Camping generators are the key to convenience when you’re outdoors. They power all your electronics and light up your campsite. While modern portable generators are relatively safe, they are a sensitive power source; hence there are still safety concerns you need to consider.
One of the most apprehension people has about using generators while camping is if they need grounding.
You must ground your generator to ensure it is safe for operation and prevent the risk of electrocution or damage to other connected devices. However, some generators come pre-grounded to the metal frame, while others require grounding through an electrode rod buried in the ground.
If you don’t ground your generator, there’s a risk of electrocution, which can harm people and damage electrical equipment.
Below, you’ll learn the purpose of grounding, what happens if you don’t do it and how to do it correctly.
What is grounding?
In simple terms, grounding or earthing connects a device’s neutral conductor to the ground via an electrode. The intention is to control voltage and power surges.
Usually, electricity moves from hot wires to a series of neutral wires. But if something disrupts the regular electrical circuit, electricity will flow in the path of least resistance and go to places it shouldn’t.
Therefore, connecting the unit’s neutral to the ground provides a safer path of least resistance, and the ground stabilizes the voltage and safely disposes of the extra electrical power.
Grounding a generator prevents the fault current from passing to humans and other close equipment, causing electrocution or a spark.
Do inverter generators need to be grounded?
All generators need grounding to ensure they are safe, and inverter generators are still generators. The difference between conventional and inverter generators is that converter generators use mechanical power to produce AC power.
On the other hand, inverter generators also use mechanical power to generate AC but convert it to DC power before the microprocessor inverts it back to cleaner AC power. This three-stage process produces higher quality and consistent power.
Inverter generators are also very quiet, making them great for the outdoors. But whether or not you should install a ground connector depends on the construction of the generator.
Most modern generators are typically pre-grounded via the frame, but you’ll still need to confirm this to avoid any hazards. Go to your generator’s user manual, and if they refer to the unit as a “separately derived system,” you’ll need to do the grounding yourself. Other manuals are more direct and will tell whether their unit is grounded.
In case you don’t have the user manual, you can identify a grounded generator by looking at the transfer switch on the unit. If the transfer switch allows you to transmit current to a neutral ground conductor, your generator has a separately derived system.
This means you must connect your generator to a grounding rod. Also, you must ground an inverter generator, whether running or you’re simply drawing power out of it.
Do you need to ground a generator if you use an extension cord?
Although all portable generators need grounding, it’s not necessary when you plug several heavy-duty extension cords into the generator to connect it to an appliance. Instead, use a ground rod when powering the circuit via a transfer switch.
In this case, grounding is unnecessary because heavy-duty extension cords contain a grounding conductor; you have a three-wire flexible cable and three-pronged cord connectors.
What are the temporary generator grounding requirements?
A grounding rod is not necessary for all circumstances. However, if you’re living in the US, the National Electrical Code(NEC) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) provide guidelines for temporarily grounding portable and vehicle-mounted generators. They apply where:
- You’re plugging appliances directly into the generator’s receptacles or using a heavy-duty extension cord. This is because the frame of the generator replaces the ground electrode.
- The generator’s non-current carrying parts(fuel tank, housing, engine, etc.) are bonded to the frame.
- The generator’s grounding terminals in the receptacles have a low-resistance bond to the generator’s frame.
- The neutral conductor of the generator connects to its frame.
Any generator that doesn’t meet the above requirements will need the installation of a ground rod. This is because the generator’s frame acts as the grounding electrode.
You’ll also need to install a ground electrode if your generator powers a structure via a transfer switch. The transfer switch conducts power from your utility supply to your generator. Its purpose is to ensure the utility and generator don’t supply power to your living structure simultaneously. Never connect a portable generator directly to a structure’s electrical system, including your trailer, unless it has a properly-installed transfer switch.
What happens if I don’t ground a generator?
If you don’t ground your generator, your system will be vulnerable to voltage spikes and power surges from normal operation. Below are the biggest risks that could happen if you don’t ground your generator or if you do it incorrectly:
Power surges occur when excess voltage goes through the electrical devices connected to the grid. With a generator that’s not grounded, too much voltage will go through your appliances and cause malfunctions.
An incorrectly grounded or not grounded generator can cause overheating to anything plugged into it. Overheating can also cause a fire.
Wire insulation damage
When power surges and power spikes occur, there will likely be damage to the wire insulation. The wires connecting the appliances to the generator will lose their insulation and be prone to damage the appliance. It can even cause the devices to burst into flames.
Damaged wire insulation will allow electricity to move through it differently. So if someone touches the device, the electrical current will pass through them. If the current is strong enough, it can be fatal to a person.
How to ground a generator
Most generators come bonded to their metal frame. But if your generator doesn’t meet the OSHA grounding requirements or you’re not sure if it’s bonded to its frame, you need to ground it correctly to ensure you’re protected. Use our detailed guide below and a portable generator grounding kit to correctly ground a generator at a campsite.
Things you’ll need
- Copper rod (4-8 foot long)
- NEC-compliant copper grounding wire(Product link) or a heavy-duty four-wire cord
- Pair of pliers
- Hammer or rubber mallet
- Wire strippers
- Adjustable wrench
- Protective clamps or fittings
- Soldering equipment(optional)
Find suitable ground
- Before starting, ensure the ground is completely dry. You should never ground your generator in wet conditions. Also, ensure your hands are dry and don’t stand in water when handing the generator.
- Place the generator outside the camper in a safe space and shelter it away from moisture.
- If the ground is too stiff, pour some water or use a shovel to soften up the ground. Allow it to dry before going to the next step.
Install the grounding rod
- Hammer the copper grounding rod into the earth and leave about an inch above the surface to fasten the copper wire. Ensure the copper rod is at least eight-feet deep. The deeper the rod is, the more effective it will protect you. You can also hammer it at a 45-degree angle, like a tent peg, to make it easier to sink on hard grounds.
Connect the grounding wire to the rod
- Use the wire stripper to strip about 6-12 inches of copper wire insulation. Be careful not to damage the inside of the wire. Peel off enough insulation at each cable end to wrap around the rod securely.
- Wrap one end of the exposed wire tightly around the rod. This creates electrical contact between the grounding wire and rod so that the generator can run safely. Next, use the pliers to give the wire a secure grip around the copper rod.
Ground the generator
- Find the bolt and then use a wrench to loosen it slightly. Then attach the other end of the stripped wire to the grounding bolt on the generator. Finally, wrap the bare wire around the bolt with your pliers.
- Re-tighten the bolt to ensure the connection is secure.
- Check all the connections on both ends and ensure they are secure; you can safely turn on your generator.
Caution: Do not ground or run your generator when it’s raining or wet. A generator creates electrical power, and water is an electrical conductor, which can cause electrocution or damage other appliances and the generator itself. You can make a temporary shelter for the generator and ensure the ground is dry, but it’s best to avoid it if you can’t.
Hopefully, this guide helped you understand when and how to ground a generator when camping and what happens if you don’t. Most modern portable generators come pre-grounded via the metal frame. However, others need a grounding rod to protect you and your equipment from electrocution and fires.
With the right tools and a few safety measures, hammering the grounding rod into the earth and connecting it to your generator via a wire is a straightforward task. Properly grounding your portable generator will prevent mishaps and injuries caused by shock and electrocution.