Electrical Safety for Van Conversions | A Guide for 12V & 24V systems.
last updated: Sep 28, 2023
Campervan electrical systems are complex-looking networks of wires, circuits, batteries, and power sources that enable the operation of lighting, cooking appliances, refrigeration, entertainment systems, and more. Safety devices within this system are designed to prevent and mitigate potential hazards – electrical fires (the number one cause of fires in camper vans) and also to prevent electrical shocks.
However, the significance of safety devices within your system cannot be overstated. Neglecting the incorporation of these safety mechanisms can lead to serious consequences that compromise both the vehicle’s occupants and the journey itself.
Residual Current Devices (RCD’s)
In the latest amendment to the BS7671 wiring regulations, there were a few updates made to circuit protection, in particular, an update to the section 531.3.3 (types of RCD). This update is in relation to the ongoing decline of the type AC RCD. By fitting one, your installation may no longer be compliant. We’ll discuss this in more detail below.
British Standard 7671 wiring regulations state:
“RCD Type AC shall only be used to service fixed equipment where it is known that the loads current contains no DC components“
Both the self and professional builder need to ensure that they are adhering to this regulation otherwise they could be leaving themselves open to using or supplying the incorrect components which can potentially result in an RCD that is unable to trip under fault conditions.
In this article, we will delve into the type of RCD you should be using in your camper van’s electrical installation. The type of RCD you choose can have a detrimental effect on the safety of your system so this is a really important guide to help you through this process.
Types of RCD
There are two main types of RCDs:
- Type AC: This type of RCD is designed to protect against AC fault currents only. It detects and disconnects the circuit when there is a difference in the current flowing through the line (live) and neutral conductors, which may be caused by a fault to earth. Type AC RCDs are commonly used in domestic and similar installations where the risk of DC faults is low.
- Type A: This type of RCD is designed to protect against both AC and DC fault currents. It can detect and disconnect the circuit when there is a difference in the current flowing through the line and neutral conductors, as well as when there is a fault current to earth caused by a DC component. Type A RCDs are commonly used in industrial and commercial installations where the risk of DC faults is higher.
In addition to these two main types, there are also other types of RCDs available, including:
- Type B: This type of RCD is designed to protect against AC, pulsating DC and smooth DC fault currents. It is commonly used in medical locations and locations where the electrical supply is generated from a renewable energy source.
- Type F: This type of RCD is designed to protect against AC and DC fault currents, including high-frequency DC residual currents. It is commonly used in locations with electronic equipment and installations with frequency converters.
- Type B+: This type of RCD is designed to provide additional protection against DC fault currents, including those caused by high-frequency ripple currents. It is commonly used in installations with electronic equipment and renewable energy sources.
If you intend on buying a consumer unit from a wholesaler then it could be possible that the unit will be supplied with a type AC RCD. Why? Well it is the cheapest model of RCD available, but, this does not provide the correct level of protection for an electrical system containing DC electronics.
How an RCD works with your van electrical system
A residual current device constantly measures the current balance between the line and neutral conductors. The device will open its contacts (trip) if it detects an imbalance between the two conductors.
In a safe, operational system the supply and return current are balanced and therefore no current is leaking to earth. RCD’s are designed to prevent electrocution by detecting the earth leakage and disconnecting the supply before it causes any harm.
RCDs are designed to prevent electrocution by detecting this leakage current, which can be far smaller than the currents that are needed to trip conventional circuit breakers or fuses (several Amperes). RCDs are intended to operate within 25 – 40 milliseconds. This time is faster than the time needed for the electric shock to drive the heart into ventricular fibrillation, the most common cause of death through electric shock.
A safe system is a system that protects against short-circuit, overload and earth leakage currents.
Why are Type AC RCD’s are becoming obsolete for van conversions?
Type AC RCD’s have worked perfectly well in the past because the loads put through the RCD were simple resistive loads with very little in the way of electronics. However, as time has gone on systems are becoming ever more sophisticated with a larger amount of electronics present. Loads with DC electronics within them have a nasty habit of leaking DC electricity down the line into our AC network and then on into the RCD.
This DC current has the potential to leak into the type AC RCD and ‘stun’ it, stopping it from tripping when an earth fault occurs. As that’s what an RCD is designed to do, this causes a massive issue. This therefore means the fault will not clear and cause damage to the van conversion electrical system or worse, the user.
This therefore means that a type AC RCD is no longer suitable for many installations, especially campervans with inverters, battery chargers, and other DC-operated electronics.
Which RCD do I need for my campervan?
We recommend that you fit a Type A double pole RCD in your campervan’s electrical distribution board. Type A RCDs are specifically designed to detect alternating current (AC) residual currents with a sinusoidal waveform, such as those produced by electronic devices with switching power supplies or equipment with variable speed drives. These types of electrical loads can produce harmonic currents that can be difficult for Type AC RCD’s to detect, making Type A RCDs an important safety measure in many any electrical system containing DC electronics.
Do you need help specifying which RCD you should use for your van conversion?
If you use our Electrical Design Service we will not only design and specify your consumer unit, RCD and circuit breakers but will also build the equipment before it’s sent out to you!
Miniature Circuit Breakers (MCB’s) for van conversions
Miniature Circuit Breakers are automatic electrical switches designed to protect electrical circuits from damage caused by excessive currents. They serve as vital safeguards, preventing overloads and short circuits that could lead to fires or damage sensitive equipment.
Functioning of MCBs
The primary function of an MCB is to interrupt the flow of current when it exceeds a predetermined threshold. They consist of a switch mechanism and a bimetallic strip or an electromagnetic coil. When the current exceeds the rated limit, the bimetallic strip heats up and bends, causing the switch to trip and disconnect the circuit. In the case of an electromagnetic coil, a magnetic field is generated when the current exceeds the set limit, tripping the switch. This quick response time ensures the protection of the camper van’s electrical system.
Selecting Miniature Circuit Breakers for a Van Conversion’s Electrical System
Campervans have limited space, making MCBs an ideal choice due to their compact size. Here are some considerations for implementing MCBs in campervan electrical systems:
Load Calculation: Begin by calculating the anticipated electrical load of each circuit. This includes appliances, lighting, heating, and any other A/C electrical devices you plan to install. This calculation will help determine the appropriate ampere rating for the MCBs.
Circuit Design: Designate circuits based on the electrical load calculations, grouping similar devices together. For example, camper van sockets should be on a separate circuit from the hot water tank to avoid overloading.
MCB Selection: Choose MCBs with appropriate ampere ratings for each circuit. Ensure they are compatible with the electrical system voltage. Typical MCB ratings for campervan applications range from 6A to 16A.
Selecting a Circuit Breaker Based On The Following:
- The circuit breaker construction standard, BS EN 60898
- Current rating for overload protection, with preferred values: 6 A, 10 A and 16 A.
Rather than go to 16 A, however, the designer would be better specifying more circuits
at 10 A, or even 13 A.
- Sensitivity for fault protection, with Type B or Type C; but NEVER Type D
- Short-circuit capacity – probably between 3000A (3kA) and 6000A (6kA)
- Energy limiting class – preferably 3
- That the circuit breaker must disconnect both line and neutral conductors (2-pole), to
satisfy Regulation 721.43.1 of BS 7671 for touring caravans and motorhomes.
721.43.1 Final circuits: Each final circuit shall be protected by an overcurrent protective device which disconnects all live conductors of that circuit.
Double Pole Miniature Circuit Breakers
As we have highlighted above in the last bullet point, circuit breakers used for the protection of circuits in touring caravans and motorhomes must be double-pole, including the main disconnector/main switch. (Regulation 721.5188.8.131.52 of BS 7671).
721.5184.108.40.206: “Each installation shall be provided with a main disconnector which shall disconnect all live conductors and which shall be suitably placed for ready operation within the caravan. In an installation consisting of only one final circuit, the isolating switch may be the overcurrent protection device fulfilling the requirements for isolation.“
Some confusion lies here for installers and van conversion builders as the obvious choice is a single-pole device, making and breaking the line conductor only.
Since a touring caravan or motorhome is considered a special location by the IET wiring regulations, we are to adhere to slightly stricter guidelines. A double pole overcurrent protection device is one of them.
Since owners of motorhomes and caravans are likely to travel to countries where the polarity of supply is not as rigorously enforced as the UK, the designer will want to specify 2-pole devices providing protection for both the line and neutral conductors.
Types of MCBs and Alphanumeric Codes:
Type B MCBs: These are the most common MCBs used in residential and commercial applications. They provide protection against overloads and short circuits caused by general-purpose equipment. The alphanumeric code for Type B MCBs starts with the letter “B.”
Type C MCBs: These MCBs offer increased protection for circuits with equipment that have a higher inrush current, such as motors or transformers. The alphanumeric code for Type C MCBs starts with the letter “C.”
Understanding MCB Markings
MCBs are labelled with letters and numbers that provide vital information about their specifications. Let’s decode these markings:
- Current Rating (In Amperes): This indicates the maximum current that an MCB can handle without tripping.
- Trip Curve: The letter associated with an MCB (e.g., B or C) denotes its trip curve, which indicates the response time of the circuit breaker to an overload or short circuit.
- Breaking Capacity: Represented in kiloamps (kA), this value signifies the maximum fault current that an MCB can safely interrupt without causing damage. Typically 6kA (6000a) or 10kA (10,000a).
How do Miniature Circuit Breakers Work?
MCBs operate based on the principle of thermal and magnetic tripping. They consist of a bimetallic strip and an electromagnet, which respond to different types of electrical faults:
Thermal Tripping: The bimetallic strip within the MCB is designed to heat up when the current flowing through it exceeds the rated value. As the temperature rises, the strip bends and eventually trips the circuit breaker, disconnecting the circuit. This mechanism protects against overloads.
Magnetic Tripping: In the presence of a high-magnitude short-circuit current, the electromagnet within the MCB generates a magnetic field. This magnetic field rapidly pulls the trip mechanism, causing the circuit breaker to trip. Magnetic tripping provides rapid protection against short circuits.
The combination of thermal and magnetic tripping ensures that MCBs can respond to a wide range of electrical faults, thereby safeguarding the connected circuits and devices.
*Can’t find miniature circuit breakers in our online shop? That’s because all of our 230V distribution boards are built in-house by competent, qualified personnel, to your specific needs, enhancing safety and ensuring that you are being matched with the correct product for your installation.
Get in contact today and we’ll be happy to size and design your board.
Integration of MCBs into Distribution Boards:
Distribution boards, also known as consumer units or fuse boxes, are key elements in electrical installations. They provide a centralised location for housing MCBs and other protective devices, enabling efficient power distribution and electrical system control.
Mounting: MCBs are mounted onto DIN rails within the distribution board. DIN rail mounting allows for easy installation, removal, and replacement of circuit breakers.
Circuit Configuration: MCBs in distribution boards/consumer units are typically organised to cater to various circuits in the campervan. Each MCB is connected to a specific electrical circuit, such as power outlets, or specific appliances. This arrangement allows selective disconnection of individual circuits in case of a fault, minimising downtime and ensuring safety.
Circuit Identification: To simplify maintenance and troubleshooting, MCBs in distribution boards are labelled or numbered to correspond with the connected circuits. This labelling helps electricians and campervan owners quickly locate and address any issues.
Additional Protection: In addition to MCBs, distribution boards may incorporate other protective devices such as residual current devices (RCDs). These devices provide additional protection against electrical shocks and ground faults, enhancing overall electrical safety.
Read more about RCD’s and choosing the correct type here.
Van Conversion Electrical Regulations
The regulations specify the selection and coordination of MCBs to ensure proper protection against overcurrents. They outline the maximum permitted Zs (impedance of the circuit) values for different types of MCBs, taking into account various factors like cable size, protective device characteristics, and fault currents.
The Wiring Regulations also address issues related to discrimination, which is the ability to isolate a faulty circuit without affecting the supply to other circuits. Discrimination ensures that only the circuit experiencing the fault is disconnected, minimising disruption to the rest of the electrical installation. MCBs should be selected and coordinated in such a way that discrimination is achieved.
Furthermore, the regulations emphasise the importance of proper installation, labelling, and periodic testing of MCBs to maintain their effectiveness. Qualified electricians are responsible for ensuring compliance with the Wiring Regulations and conducting the necessary inspections and tests.
Miniature Circuit Breakers and Residual Current Devices are vital safety components within electrical installations. They protect circuits and electrical equipment from overcurrents, short circuits and earth faults, mitigating the risk of fires and damage.
By understanding the different types and sizes of MCBs and RCD’s and adhering to the regulations outlined in the British Standard 7671, you can ensure the safe and effective operation of electrical systems.
Remember, when dealing with electrical installations, it is essential to consult with qualified electricians who are knowledgeable about the regulations and possess the necessary expertise to install and maintain MCBs in compliance with the requirements outlined in the Wiring Regulations.
Safety should always be of utmost importance in any electrical project, and our team can help you achieve just that. You can book at 30-minute consultation or have us help you design your entire electrical system and we’ll be happy to help.
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