurs when the white and black wires are crossed. In an RV, the power supply cord or power supply adaptor plug can provide reverse polarity. This is especially possible where someone cuts off the ground pin of the cord or uses an ungrounded (2-wire) extension cord. In a situation of reverse polarity where there is also a short, the power could be ďfedĒ to the white wire, by passing the overcurrent protection provided,energizing the exterior skin or other metal parts leading to severe burns or possibly death. In normal operation, the electric circuits function the same way with or without the ground, but the grounding is an important safety precaution. Figure 6-1 shows one type of plug/receptacle for the AC power line that helps in providing protection because they are polarized with respect to the ground connections. Although AC voltage does not have any fixed polarity, the plugís configuration insures grounding to the chassis or frame of equip-ment, connected at the power source. The illustration shows two slots for the 120 VAC load connector. One blade is wider and will fit only the side of the outlet that is connected to the neutral wire. This wiring is standard practice. The rounded pin is for a separate grounding wire, usually bare or color coded green. If the polarity of a circuit is questionable, use a ground monitor (polarity tester) to check the wiring polarity of all receptacles.
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:33 AM. Reason: edited post title

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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    The trailer has many electrical gadgets that can fail and put live electricity to metal. There are two types of protection, a current limiting circuit breaker and a Ground Fault breaker. Only the Ground Fault kind will trip at 5 thousands of an AMP difference in current flow between white wire and black wire, protecting people and pets. The current limiting kind may allow a hazard voltage to appear if the ground has too much resistance in it. This can happen in an older home where the ground is not a physical wire but uses rigid or flexible conduit for the return path and the current has to pass thru many mechanical connections that can have too much resistance with time due to corrosion or working loose. The current limiting kind even with a good ground can still cause enough voltage to be hazardous on metal in your RV and in particular in your case where the person was wet and not wearing shoes. In some other cases current flow is not enough to trip the breaker but enough to get something overheated and start a fire. The current limiting breaker is sized to prevent only the wire from the breaker to the load from catching fire. That said, there are many things where the RV Code and National Electrical Code require only the current limiting kind to be used, so Heartland meet all the codes and it is up to you if you want to go "above the code" or not.

    I suspect that the water heater in your RV must not be on a ground fault breaker. And certainly based on what happened your house circuit feeding the RV is not on a ground fault or if it is, it has failed and needs to be replaced.

    To give yourself a better sense of security in the future I suggest you change your house breaker that you use with your RV to a ground fault type. These are available for any size 110 V service your RV outlet uses: 15 A, 20 A or even 30 A.

    You can buy a outlet tester with a GFCI test button that causes a 6 mA black to ground current that trip a good GFCI to make sure its working. This is better than just using the GFCI test button. Having a outlet tester will warn you in the future if your have an open ground in your power source, and if the GFCI in the power source is good. To use it, you just plug it into any outlet in your trailer. If you have a big trailer with 50 Amp service, then you may have to plug in two places to check both sides of the 50 Amp 110 V service. You can also plug it into the 110 volt outlet in your home that you had the trailer plugged in to, if that was the case.

    This will help you tell if its outlet issue, or cord issue.

    It sounds like your dad should be able to help you out with this trouble shooting - be safe and don't plug that trailer back in until you get to the bottom of it.
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:32 AM. Reason: edited post title
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    This is what you need to tell if your power in your RV is wired safe, and if the outlet you are using (if 15A or 20A standard) are safe. The button is what generates the simulated fault from hot to ground to make sure the GFCI trips like it should.

    There are several makers - these cost about $10.
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:32 AM. Reason: edited post title
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    Senior Member scottyb's Avatar
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    I got buzzed yesterday while crawling around under the trailer on the damp ground. Called a few smart people and I have verified that my feed coming into the well house is only a 3-wire. The RV service is wired correctly with a 4-wire conductor. I will be installing a ground rod to the neutral lug in the breaker box this weekend. the first couple times were just a tingle then a couple were more of a jolt, like an electric fence. We determined it was a problem with the shore power because it didnt do the same thing on generator power. It stopped as soon as I disconnected the shore power.
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:31 AM. Reason: edited post title
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    I skimmed over the replies, but the number one thing I can tell you is that electrical devices connected outdoors need to be connected through a ground fault protected circuit. I would have to ask if you were using a standard houseshold 15 amp circuit, or an RV specific 30 or 50 amp service. 15 Amp GFI outlets are commonly available, and are code for wet and outdoor locations. 30 and 50 amp GFI protection can be obtained through GFI circuit breakers.

    Your best protection is to have the GFI at the source of power to the load (the trailer). I just participated in a survey of medical equipment maintainers about how often and with which what equipments we found electrical safety problems (we check medical equipment for this yearly. We test with a special tester that disconnects the ground wire to simulate a common broken ground in equipment that is repeatedly plugged and unplugged. Medical devices must meet electrical leakage requirements without the ground being present). Electrical immersion heaters were one of the few frequent causes of high electrical leakage, due to their being out of visual sight and subject to various rates of corrosion.

    I am so sorry that this happened, and am thankful there was no permanent physical harm to anyone. Get the heater fixed (simple DIY job), flush the heater yearly, and get those GFI protectors on the electrical supply to the trailer.

    BTW, the GFI's DO work on the trailer. I was staying in a small park in the Seattle area last year, and was only supplied with a 15 amp GFI protected service. One morning the GFI tripped repeatedly after I used the convection/microwave. I finally deduced that the convection/microwave produced a lot of steam cooking the food, which got to some of the microwave internal AC circuit wiring, producing enough electrical leakage to trip the outside service outlet GFI. Air drying out the microwave (with the microwave circuit breaker switched off) solved the problem.
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:31 AM. Reason: edited post title
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    We all are sorry this happened to you. You may not want to hear this, but sometimes when things happen they are a blessing in disguise. Yes what happened is terrible, but as you stated worse has happened to others. You received some good advice already. However, the best advice came from Dan Meyer right away. He suggested you get a licensed electrician involved.
    Iíd like to offer some more advice; first, I am a licensed master electrician and more. If your home was built before 1972 it is grandfathered, which means you are not required to have GFCIís installed anywhere in your home. This does not mean you donít need them Ė you do. If your home is real old you may not even have 3 wire circuits, which means you have 2 wire circuits Ė A hot and a cold (neutral) or a black & white wire. If this is the case I would suggest having the electrical service upgraded. You need to have 3 wire circuits and you need to understand the green wire (also known as the ground) is the most important wire you can have. The only time it is needed is when the exact thing that occurred to you folks happens. It is highly likely you have a ground problem or no ground at all.
    If your home was built after 1980, then you have some serious wiring issues which need attention NOW by a licensed electrician. You should also considering going to Camping World or Tweetys Or, Or, Or and purchasing a surge protector with ground fault protection and use it at home and on trips. Last year we camped at a park which had 80 volts AC coming into RVís due to a wiring fault in the park. 80 volts AC can be lethal Ė it has killed people. Several campers were getting tingles... until my wife touched a unit and received a severe shock. I measured the stray voltage and called park maintenance. They found a short in a box in the systems wiring. Do not let this scare you from camping, instead let it be a learning experience that you can share with others as you be your brotherís keeper.
    Finally, in closing, anytime this type of thing happens you should take the persons affected to the nearest ER room as soon as you can. Calling an ambulance would not be over reacting because some damage may have been done Ė you just donít know. In fact, I still would take your husband to at least see your PCP or family doctor. Iím not trying to scare you, itís better to be safe than sorry. Good luck, God bless and keep up posted.
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    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:30 AM. Reason: edited post title
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    Re: Electric Shock from bad water heater element

    There have been many good observations on this extremely serious situation. But, I'm really not sure that a wasted water heater anode rod could actually cause electrical shock. I don't believe these anodes have any electrical connection. They are merely composed of "less noble" (sacrificial elements) metals per the Periodic Table. Could depletion of the anode actually lead to sufficient corrosion causing failure to the electrical portion of the water heater to the extent of potential electrocution? IF that is truly the case, then more emphasis and "WARNING" MUST be placed on this simple anode replacement.
    Quote Originally Posted by kakampers View Post
    Very sorry to hear this happened to your family...but I have to ask, when was the last time your water heater element was checked?

    For the entire coach to be "live", something would have had to short out causing it to "ground" thru the frame. The water heater has a sacrificial rod that needs regular replacement to protect the tank and the element from corrosion...this needs to be check at least once a year. This is an industry wide standard, and if maintained, the water
    heater should not cause any shock issues.

    Again, very sorry this happened and hope everyone is OK...
    Last edited by jbeletti; 08-17-2012 at 09:36 AM. Reason: edited post title

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