What is an RV surge protector and why do you need one?
You can just use a regular surge protector to plug in your laptop and TV and you’ll be good to go, right? That’s what I thought when we first bought our 5th wheel. I don’t like to spend money and if I don’t have to get something, I won’t. But as I was reading various RV forums, I saw several references to an RV surge protector. I wasn’t sure about this and started looking into it. I found out there are three main types of RV surge protector, ranging from about $80 up to around $400. I was curious about why the difference in price and whether they all did the same thing so I kept digging.
Why can’t you just use a little surge protector for your laptop and TV?
Well, there are a lot of other sensitive electronics in an RV. Think of the refrigerator, microwave, A/C. These devices are very expensive to repair or replace if they are damaged by a power spike. To protect these, a RV surge protector is needed.
What does a surge protector protect you from anyway?
The main purpose of most surge protectors is to protect against large voltage spikes (sometimes thousands of volts) that occur in a fraction of a second. These large voltage spikes are most often caused by lightning strikes, but can also be caused by other things, such as a device with a motor starting or stopping (like your A/C compressor) or when the power comes back on after an outage. These spikes happen almost instantaneously and are gone just as quickly, but can cause damage to sensitive electrical components. Most low-cost RV surge protectors are designed to prevent damage from this type of voltage spike. (More about the types of RV surge protectors later).
RV parks, especially older parks with aging power grids, can have power problems that low-cost RV surge protectors aren’t designed to detect. Common power problems include low voltage conditions (brown outs), high voltage conditions, and faulty wiring, all of which can damage RV electrical appliances and all of which are more common than power surges. Most electrical appliances are designed to operate between 110-120 volts. Low and high voltage conditions happen when the voltage falls above or below this range by more than 10%. Continued use of an appliance in a low or high voltage condition can permanently damage it over time (and RV refrigerators can be more than $1000 to replace!). Faulty wiring can create an unsafe condition in which electrical shock is possible. Some 30-amp receptacles are even mistakenly wired for 240 volts! These problems can all be detected and damage prevented by using an RV power protector or electrical management system (EMS) rather than just an RV surge protector.
Three Types of RV Surge Protector
1. Basic Surge Protector
The first type of RV surge protector is just a surge protector. It plugs into the power pedestal at an RV site and is designed to protect against BIG surges. Things like lightning strikes. But that’s all it protects from. It does not protect against low or high voltage conditions, nor does it detect faulty wiring. This is a good basic surge protector and is better than nothing, but it won’t help with any electrical problems other than the huge voltage spikes such as those caused by lightning strikes. These come in both 30-amp and 50-amp models. I recommend the Progressive Industries brand as they have a good track record of honoring their warranty and providing technical support.
2. Basic Surge Protector with Faulty Wiring Indicator
The second type of RV surge protector includes indicator lights that warn against faulty wiring. These are good because they can prevent you from plugging your RV power into a pedestal that has been wired wrong or has been damaged and could lead to electrical shock. These are a step up from the basic model mentioned above, but they don’t protect against low or high voltage conditions. These also come in both 30-amp and 50-amp models.
3. Complete RV Power Protector
The third type of RV surge protector is a complete power protection device. These power protectors can prevent damage from massive voltage spikes, high and low voltage conditions, and faulty wiring. Since most electrical appliance damage is caused by low or high voltage conditions and not by power surges, this is the best type of RV surge protector to get. They are more expensive than the other two types of surge protector, but in the long run they are well worth the money. The Progressive Industries EMS power protectors detect and prevent damage from all these conditions:
- Reverse Polarity
- Open Ground
- High Voltage
- Low Voltage
- Line Frequency High
- Line Frequency Low
- Electrical Surge
In less than 1 month of travel, we already were saved by our power protector when an RV park we were staying at had constant low voltage that would have damaged our appliances. It automatically shut off the power until the low voltage condition went away and normal power was restored to the park.
The Progressive Industries EMS comes in 30-amp and 50-amp models, and also comes in either a “plug into the pedestal” version or a “permanent mount” version that can be installed in an RV. I invested in the permanent mount version so I don’t have to worry about plugging something extra in every time we hook up power.
Permanent Mount Models
Pedestal Mount Models
I installed the permanent mount (Progressive Industries HW50C) version myself by following the directions that came with it. It wasn’t too hard. I feel much better now about hooking up power at each place we visit. It’s no longer a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-nothing-blows-up moment when I flip on the circuit breaker at an RV park.
One feature I really like is the remote display, which I mounted in the living room/kitchen area. It continually displays the voltage, amperage, and frequency of the power used by the systems in the RV, as well as an error code to indicate what the problem is if it isn’t allowing power to go through.
Here are a few pictures from the install process. I mounted it behind a cabinet just beyond where power enters the 5th wheel from the outside.