How to Buy an RV Generator

RV Owners

Staying in developed, resort-style campgrounds is great and all — especially when you have a Passport America membership that gets you access to all the hookups and amenities at 50% off.

But for many RVers, the real treat is in disconnecting. Boondocking, or dispersed RV camping out in the wilderness, is an incredible way to experience everything your motorhome was made for: slowing down, getting closer to nature, and most of all, relaxing. You ditch your laptop and cell phone, open up your favorite set of road maps, and remember what it was like to live in a world before the constant onslaught of beeps and notifications.

Obviously, the ideal scenario is to find a spot with picture-perfect temperatures, enjoying sunshine and cool breeze and not even thinking about touching your thermostat. Heating up dinner in the microwave? Why bother when you can cook over an open flame in either your campsite fire pit or portable grill?

But in the real world, there are going to be times you want access to electrical power — even when you’re off grid. And when it comes to major power-drawing appliances like your air conditioner, solar probably isn’t going to cut it.

That means you need an RV generator, and you may be on the market for a new one if yours is old and tired or if your rig didn’t come with one already built in. But what do you need to look for when you buy one?

Small Portable Generators for Camping

First things first: not all generators are created equally. In fact, the small, portable generators made for household use are not the best choice for your rig.

Instead, look for portable RV generators that are specifically designed to work in a motorhome or travel trailer. This will make installation and set-up a whole lot easier, since these units are specifically designed with RV usage in mind.

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Once you start looking around at different RV generators, you’ll quickly discover there are other factors to consider before you make a purchasing decision. For instance, you need to ensure the unit you buy is the right size to power your RV, which will depend on the size and model of rig you drive as well as the draw rating of the appliances you plan to power. For instance, if you’re traveling in a 20-foot travel trailer with a 13,500 BTU air conditioning unit, a small 3000-watt generator like this one will be sufficient to start and run your AC as well as a few other smaller appliances. But if you drive a larger rig like a fifth wheel (or simply want more power), you’ll need to consider purchasing a more powerful generator, such as this 3500-watt model from Champion Power Equipment.

Another important factor to keep in mind is the type of fuel the generator will use to create power: gasoline, diesel, or liquid propane. For instance, if you’re traveling in an RV that runs on diesel, it’s best to purchase a diesel-run RV generator as well. That way, you won’t have to worry about keeping your fuel sources separate. (Keep in mind that some units, like the Champion 3800-Watt Dual Fuel RV Ready Portable Generator with Electric Start, can run on a variety of different fuel sources, such as gas or liquid propane.)

How much gas or fuel your RV generator uses will depend on how much power you need to draw and how often you run it, but will generally be a bit less than a gallon an hour if you’re running your air conditioner. Those gallons can add up quick and create lots of air pollution, so be sure to turn your unit off when you don’t need it!

RV Generator Parts

RV generators come with a variety of different features and accessories to fit different needs and camping preferences. For instance, some RV generators have an auto-start program that can automatically power up the generator based on battery voltage or high temperature. This can be useful in ensuring you’re only powering your generator when absolutely needed, which can help create the most efficient use of fuel.

Newer RV generators come with added features to help ensure they run in a quiet manner, which can be very important if you’re sharing the campground with neighbors. Generators can be quite noisy!

How to Start an RV Generator

Starting an RV generator is usually a fairly simple process, though the specific steps will vary depending on your unit. In many cases, all you have to do is push a button — but be sure to reference your owner’s manual for more information.

RV Generator Problems

Here are a few common RV generator questions and problems to help you with troubleshooting.

How does an RV generator work?

An RV generator uses fuel to create a significant amount of power, which helps you use major appliances like your air conditioner and microwave. It also charges your RV’s battery systems.

How long does an RV generator last?

Like any other engine, your RV generator has a limited lifespan and is more liable to encounter mechanical failures and breakdowns as it’s used over time. That’s why it’s important to check the running hours when you’re considering purchasing a used RV generator unit. Just like the odometer in a car, the hours on your generator can help you get a sense of how much life you can expect out of the unit.

Can I drive my RV with the generator on and running?

Yes! Many RVers run their generator while driving in order to use the coach AC unit to keep the inside of the motorhome cool, especially if they’re traveling with pets or passengers. Just ensure that your generator was installed correctly so as to avoid any safety hazards on the road.

Although this post is a great start, there’s plenty more to learn and research before purchasing an RV generator, which can be a significant investment at several hundred dollars. Be sure to speak with a professional at a local camping store or RV dealership whom you trust to get the best deal and service.

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