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Electrical Discussion of preventative/corrective maintenance and other technical issues regarding your coach's electrical system.

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  #1  
Old 11-27-2011
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jimbonich jimbonich is offline
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Default And That's When I Decided to Call the Fire Department....

My brother from Oregon joined me in Raleigh for Thanksgiving with my son's family. On our way back to our campsite at the NC State Fairgrounds after Thanksgiving dinner I was telling my brother about coach electrical fires and related issues, and that I had upped the Agreed Value amount and personal items coverage on my coach when the dash lights dimmed and then flickered on and off.

Since we were only a few blocks from the campground I thought I would wait until we got there and then check into what was going on the next morning. Then the dash lights started turning on and off rhythmically every second or so--much like emergency flashers--except that it was the dash lights flashing and not the external lighting. Then I started smelling that smell peculiar to burning wiring. At this point I started looking for a place to pull over. As I was pulling off the road I saw smoke coming up out of the dash.

That's when I decided to call the Fire Department.......

I told my brother we had some kind of electrical issue or fire and to grab the dogs and get out of the coach, while I was dialing 911. The 911 operator said a truck was being dispatched and to stay out of the vehicle and not let anyone approach it.

The fire truck arrived within 2 or 3 minutes and I explained to them what had been happening and they too could smell the burning odor around the driver's area. I showed them the panel on the front of the coach that covers the wiring panels and that was quickly removed, creating some surprise at the miles of wiring and dozens of breakers, fuses, and terminal strips (welcome to Wanderlodge...). They asked me where the batteries were located and their eyes widened a bit when I showed them the 8 house batteries and 3 engine batteries. They told me to disconnect them while they started using a thermal imaging camera to try and spot a heat source under the left side dash panels (that had also been removed).

While I was disconnecting the cables to the three battery banks one of the firefighters suggested that a main battery disconnect would be a good idea. I replied that this item was on my "to-do" list but had just moved up to the top of the list.

After they weren't able to find any burning wiring (even though the smell was still there) they had me hook up the batteries again but we weren't able to find the source of the problem and the burning smell seemed to have subsided so I asked them to follow me the last few blocks to the campground where I would disconnect all the power sources and try to figure out what had happened the next morning.

With the firetruck following me into the campground I picked a different spot further away from the 43' Holiday Rambler that I had been parked next to--he was a nice guy I had visited with when walking the dogs so I figured he would appreciate my parking elsewhere .

I quickly parked the coach (not my best parking job), disconnected the batteries and thanked the firefighters for their help, and ran an extension cord through a vent window to power the refrigerator separately from the coach

We left the coach totally dark and stayed at my son's that night. The next morning I noticed while my son was helping me track down the problem that the RV's parked near me all cleared out, and noted for future reference that if you want some space around you all you have to do is pull the front wiring cover and place fire extinguishers around your coach--although being "escorted" to your camping site by a firetruck probably helps too!

John and I determined that there must be a short in the headlights/parking lights, and with the help of the wiring diagrams we were able to determine the short was in the parking lights circuit so I pulled breaker #55 which we could feel cycling on and off whenever the parking lights were turned off. The gauge lights and EL dash lighting would blink on and off while the breaker reset itself over and over.

My intent was to leave the parking/tail lights disconnected and drive on down to Charlotte to see my other son and then on to Bainbridge and Clearwater during daylight hours, as everything else (including the turn signals and brake lights) seemed to be functioning normally.

I must admit that it did cross my mind to reinstall the breaker just before arriving at Randy's and pretend the problem had just started as I arrived .

We made it to Concord without further incident and yesterday my other son Michael helped me investigate the problem further. He is a firefighter in Concord and I asked him if he could bring the Engine Truck he drives when he came over, but he said they might need it elsewhere....

By testing and eliminating the various legs of this circuit I determined the short was somewhere between the headlight/parking light switch and the lights themselves, but when I was about to wire around it Michael discovered that the wire leading from the parking light switch back to the termination strip where all the parking lights/tail lights/lightbar wires converged also branched over to the gauge lights and EL lighting, and that this temporary fix would leave me without dash lights or gauge lights, even if it did restore the exterior lighting.

It appeared that the lower dimmer for the gauge lights was discolored but when we wired around it and reinstalled breaker #55 the lights started cycling on and off again, so the short was apparently further down the circuit of the gauge lighting. I started isolating the three sets of gauges and as soon as I cut the wire to the overhead gauges for the generator/fuel filter vacuum, and AC voltage the breaker stopped cycling on and off, and further probing isolated the problem to the fuel filter vacuum gauge.

When I pulled the bulb out of the gauge I saw the bulb was missing and that because the gauge is tilted downward the wire base for the bulb (that was no longer retained by the bulb) had vibrated downward and shorted against the metal interior of the gauge. This probably would never have happened in any of the lower gauges but the downward tilt of the upper gauges caused the unrestrained wire to migrate down wards over time until it shorted out. This in turn put a direct short through the dimmer switch and once we removed it we could see that it was blackened inside.

When I discovered the missing bulb that had created this unforeseen series of problems I exclaimed "what idiot took this bulb out and left the socket empty?". A split second later I remembered that I was in fact the idiot who had removed the burnt out bulb a week earlier to take with me to find a replacement on my next trip to the parts store.

So I knew who the idiot was. In fact, I know him very well.

Anyway, we wired around the dimmer until I can locate a replacement (suggestions, anyone?) and everything was back to normal when we took friends and family in the coach through the Christmas Lights Show adjacent to our campground at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

So the Law of Unintended Consequences had struck again and in the future I am going to be very careful about anything I alter in the electrical system (including removing a burnt out light bulb), and I'm going to make doubly sure there are no tools, screws, etc. in any electrical compartment when I am finished working on anything.

One thing I'm not going to do differently is that I would call the fire department again as soon as I see or smell smoke, and then figure out what's going on while they are nearby. And I'm glad that I have several fire extinguishers at different locations inside and outside the coach. Even though they weren't used this time they can make the difference between a small problem and a really, really big one.

And I'm definitely going to install a master disconnect on all three battery banks, and a "catastrophe fuse" too. The five minutes it took to locate the tools and disconnect the batteries could make a critical difference in other situations, and those are my "take away" from our Thanksgiving evening adventure.

I have also resolved never to talk about coach fires and insurance while driving the coach....
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  #2  
Old 11-27-2011
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gcyeaw gcyeaw is offline
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Jim,
I copied the cause of your burning wires below. It is a long story (but a good one) and people who choose not to read the whole story may miss the important concept about light sockets. This issue could pertain to any bayonet style light socket.



__________________________________________________ _________
When I pulled the bulb out of the gauge I saw the bulb was missing and that because the gauge is tilted downward the wire base for the bulb (that was no longer retained by the bulb) had vibrated downward and shorted against the metal interior of the gauge. This probably would never have happened in any of the lower gauges but the downward tilt of the upper gauges caused the unrestrained wire to migrate down wards over time until it shorted out. This in turn put a direct short through the dimmer switch and once we removed it we could see that it was blackened inside.
__________________________________________________ ___________
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  #3  
Old 11-27-2011
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Scary - gald all is well - and I learned today - thanx
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  #4  
Old 11-27-2011
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Good work finding the problem. Would never have guessed that a missing bulb could cause that. Thanks for the heads up.
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  #5  
Old 11-27-2011
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Randy Dupree Randy Dupree is offline
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Its the little things that matter,a single simple wire,thats good to know.
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  #6  
Old 11-27-2011
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Very good write up Jim. Thank you for sharing the whole story.
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  #7  
Old 11-27-2011
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Them dang downward tilting gauges... I always knew they were trouble

Great right up Jim, glad you found the problem too. I have wondered about the auto reset fuses? Are they really that safe??
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Last edited by Turbokitty; 11-27-2011 at 05:53 PM.
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  #8  
Old 11-27-2011
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FWIW
I think that the auto reset C/Bs are not a good protection at all. A simple fuse( proper amp of course) would just blow and that would be the end of the short. Thank you for posting this. It is very good food for thought.
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  #9  
Old 11-27-2011
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I've wondered about those fuses too, but they're sure helpful in tracking down a problem if you can hear them or their relays resetting.
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  #10  
Old 11-27-2011
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yes they do make it easier to track down a problem, provided that the coach doesn't catch fire in the meantime. Its a give and take thing here. I believe I would rather be on the safe side and spend more time, tracking circuits
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