by Jason Epperson
One of the most important measures you can take to protect your RV investment is to utilize a surge protector every time you plug into electricity. Campground service is notorious for voltage issues, miswired poles, malfunctioning breakers, and corroded receptacles. But more importantly, a lightning strike or other surge can destroy all the electronic components in your RV in an instant.
At its most basic level, a surge protector is a portable device that gets plugged into the campground receptacle before your RV. When a surge hits, it sacrifices itself, protecting your electronics. Many surge protectors have more features, including the ability to check for reversed polarity (which can cause a “hot skin” condition) or open ground. The better units can sense low voltage and high voltage conditions, and automatically shut off when it’s not safe for your RV’s equipment. Some manufacturers call these types of surge protectors “EMS” (electrical management systems), but that’s a marketing term. They’re all surge protectors with different features, which can run you from $70 to $700.
A unit that we’ve had the opportunity to test over the last month strikes the perfect balance between price and function. It’s called the Power Watchdog Smart Surge Protector with Auto Shut-Off. It’s manufactured by Hughes Autoformers and it’s available in 30amp and 50 amp versions for about $230 and $280 respectively. It also comes in hardwired versions to mount permanently in your RV.
Physically, it’s a commanding, well-built piece of kit. It’s IP65 rated dust-tight and water-resistant. You don’t want to lay it in standing water, but it can handle the worst thunderstorms with ease. It’s constructed with pure copper 10-gauge wire, plugs, and blades, easy-pull plug handles, and has a tab for a locking cable to ward off theft. In the box, you also get an AC volt meter that you can plug into any outlet inside your RV, which works independently from the Watchdog.
On the front of the device is the face of a large bulldog, which lights up white when the power is good, and red when it’s not. There’s also a 2-digit error display that tells you in number codes what is wrong.
Knowing those codes isn’t essential, however, as the Power Watchdog connects via Bluetooth through a free app on your Android or Apple phone. The app automatically connects and disconnects when you get near the campsite, and will send you an alert anytime something goes wrong. The app also tells you how many watts you are currently using and how many kilowatt-hours you’ve used, along with voltage and amperage readings.
The app is incredibly useful since it allows you to see what’s wrong without leaving your RV. Plus you can make decisions about how many appliances you can turn at a time on based on the power usage shown.
But the crucial feature of a device like this is the auto-shut-off function. That’s what you’re paying for. Less-expensive devices (including ones from Hughes) will tell you what’s wrong, but can’t really do anything about it. If you use too much current, this version of the Watchdog will kill the power before your breaker has a chance to. You can then turn off some devices and turn the power back on through the app–without ever going outside. It will also snap off in an instant if the voltage drops below 104 V or rises over 132 V. Once the power is stable for 90 seconds, it will turn back on automatically.
We were able to test that in the real world at a campground that had electricity problems due to the heat of summer and everyone using their air conditioners at the same time. Throughout our week-long stay, the voltage dropped down to a highly dangerous 90 V several times. The Watchdog shut off as it was supposed to, while other RVs kept their power running, possibly causing expensive damage to components like their fridge and air conditioner.
The highlight of the Hughes Power Watchdog is its value. It’s priced nearly $100 below similarly equipped surge protectors. What’s more, is that the sacrificial surge/spike module inside it is replaceable. If a lightning strike hits, causing the surge protection to engage, you don’t have to buy a whole new unit–just a $30 part.
Hughes has many different surge protectors, and the ultra-cool Autoformer, which fixes low voltage problems allowing you to still use the power. But the Power Watchdog Smart Surge Protector with Auto Shutoff is a relatively affordable device that doesn’t sacrifice vital functions that keep your RV safe even when you’re away.