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Don’t Let Your RV Kill You! RV Hot Skin & How to Test For It

Don’t Let Your RV Kill You! RV Hot Skin & How to Test For It

You may have seen reports of RV hot skin issues in the news from time to time. It’s a real thing, and it can be extremely dangerous. So, we’re here to lay out the details on what the term “RV hot skin” means, how to test your RV for a “hot skin” condition, and how to avoid serious injury – or worse.

This is important, so let’s get right to it.

What Is RV Hot Skin?

“Hot skin” is a term that was actually coined in reference to RVs that have a stray voltage issue that causes the exterior of the rig, including the frame, chassis, wheels, hitch, and attached tow vehicle to become electrified.

In RV circles, the term “hot skin” is used, but the term “stray voltage” is also common. They have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably.

In short, if the ground wire of an RV’s shore power feed is interrupted for some reason, normal current leakage inside the RV can create a stray voltage situation that encompasses the entire RV (and any tow vehicle attached to it).

This stray voltage can provide a low current which would cause you to feel a tingling sensation upon touching the rig. However, it can also provide a very high current that can not only knock you off your feet but COULD kill you. And yes, this has happened.

An acceptable neutral-to-ground voltage is 2V AC or less at a receptacle, with 5V being the upper limit. Typically the “skin” and chassis of your rig sit within about 5 volts AC of the earth.

The ground wire in your shore power cord is connected to the one in the power pedestal and is supposed to keep the current at this safe voltage.

However, if the ground wire in your electrical connection is broken or even loose, that voltage can rise significantly to 30V or 60V – or potentially even to as high as 120V.

Photo of an RV power receptacle attached to a tree. Improper wiring can cause RV hot skin.

If an RV is plugged into an improperly wired outlet, or if the RV itself is improperly wired (including the failure of a connection or wiring), RV hot skin can occur.

Any current over 30 volts can be extremely dangerous to the heart. So, if in running a voltage test you were to detect 30 volts or greater, you need to carefully disconnect your RV immediately, and deal with the issue. (See potential causes of RV hot skin below.)

IMPORTANT NOTE: When an RV’s shore power grounding system is properly established, it isn’t possible for any voltage at all to show on the chassis (“skin”) of the RV. So, if you find a stray voltage of more than 2 or 3 volts when testing your RV, this would indicate that you’ve lost your shore power safety ground.

What Causes Stray Voltage or “RV Hot Skin”?

Dangerous electrical voltage on an RV (“RV hot skin”) can be caused by an RV that is improperly grounded. This could occur if you’re using a bad extension cord, are plugged into a campsite power pedestal that’s improperly wired, or if the RV’s electrical system hasn’t been properly maintained and has broken wiring somewhere that has led to a broken ground system within the RV.

  • Bad extension cord
  • Plugged into an improperly-wired campsite power pedestal
  • Broken wires/ground system within the RV

Can I Be Electrocuted By RV Hot Skin?

You absolutely CAN be electrocuted by an RV, and unfortunately, it has happened. So, RV hot skin presents an extremely dangerous situation.

In addition to a hot skin/stray voltage condition, you can also be shocked if you use the wrong (or a defective) extension cord or dogbone adapter, or if you fail to use a surge protector or a proper RV battery disconnect switch.

This may be a good time for a review of what you need to know about your RV power cord, as well as a refresher on how to hook up an RV. Our post about dogbones and plugging in an RV is another good post to review in a discussion about RV hot skin.

Can a Brand New RV Have a Hot Skin Condition?

Yes! RV hot skin can occur on a brand new RV. The age of an RV is not a determining factor here. Stray voltage conditions have been identified on new rigs and on old rigs.

Photo of a young couple at an RV sales lot. Improper wiring can cause RV hot skin.

Even a brand spanking new RV can have a dangerous hot skin condition if it’s plugged into an improperly wired outlet, or if the RV itself is improperly wired.

Regardless of the age of the RV, if it’s plugged into an improperly wired outlet, or if the RV itself is improperly wired (including the failure of a connection or wiring), RV hot skin can occur.

How Do You Test For “RV Hot Skin” or Stray Voltage?

The safest (and easiest) way to test for stray voltage on an RV (or “RV hot skin”) is by using a Non-Contact Voltage Tester (NCVT).

The testing method is safe because you don’t need to touch the RV to check for stray voltage.

Here’s how it works: You’ll turn on your NCVT and point it a few inches away from any metal part of the RV. If the RV is energized, when your NCVT comes within a few inches of it, the light on the NCVT will start blinking and the instrument will start beeping to warn you of the voltage.

The blinking and beeping may even begin as you step within a couple of feet of the rig or from even further away. The blinking and beeping alert you to the fact that the RV chassis/skin has up to 120 volts of stray voltage, which could be life-threatening.

Non-Contact Voltage Tester

Sperry Instruments STK001 Non-Contact Voltage Tester (VD6504) & GFCI Outlet / Receptacle Tester (GFI6302) Kit, Electrical AC Voltage Detector, Yellow & Black
  • VERIFIES VOLTAGE PRESENSE: Verifies the presence of AC Voltage prior to working on electrical installation or troubleshooting (GFI6302 and VD6504)
  • DURABLE: Hi-Impact Resistant ABS housing with soft over-molded rubber grips with a compact ergonomic design (GFI6302 and VD6504)

Important Notes About RV Hot Skin and RV Electrical Safety From Electrical Engineers

Mike Sokol, the founder of RVElectricity.com and an electrical engineer for 40 years, has been educating RV owners on safety issues related to electrical matters for many years.

“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.”

– Mike Sokol
RVElectricity.com

Here are several articles from Mike Sokol on RV Hot Skin / Stray Voltage.

And here’s our dear friend Tom Morton, also an electrical engineer, with some extremely important words regarding RV electrical safety. This video is well worth the 22 minutes you’ll invest in watching it, especially because it contains potentially life–saving information:

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Greg B

Sunday 24th of April 2022

i have experienced hot skin and yes i did feel it, i took a volt meter and stuck the negative into the wet grass and the positive to the trailer frame and found 60 volts, yes i got lucky, the problem was i plugged the trailer in to my garage 110v receptacle but it was the old wiring 2 prong no ground, installed new wiring with 3 prong and problem fixed, be careful what you use

TheRVgeeks

Sunday 24th of April 2022

Yikes, Greg! Glad you caught it WITHOUT getting shocked too badly! It can get dangerous, fast!

TJL

Monday 4th of April 2022

A bit off-topic, but I once stayed in a campground where the electrical system was overtaxed and the owners ran water through the conduit to keep the wires from overheating. Hard to believe but true.

TheRVgeeks

Monday 4th of April 2022

Holy crap that's scary! Electricity + Water. Great combination. NOT!

Herb - Issaquah WA

Monday 4th of April 2022

Decades ago my first travel trailer ended up plugged into an incorrectly wired RV power stand in an RV park while in Oregon. When I first step out of trailer bare foot while holding metal door handle I got quite a shock, so this scenario can definitely happen although luckily very rarely. After the RV site wiring was fixed everything was good.

TheRVgeeks

Monday 4th of April 2022

So glad to hear you were able to walk away from that scary situation, Herb.

Gay Tacoma Washington

Monday 4th of April 2022

I've never heard of RV "Hot Skin". Understandably you want to live in your RV, not to get killed by your RV.

TheRVgeeks

Monday 4th of April 2022

We agree. Death By RV is not the way we want to go.

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