By far, one of the most common questions of generator owners when camping is whether or not the generator must be grounded when in use.
Whether you’re powering items with an extension cord while tent camping, or running a generator with your RV, adhering to safety principles is critical in keeping you and your family safe.
I’ll sum up the conclusions of this article, but there are lots of nuances to this subject, so be sure to read on.
When camping, a ground electrode (ground rod) is not required when using a portable generator to power your RV, a manufacturer-installed generator in the RV, or a portable generator to power an appliance when tent camping. However, the generator being used must be bonded. A ground rod is only required when a power distribution system is set up by a single generator for multiple camp sites.
I will have sources cited throughout the article as well. My goal with this article is to answer all of the common “using a generator while camping” questions in one location and provide you with additional links if you need to research the topic beyond the scope of this post.
Does My RV Generator Need to Be Grounded?
When using an RV generator that is factory installed or hooking an aftermarket generator to the shore power inlet, a ground electrode (ground rod) is not needed when powering a single RV, as the chassis of the RV and the tow vehicle are their own local ground plane. When powering more than one RV with a single generator via a power distribution system, a ground electrode is required. A generator’s neutral and ground must be bonded when powering an RV to clear any faults and prevent shock or electrocution.
For more information on using a single generator as a power distribution system for multiple camp sites and why a ground rod is needed, feel free to check out Mike Sokol’s article here from RV Travel.
When powering your RV with shore power from the pedestals at your campground, the generator is properly grounded via the connection with the service at the service’s ground electrode. Just ensure that the pins are intact at the pedestal and that your cord is not compromised.
Pro Tip: Always turn off the pedestal breaker before plugging your cord in and before removing it. Doing this will ensure that arcing will not occur which would cause pitting on your plug and shorten its usable lifespan.
A write up of the code regarding generator grounding (with a ground electrode) requirements can be found here.
Grounding a Generator When Tent Camping
When tent camping, a ground electrode is not required when powering items directly through your generator’s receptacles with extension cords or by plugging the item in directly. To prevent shock or electrocution from a fault in the line, it is recommended to use a generator that is bonded (neutral and ground circuits are physically linked in the generator).
When a generator (conventional or inverter) at camp is simply being used to power an appliance like a coffee maker, the NEC and OSHA consider the frame of the generator itself as being the substitute for the ground electrode as long as the following conditions are met:
- You’re plugging appliances directly into the generator or using an extension cord
- The grounding pins (the small semi-circle one on the bottom of a normal NEMA 5-15 household receptacle) are bonded with the frame of the generator (almost always the case unless you’ve tampered with the internal wiring of the generator)
- The non current-carrying metal parts of the generator (the gas tank, exhaust, etc.) are bonded to the frame (which will almost always be the case unless you’ve tampered with the bonding point)
Misconceptions of Grounding a Generator and RV
One of the biggest misconceptions about grounding a generator with a ground rod is that it will protect you from electrical shock should you have a fault in the line. The way to prevent getting shocked or electrocuted is to ensure that your system is bonded — and bonded in only ONE place.
When you hook up your RV to the shore power from the pedestal, you are sharing the ground electrode with the service power as well as the bond between the neutral and the ground circuits as well. That is why your RV is unbonded at its breaker box. The neutrals and the grounds are not physically linked in any way.
RVs are treated as sub-stations, and not a main panel, for all intents and purposes if we were to compare them to a home setup.
You might be wondering what “bonding” is.
Bonding is when at one point in the system (typically at the breaker box, or under the alternator cap of a generator) the ground circuit and the neutrals are tied together with a screw or jumper.
Remember that electricity always wants to return back to its source and it will travel to the appliance via the hot wire and return on the neutral (in a 120v setting). Being bonded allows any fault current to travel back to the source via the ground wire so that it can link back up with the neutral at the bonding point and complete the circuit.
If you were to have a broken hot wire in a metal toaster, the frame of the toaster would become energized and that current could not travel down the neutral since the path between it and the hot wire is broken. Since the ground wire is attached to the frame, the current will travel down the wire and back to your generator where the current can jump back over to the neutral via the “bond”.
The circuit breaker is engineered to trip, or open the circuit, if there is an abnormality in the flow of electricity and when it senses that no work was performed with the electricity, it will stop the flow and you’ll be safe from being shocked.
Without that bond, the frame of the toaster would be energized, the ground wire would be energized, and the frame of the generator would be energized.
Current can still flow to the ground to try to equalize itself but this happens at a minimal rate under most conditions to where you won’t feel anything at all or maybe just a tingle. However, if you were standing on wet ground and you (or even just your shoes) were wet as well, then it is very possible for you to be shocked with an unbonded (floating neutral) generator that is experiencing a hot-to-case fault.
This is why it is important to have a generator that is bonded when powering items with extension cords or when powering your RV.
The factory installed generator in your RV is already bonded. Most generators under 5kW (5,000 kilowatts) are unbonded and need to be bonded for RV use.
Checking to see if a generator is bonded or not is incredibly simple with a multimeter.
Essentially, with the generator off, set a multimeter to check for continuity (the horseshoe symbol and causes the meter to beep when the two leads are touching each other). Place one lead in the neutral slot of one of the receptacles (the larger one on the left if the receptacle is oriented so that it looks like it’s making a sad face) and the other lead on the grounding lug or in the ground pin (the small semicircle “mouth” on the bottom of the receptacle face).
If the meter does not beep and simply shows “OL” on the display, then your generator is a floating neutral and needs to be bonded.
You can pick up an “Edison plug” that will bond them at the receptacle on Amazon so that you don’t have to be installing a jumper wire internally. Simply plug it in, and you’re bonded and ready to use your generator safely while tent camping or when powering your RV via the shore power plug. You do NOT need this item if your generator was installed in your RV from the manufacturer, as it is already bonded.
Top Inverter Generators for a Quiet Camping Experience
Not disturbing your neighbors and enjoying the sounds of nature are some of the main goals of camping, and a loud, general purpose generator is a sure way to ruin everyone’s fun.
An inverter generator is quiet — I’m talking “conversation” quiet. They are lightweight and have a smaller size in general.
Inverter generators adjust fuel consumption and idle speeds far more efficiently than general purpose generators.
Below are three excellent options if you’re looking for a reliable inverter generator for your next camping excursion. Click on the generator you’re interested in to check out the latest price on Amazon.
How Do You Ground a Portable Generator for Camping?
Unless you are powering multiple RVs from a single generator, then you do NOT need to use a ground electrode to earth ground a generator when camping. The chassis of the RV serves as the local ground plane and requires no ground rod.
If you are powering multiple RVs from the same generator, then you must consult with your local codes (if applicable) regarding the length of the ground electrode and any other requirements.
You must also call your local “MISS DIG” or 811 in order to make sure that you are clear to drive a long ground rod. The last thing you want happening is to hit a water line or a buried wire.
This is also a reason why you never see anyone driving ground rods in the ground at a campground. Not only would it be nearly impossible to pull back up if you’ve properly installed it, the campground would not want you haphazardly driving these stakes into the ground that could pierce a sewage line, a water line, or a buried power line.
Can I use My RV Generator During a Lightning Storm?
You can use a generator that was mounted by the manufacturer during a lightning storm, as it is protected by the “Faraday Cage” effect that your RV’s metal frame and siding provide as they would direct a lightning strike around your RV.
Caution: Being in a fiberglass-walled RV with a stick built frame (wood, instead of aluminum) will offer you no protection from a lightning strike.
You should not use a detached generator that is using the shore power cable to power your generator during a lightning storm. If lightning strikes near your RV, it can travel up the frame of the generator and into all of your wiring since the generator is bonded. This can result in damaged appliances or worse.
|Generator Use||Should Generator Be Used During Lightning Storm|
|Powering an RV with an external generator via the shore power cord||No|
|Powering an RV with the manufacturer-installed generator||Yes|
|Powering an appliance when tent camping||No (Get in a vehicle or building for safety if possible)|
You should always disconnect your RV from shore power during a lightning strike as well and wait for the storm to pass before hooking up again. Again, any lightning strike that energizes the service power will travel into your RV and damage your equipment.
Do Inverter Generators Need to be Grounded
Inverter generators are no different from general purpose generators when it comes to grounding them while camping.
An inverter generator does not need to be grounded to the earth with a ground electrode when camping (tent or RV) unless you are powering multiple RVs from the same inverter generator. When simply plugging items into the inverter generator or powering a single RV, no ground rod is needed. However, the inverter generator must have a bonded neutral and ground.
Why Won’t My Appliances Work (Keep Tripping the Breaker) in my RV?
In this case, you likely are using an external portable generator that is not bonded (the neutral and ground within the generator are not physically linked).
You can perform the test that I outlined earlier in the article with a multimeter to check the status of the generator, or you can buy one of the plug-in ground testers (Amazon) that will likely show a “open ground” or “open neutral” when you plug it in.
If that’s the case, certain appliances and outlets inside of your generator will not work.
If you plug one of these “Edison Plugs” in to your generator’s receptacles, then the problem should be immediately resolved since you will now be bonded.