Do I Need an RV Generator?
Like oxygen, water and that one pair of jeans that fit you just right, a quality RV Generator is a must-have. Unless you are a fugitive from the law or Henry David Thoreau – electricity is an absolute must while you are out on the road.
The good news is you don’t need to be old Ben Franklin to figure out your electricity needs. We’ve put together this easy-to-understand guide to help answer all your RV generator questions.
I Only Have Two Minutes … Just Tell Me What I Need to Know
My, my. A bit pushy, aren’t you? Let me give you a quick and dirty rundown of the decisions you will need to make when choosing a camping generator:
- STEP 1: Determine your power needs. It’s critical to know both the Running Wattage and the Starting Wattage of every appliance you will run at the same time. You can check out the Power Supply Reference Guide HERE:
- STEP 2: Choose between a built-in generator or portable unit (Click HERE to jump);
- STEP 3: If you decide on a portable rv generator, consider the following:
- What is the noise level?
- How heavy is the unit?
- Will it physically fit?
- What type of fuel do you want it to run on?
- STEP 4: Research Safety and Reliability. Carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators claimed over 900 lives from 2005-2012 (70 lives a year). It’s critical to research the safety and reliability of the generator(s) that you intend to buy;
- STEP 5: Once you’ve done all your research choose a unit that best suits your needs and your budget.
This isn’t 1912. Don’t All RV Campsites Have Electrical Hookups?
Not so fast my friend. You may be surprised to learn that electricity hookups are not available at most national parks. Resort-style RV parks can offer great amenities like full hookups (electric, water, sewer) pools, indoor showers and playgrounds – but can come with a hefty price tag of $75 or up a night.
If you’re on a tight budget or looking to immerse yourself in the national park experience you’ll need a reliable camping generator.
Can you Tell Me About this Whole “Wattage” Business
“What size generator for my RV?” is probably the first question you ask when searching for the right RV generator. The answer lies in one word: Wattage.
Wattage is the measurement of power in an electrical appliance or device. All the appliances in your motorhome from your microwave to your coffee maker generate power (or watts).
The two types of wattage you need to know are: Starting Watts and Running Watts
STARTING WATTS are extra watts needed for two to three seconds to start motor-driven products like a refrigerator or a microwave. Starting watts are the maximum wattage the generator can produce.
RUNNING WATTS are the continuous watts needed to keep items running. Once an appliance or device starts, this is the wattage it will produce.
To help you determine a rough estimate of your wattage needs, below is a Wattage Reference Guide. Disclaimer: The below wattage requirements are *estimates* only. It’s vital you read the owner’s manual for the exact wattage requirements.
RV Generator Needs: Wattage Reference Guide
|Appliance||Running Watts (Estimate)||Starting Watts (Estimate)|
|Air Conditioner Unit (BTUs)|
|Microwave (600 Watts)||600||0|
|Microwave (1,000 Watts)||1,000||0|
|Espresso Coffee Machine||1,500||0|
|Electric Stove (8″ Element)||2,100||0|
|Television (42″ LED)||60||0|
|Gaming Console (i.e. XBox)||120||0|
|Hair Dryer||Check Specific Wattage||Check Specific Wattage|
So … I just Add up the total wattage of all my appliances and Pick a generator?
Repeat after me:
I will not be running all my appliances at the same time. I will not be running all my appliances at the same time. I will not be running all my appliances at the same time. I will not —
Compute your power needs on what your actual use will be at any given time. You will not be using a dishwasher, stove, television, microwave, space heater, air conditioner and curling iron all at the same time.
A good rule of thumb when purchasing a camping generator is to add 20% onto what you estimate your greatest power needs will be. This is important because:
- You don’t want to run a generator at maxed-out power (reduces efficiency);
- You want to give yourself a little cushion if you add devices or appliances along the way;
If you calculate that you will use 5,000 watts of energy in your motorhome, the 20% rule means you should be looking at 6,000 Watt generators (5,000 x 20% = 1,000W) then (5,000W + 1,000W = 6,000W)
Inexperienced RV’ers can overpay for a larger generator than necessary because they miscalculate their needs. Be smart: don’t let a sneaky salesman up-sell you on a generator that is too big for your britches.
Built-In vs. Portable Generator: how do I decide?
It’s pretty simple. A built-in generator is hardwired to your the electrical system of your motorhome. The generator starts with a push of a button, and draws fuel from your RV fuel tank.
A portable generator is stored in your RV, but then is moved outside when in use. Considering that portable generators can emit 450 times more CO2 than a car – you need to keep portable generators a safe distance from your motorhome (as well as your neighbors).
Here are the pros and cons of the built-in camping generator and the portable camping generator:
Built-In RV Generator
|Starts at the push of a button||Generally more expensive|
|No need to go outside in rain or cold to start||Noisier|
|Hassle-free fueling directly from gas tank||More costly breakdowns|
|No heavy lifting||Higher risk of exhaust leak|
|Can’t easily be stolen||Separate safety and environmental requirements|
|Less frequent refueling|
|Dedicated Storage compartment|
Portable RV Generator
|Portability allows for use in different settings||Can be heavy to move in/out of motorhome|
|Less expensive than built-in||Requires separate fuel source|
|Less noise than built-in||Requires fueling more often|
|Easier to access and maintain||Can be stolen at campground|
|Less maintenance than built-in||Can’t be started in rain without cover|
Okay … I’m sold on a portable generator. What else do I need to consider?
A few important considerations when researching a portable generator:
You’ll want the quietest RV generator you can find because portable RV generators are LOUD – very, very loud. A portable generator can produce between 60-90 decibels (dBs) and a large portable generator can produce over 100 dBs.
What’s this mean? Here are a few comparisons:
Source: IAC Acoustics
Noise level should be a critical factor in your decision making process. Just 50 dBs is the difference between the sound of jackhammer and an indoor conversation. Yes, a quiet portable generator will likely cost you a few extra hundred bucks – but you can’t put a price on sleep, can you?
My recommendation: spend the extra money on a quiet portable camping generator for comfort, peace of mind and your own sanity.
The weight of the unit must be part of your purchasing decision. The smallest units (1000W~) weigh in at about 30lbs. Larger generator units get exponentially heavier as you move up in size.
Here are some examples of what you can expect:
|1,000W Generator||~30 lbs|
|2,000W Generator||~ 50 lbs|
|3,000W Generator||~90 lbs|
|4,000W Generator||~100 – 140 lbs|
|5,000W Generator||~ 110 – 160 lbs|
|7,000W Generator||200+ lbs|
You’ll be moving these units in and out of your motorhome during each use. If you have back issues, knees problems or even if you are healthy as a horse – consider just how much weight you can safely handle before making a decision.
Take careful measurements of your storage or cargo compartment to make sure your generator will fit. If you plan on keeping your unit inside your motorhome – be certain that it will physically fit through the doors and in the walk space of your living area.
The last thing you want a to have a very expensive “DOH!” moment at the last minute when you are loading your vehicle.
The type of fuel will have a major impact on the efficiency, storage and maintenance of your portable RV generator. Portable generators can run on gas, diesel or liquid propane fuel. Some portable generator models are “dual fuel” – meaning they use a combination of two fuel sources.
Below are the pros and cons for each fuel source:
Pros: readily accessible, cheapest, more energy than liquid propane
Cons: burns fast, degrades easily, extremely flammable, least eco-friendly source
Pros: accessible, more efficient than gas and liquid propane, more eco-friendly than gas
Cons: harder to locate than gas, tends to run noisier than gas, not eco-friendly as propane
Pros: most eco-friendly option, extended shelf-life of fuel
Cons: most difficult to access, weakest energy
My recommendation: While gas may be the cheapest (and most readily available) option, it also comes with some serious draw-backs If you are environmentally-conscious. You may want to consider the cleaner-burning diesel or a dual-fuel generator that runs a combination of diesel and propane.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) found that from 2005-2017 more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators (70 deaths a year). Over the same period, 15,000 people were treated in the emergency room for CO2 poisoning.
If these stats don’t tell you how critical safety is, I don’t know what will.
Portable generators can produce deadly levels of carbon monoxide – a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that can kill in less than 5 minutes. Knowing the operating standards of the product you are buying is absolutely critical.
Safety technology is evolving to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Many new models of generators have engines that emit less CO2 than earlier versions. More advanced portable generators feature a built-in sensor that triggers an automatic shutoff if the gas builds up to dangerous levels in an enclosed space.
For information on how to operate your portable generator safely, both CPSC and the CDC offer safety guides. The most comprehensive guide you can find on generator safety can be found at Consumer Reports.
The power is now in your hands!
It’s easy to feel powerless researching RV generators. The exciting news is that after reading this guide you are no longer a novice.
Armed with your newfound knowledge, go forth into the abyss of the world wide web and find the generator that meets your personal needs. Before long you will be on the road, sipping a piping hot espresso in one hand and flipping through Netflix with the other.
That’s because … you’ve got the power.