The Future of RV Autotransformers
Big changes are coming in 2020 to fire safety in the RV industry.
In particular, RV electrical and the use of RV autotransformers.
The NFPA is updating fire safety standards to prohibit the use of autotransformers in RVs.
Should the RV Autotransformer be banned?
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What is an RV Autotransformer?
Ideally, your RV should run between 114-126 volts.
If you are running in a low voltage situation, below 108, then the motors in your electrical appliances can be damaged. In a low voltage situation, these appliances will draw more amps which can cause overheating, fire, and premature appliance death.
And we all know that campground electrical can be quite iffy.
Most RV campground electrical systems were designed for smaller RVs, including smaller electrical demands. Not today’s luxury vehicles with 50 amp connections.
These larger and larger demands on the RV campground electrical systems means that you may see brownouts from low voltage.
But now the NFPA is updating fire code standards to prohibit the use of autotransformers. Why?
Who is the NFPA?
The NFPA is the National Fire Protection Association. It’s a non-profit organization that was established in 1896 to promote fire safety.
They are the organization that produces fire codes that are used by many governmental entities and insurance companies, as well as manufacturers, for a variety of situations, products, and buildings. These codes are designed to reduce the risk and effects in fire in your home, your work, your stadiums, and of course, your RV.
The NFPA is not the government. They do not have any official power; however, their codes and recommendations are highly respected and often incorporated directly by reference or repetition into fire safety codes and insurance regulations and requirements.
Basically, the NFPA are the guys that set the standards that we all use, whether we know it or not. And even if you won’t get charged with violating these standards and codes, if something does happen – say a fire – then these codes are the Standard of Care that the lawyers will use in court to assign liability to you or someone else.
What are Standards 1192 and 1194?
Standard 1192 “establishes fire and life safety criteria for recreational vehicles.”
Some of the topics in Standard 1192 include
- Propane safety and how the tanks are built, stored, sized, and maintained;
- What materials can be used in the RV;
- Emergency escape windows in the RV;
- Carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms;
- RV warning labels;
- Ventilation systems;
And well, you get the idea. Standard 1192 is all about the safety of your RV, including all the systems in it.
Meanwhile, Standard 1194 governs RV campgrounds and how they are designed.
See Also: Must Have RV Safety Gear
What is Changing with Autotransformers?
The NFPA is currently going through a revision process for Standards 1192 and 1994.
The RV committee at the NFPA is
considering* banning autotransformers because of the danger to the RV campground electrical systems.
“The use of autotransformers places severe additional stress to surrounding electrical infrastructure not accounted for in the load calculations in this section. Park operators report that low voltage conditions typically exist when surrounding sites use these add-on devices.”
Some campgrounds already ban the use of autotransformers because of the stress is provides on the whole electrical grid at the campground.
But if the NFPA proposal goes through, their use will be banned at all campgrounds if they follow the standards.
Which local code enforcement or their insurance companies are likely to require. Remember, the NFPA standards are the basis of many local fire codes and insurance requirements.
What’s the Fire Risk?
So, here I am getting that an RV autotransformer converts amps to volts and protects the RV appliances in a low voltage situation.
That sounds really awesome, but where’s the fire risk?
Wouldn’t the autotransformer actually reduce the fire risk in your RV? After all, when there is low voltage, it will convert high amps to volts and thus cool off the wires in your RV, right?
The problem is to the campground electrical grid. Which the NFPA said in its quote above.
But I’m an RVer and not an electrical engineer (you can be both, but I’m not!). And yeah, I can see that there is a potential problem because electric issues can mean fire.
But I didn’t get it. So I looked to my dad. Yeah, he is an actual engineer unlike me. Here’s how he explained it to me:
The fire risk is on the campground electrical side. Basically, when a lot of RVs use an autotransformer, they are going to pull in more amps. This means the wires providing the power to the pedestal at your site are going to get hot (high amps = heat).
This could result in wire failure and possible fire. For the campground.
The most likely spot for the fires is going to be at the power pedestal that you are plugged into.
And that means a direct line from the fire to your RV.
I also looked to an RV electrical expert, Mike Sokol.
He says the risk is most likely that you’ll get a brownout in the RV campground if there are enough autotransformers in use at one time. You might also burn up your power cord if you are using an autotransformer.
Hughes Strongly Disagrees with NFPA Standards and Revisions
As previously mentioned, Hughes is a manufacturer of RV autotransformers. They call their model the Autoformer.
In several emails that have been posted by users in various forums and in an email with RV Tailgate Life, Hughes has said that they are appealing the changes to the Standards which would prohibit the use of autotransformers.
Hughes argues that the change is being pushed by the chair of the standards review committee, an executive at KOA and by a competitor of RV electrical products, Surge Guard. Surge Guard has said that they have already discontinued production on their RV autotransformer products.
Hughes argues that KOA does not want to “explain to their customers why the customer with the Hughes Autoformer still is burning bright and is cool as a cucumber when everyone else is suffering a brown out. . . . Rather than have to explain why some RVs are still working, the park manager would rather have everyone suffer equally (and in silence).”
Back to RV Campground Electric
Hughes is correct to a certain extent. The problem is ultimately the electrical grid at RV campgrounds.
But it is also with RVers and RV manufacturers.
Bottom line, the campground electrical systems have not been designed or kept up with the modern RV.
Think about it – most RV campgrounds are old. They were built for 30 amp RVs with maybe one air conditioner.
Now, the RVs may have three air conditioners, a microwave, hair dryers, and all the other bells and whistles taking up power. On 50 amp systems.
RV Campground Electrical Designs
Mike Sokol, the RV electrical expert, explained that campgrounds were originally designed similar to apartment buildings and dorms. There, assumptions are made that say all the clothes dryers won’t be used at a single time.
But we know from our own experiences that that is not the case at RV campgrounds. When RV campgrounds are full, we are likely all running the maximum 30 or 50 amps from the pedestal. We are running multiple ACs, dryers, convection ovens, and all the other things that take electricity.
This was not the case when RV campgrounds were designed. They were designed with minimal electrical use in mind, at least the ones of 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Unlike those apartment buildings or dorms, we need to design RV campgrounds to be used at 100% capacity 100% of the time. That’s a big change from how campground electrical has been designed in the past.
To upgrade the RV campground electrical system, it’s going to take a big investment. And well, we know that campgrounds aren’t going to do that unless they absolutely have to.
And if the campgrounds made this investment, and electrical supplies were better, we wouldn’t need an autotransformer in any case. That would also make the Hughes Autoformer (or any RV autotransformer) redundant.
In the meantime, or lacking that investment from campgrounds, what is the right answer? Do we risk fire for everyone and the campground because people are using these products?
As a fire safety organization, the NFPA is coming down on the side of practicality. That drawing more amps to convert to volts is a fire hazard. Since it would very difficult to limit the use to only a few RVers at a time, it is more expedient to ban them for everyone.
About Hughes Opposition
So here’s the thing about Hughes. They obviously have a self-interest in keeping this product available to people. They are after all, selling these for quite a hefty price tag.
To then turn around and accuse others of having a self-interest in promoting a change, well, that doesn’t sit well with me. If you are going to do that, then you better back it up with an actual explanation of why their positions are wrong instead of just laying out the accusations. Hughes should, at least, acknowledge their own self-interest here.
To then conclude with a statement that their product isn’t even banned by this proposal because it’s not an autotransformer – what’s all the hype and opposition about? If it’s not banned, why do they care? Why would they need to appeal this decision or get the ban repealed?
Benefiting Everyone for the Greater Good
I’m coming down on the side of safety for everyone. The greater good.
And it’s not like we don’t have other technology to protect our RVs from low voltage situations. More on those alternatives here in a second.
Instead of fighting about this symptom, let’s find a true solution. Let’s upgrade the design standards for RV campground electrical systems.
In the meantime, we have to find a temporary solution that protects the most people instead of providing a benefit to a few. And if that means that we are going to have to shut off RV systems when we are running too much in a campground, then so be it.
I know that I have more resources to invest in an awesome RV and upgrades, but not everyone has that ability.
Recommendations About RV Autotransformers
The 2020 Code will ban autotransformers in RVs.
As such, I cannot and will not recommend that you buy a product that will be against the fire code. Especially not a product with such a hefty price tag.
That’s not a prudent use of your money.
Because even if it isn’t the “law” right now, at some point in the near future, it will become the standard – the state and local laws will catch up as will the insurance codes and requirements.
The ban may not be enforced in 2020, as it will take time to trickle down through the various governments (primarily state and local governments) and insurance companies to the campground and thus the campers.
Since RV autotransformers may be banned soon, what can you do to protect your investment and RV electrical appliances?
The EMS products won’t boost voltage in a low voltage situation. But they will shut down operation so you don’t damage the motors in your appliances.
What if I Already Have an Autotransformer?
Obviously, for safety purposes, not to mention legal purposes, I’d never recommend that you go against fire code. And I’m not recommending that, not even with a wink wink.
If you already have an autotransformer in use in your RV, don’t throw it out just yet!
You’ve invested in it. And they aren’t banned yet. You can keep using them, for now.
And you’ll want to keep a watch out for news on the continued use of autotransformers. Maybe Hughes will win their appeal and the standards will be updated in 2023 to allow their use.
Once the ban is put in place, you’ll need to stop using the autotransformers. Get an EMS system that will shut off your system in the case of low voltage. It’s better than damaging the appliances.
Do You Use an RV Autotransformer?
What’s your experience with RV autotransformers?
Comment below to let us know how these updates will affect your RV camping experience.
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We will keep watching the developments and update this article as they become known.