RV Generators: Need-To-Know Information

If you're an RVer, a generator provides independence. Because you're not relying on shore power, you can camp virtually anywhere and still use all your onboard electronic appliances. There are many types of RV generators available, and choosing the right one for your camper will take some consideration if you're not familiar with the various units. 

In this guide, we'll go over how RVs get power, explain the differences between RV and portable generators and offer advice on how to pick the best model for your needs.  

Why Do RVs Have Generators?

An RV has many common household appliances that allow you to live comfortably, including lights, a microwave, a dishwasher, a TV and an AC unit. All of those and other devices need an electric power source to operate. Some campgrounds offer electric hookups, which allow you to power these appliances, but relying on these hookups limits where you can comfortably camp in your RV. 

With RV generators you can camp practically anywhere while still enjoying all the electronic devices in your RV, giving you much more flexibility when traveling. 

How Do RV Generators Work?

Generators on RVs serve two primary purposes — they can store energy in the RV's house battery and can also be used as direct plug-ins for 120-volt AC power outlets.

The above two options let you do two things — either use the ample energy provided by the generator or store energy that you'll use later on when the generator isn't running. The latter option is considerably more efficient because generators can only charge house batteries at a limited amount of amperage. Because of that, charging the house battery will take a while. 

How Are RV Generators Different From Portable Generators? 

When choosing a generator for your RV, the first thing you must do is understand the differences between the two main types, which are built-in and portable. 

If your camper or RV comes with a compartment to house a built-in generator, your best option is to buy a built-in RV generator. It's hardwired to your RV electrical system and you don't need to manually start it — the battery will do that. You also don't need to refill it, as the fuel also comes right from the RV. 

Key Differences

Here are some of the key differences between built-in and portable units:

  • Power: Built-in RV generators can provide up to 12,000 watts. Portable units generally do not offer more than 8,000 watts. With a larger RV, such as a Class A or Class C, you'll definitely want to opt for a built-in generator. A smaller, portable unit will not be able to power all of your appliances. While it is possible to use a larger, open-frame portable generator, this isn't as practical of an option. 
  • Fuel source: Built-in RV generators use the gas tank as a fuel source. Portable units require a separate fuel tank you'll have to keep full. An onboard RV generator is especially great when the weather is bad. 
  • Startup: Built-in generators can be started with the push of a button from the inside of your RV. To start a manual portable generator, you must go outside. 
  • Installation: Installing a new built-in generator can be an involved and complex process. Portable generators are separate from the RV, so installation is unnecessary. 
  • Emissions: A built-in RV generator is located inside the RV, so we encourage you  to install a carbon monoxide alarm. You'll also want to shut your window when it's running to keep exhaust from making its way back inside. With a portable generator, you don't have to worry about this, since it's outside.
  • Maintenance: Maintenance is also much simpler for a portable unit because, as they're not part of the RV, they can be easily accessed and maintained.
  • Cost: Built-in generators are generally more costly than their portable counterparts. You'll also have to factor in installation costs for built-in models.
  • Noise: Portable generators tend to be noisier than built-in models. Large portable models may not be permitted in many RV parks because of their noise level.

How Do You Select an RV Generator?

When shopping for RV generators, there are a few important factors that will help you narrow down your options. These are:

Size 

One of the main considerations when shopping for an RV generator is the size, which refers to the amount of energy it provides. A generator that is too small will not be able to power all of your appliances, and a generator that's too big will blow your RV's circuits, leaving you without power.  

To determine the generator size you need, add up the wattages of all the appliances in your RV. The wattage for each appliance should include its starting energy surge, if it has one. The starting energy surge refers to the extra energy the appliance requires when starting up, which levels out later on. 

Generally speaking, the total power required for your RV falls between 3,000 and 4,000 watts. If you don't know the amount of energy used by an appliance, try to find a sticker on it. If you can't find a sticker, search for it online using the name of the appliance and the model number. 

Fuel Source

RV generators use one of three primary fuel sources — gas, diesel or propane. If you're just replacing your generator, you'll want to stick with the same fuel that your previous generator used. But to install a generator in an RV that's never had one or for a major upgrade, it's critical to consider all available options. 

Each fuel source has its own pros and cons: 

1. Gas

Gas RV generators are considered to be the most convenient, as you can fill them up at any gas station, which you'll be visiting anyway when filling up your RV. But note that gasoline burns hot and fast. So while you'll have more chances to fill your generator up, you'll also need to refuel it more often. 

The high flammability of gas means it can be hazardous if not carefully handled. This concern is particularly crucial in the case of a generator, as you'll be pouring gasoline into a machine that generates electricity. If you spill gasoline on the wrong part of the generator, you'll have to buy another. 

2. Diesel

Some RVs use diesel as their fuel source. If your RV runs on diesel, it makes sense to have a diesel generator — whenever you fill up your RV, you can fill up your generator, too. 

Diesel isn't quite as widely available as gasoline, so locating a diesel station might take a little more time, but this is rarely a significant issue. Diesel fuel offers a number of benefits — it's not as volatile as gasoline and provides more power than propane.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of diesel is that you won't have to refuel very often because diesel is the most fuel-efficient of all three options. One drawback is that diesel generators tend to be louder than gas or liquid propane generators. They're not a major disruption, but they're louder than the gentle hum that other generator types make.

3. Liquid Propane

If environmental friendliness is your number one priority, a liquid propane generator is an excellent choice. It's also a great option when it comes to storage, as you'll always have the opportunity to store your fuel. Whereas neither gas nor diesel has particularly good storage capabilities, generators that run on propane can generally be left alone. 

There are also a number of drawbacks. For one, propane is not as widely available and emits the weakest energy. Make sure you have enough on you if you're venturing into an area where propane is harder to find. 

Noise Level

If you're only familiar with standard generators, you'll be happy to know that RV generators operate more quietly than their standard counterparts. But some larger models — which you may need for your RV — can be louder. If you choose a louder model, keep in mind that some campgrounds have maximum decibel levels for generators. 

Price

There are three main factors that affect the price of an RV generator:

  • Fuel source: Diesel generators tend to have the highest upfront costs, whereas gasoline generators tend to be the cheapest. Propane falls in between these two in terms of cost.
  • Wattage: The amount of power that the generator provides, which is measured in wattage, will also influence the price. But you shouldn't compromise in this area once you know your wattage needs.
  • Brand: Generators come in a number of brands. If you want a reliable generator, it's worth it to spend a little extra for a brand name you can trust.

Do You Need a Generator for an RV?

It mainly comes down to how much power you require. If you've invested lots of money in a motorcoach RV, which comes with many fancy electrical appliances, not getting an RV generator would be wasting your investment. 

On the other hand, if you have a small, towable travel trailer or camper, you'll probably have no need for a big generator, but some basic backup power might come in handy from time to time.

If you own an RV that would benefit from a generator, you'll have to figure out your wattage needs, which you can determine by adding up the wattage requirements for all the appliances you use in your RV

For most appliances, you'll only need to consider the running watts, which is the power required for the appliance to run. But for some appliances, you'll also need to add the starting watts, which are the extra watts required to start your appliance. Adding the running and starting watts together will give you the total wattage. 

Below are the average total wattage requirements for powering common RV appliances, represented by combined running and starting wattage requirements:

  • Coffeemaker: 1,500 watts
  • 1,000-watt microwave: 1,000 watts
  • Dishwasher, cool dry: 2,100 watts
  • 17-inch personal computer: 800 watts
  • 27-inch color television: 500 watts
  • 10,000-BTU window AC unit: 3,000 watts
  • Window fan: 900 watts
  • 40-gallon electric water heater: 4,000 watts
  • Electric fry pan: 1,300 watts
  • Automatic washing machine: 3,450 watts

Keep in mind that the above values are merely estimates. To find the wattage for your appliances, look either directly on the appliance itself or in the owner's manual. If you can't find it in either of these places, look on the manufacturer's website. 

How Do You Operate an RV Generator Safely?

When it comes to RV generator safety, one of the most vital hazards to look out for is carbon monoxide leaks. If your RV doesn't have a functioning carbon monoxide detector, you will have to buy a battery-operated one designed for RV use. It also has to be UL-listed for RV use, as it will be exposed to a broad range of conditions and temperatures. 

You must also test your detector every time you use your RV. Some carbon monoxide detectors are hardwired to the electrical system of your RV, but others are battery-operated. If a chirping sound starts coming from your carbon monoxide detector or smoke alarm, your batteries are running low and you must replace them. 

Carbon monoxide detectors also expire after a certain amount of time, so check the expiration date and write it down somewhere on the detector cover where you can see it easily. Replace your detector before it reaches its expiration date. 

If you're using a portable generator, you can minimize your exposure to carbon monoxide by positioning the unit as far from your camping area as your power cord will allow. You should also direct the exhaust from your generator away from your camping area and make sure it's in a place where the wind will carry the exhaust fumes away from your RV. 

Be sure not to place your generator anywhere where the heat from your tailpipe or muffler could ignite a fire. Placing it in tall grass is a definite no-no, too. 

You should also regularly inspect all connections in your exhaust system for leaks. Tighten any connections as necessary. If your exhaust system is faulty, you must not run your generator.

How Do You Maintain an RV Generator?

To maximize the lifespan of your generator, you'll also want to perform a number of basic maintenance tasks. Some useful RV generator maintenance tips include:

  • Keep track of your hour meter: Your RV generator should come with an hour meter, which tracks how long your generator has been running. This measure is critical because it determines how often you should change the oil. By keeping track of this, you can prevent any service issues in the future.
  • Change your filters, fluids and oil: Manufacturers suggest you change your RV generator's oil after your first 50 hours of use and after that, every 150 hours. When you change the oil, you should change the oil filter and top off your coolant levels, as well. You'll also want to change your generator's air filter, as it will affect its efficiency and lifespan.
  • Frequently run the generator: Even the highest-quality generators need to be used frequently for things to run smoothly. For instance, if you're storing your camper during the winter months, you should run the generator for a minimum of one hour every three to four weeks. This precaution will prevent fuel from gumming up your generator.
  • Don't take the covers off: When you feel heat coming from your generator, you may be tempted to remove the covers to help it cool off. But removing these covers will actually have the opposite effect — these components are arranged to improve airflow, and removing them may cause issues with your engine.

Shop for Inverter Generators Online From Ingram's Water & Air

With a reliable generator, you can experience the beauty of the wilderness while still enjoying the luxuries of home. At Ingram's Water & Air, we offer high-quality generators and replacement parts. Trust a generator from us to keep your RV's devices running, no matter where you are.

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