RVing 101: How to Operate a Generator

Published on February 16th, 2022

If you’re brand new to RVing, you’ll soon realize that RV camping can get pretty difficult without a power source. You won’t be able to use your air conditioning or appliances, and after a few days your RV batteries will die. Which is why you’re going to need an external power source if you’re planning to camp anywhere that doesn’t have hookups!

The easiest way to start getting that extra power is with a generator. Generators can seem a bit intimidating if you’ve never used one before, but we’ve got you covered with all you need to know to operate an RV generator.

Types of RV Generators

The first thing to know is that there are two different categories of generators – portable generators and onboard generators that are already wired into your RV.

Most motor coaches such as Class As and Class Cs come with onboard generators. They’re also becoming more common in larger fifth wheel trailers. These are built into the actual RV and can usually be turned on with a switch from inside the rig. They generally (but not always!) run on the same fuel that powers your RV’s engine. Onboard generators can run on gas, diesel, or propane depending on the model. If your rig has an onboard generator, grab the owner’s manual and check what type of fuel your generator uses.

The other type of generator is a portable generator which is plugged into your trailer using the shore power cord. These generators come in a variety of size and power outputs and use different types of fuel to run. If you don’t have an onboard generator, this is the way to go.

Choosing an RV Generator

While newer motor homes typically come with onboard generators, trailer owners will want to purchase a portable generator before boondocking.

Portable RV generators aren’t one size fits all, there’s a lot to think about when choosing the best generator for your rig. First you’ll need to consider fuel type. Portable generators can run on gas, diesel, propane, and even a combination.

You’ll also need to think about the size and power output of a portable generator to see if it will be enough to power you rig. Consider how often you’re going to be using the generator, how many appliances you want to run, how big is your unit, etc. And don’t forget about noise level! While inverter generators are more expensive, they’re much quieter. We have several articles to help you find the best portable generator for your RVing needs:

Generator Safety

Now that you have your generator it’s time to go over some basic safety information. First, make sure your rig is equipped with a carbon monoxide detector. As generators burn fuel they emit carbon monoxide which is highly poisonous but odorless. You don’t want that blowing back into your rig, so make sure your CO detector is working. For the same reason, don’t run your generator in closed garages or anywhere where there’s not good ventilation.

When using a portable generator make sure to keep an eye on the weather and conditions. Don’t let your generator get wet or run it in rain or snow. On the other hand, if you’re dry camping in the desert or a dry forest, be careful of where you place it, as heat or sparks could start a wildfire.

You’ll also want to safely store your generator while traveling so it won’t tip over. Generators need to be stored upright, so make sure you have a secure location where it won’t slide around or fall over while driving.

And finally, while it’s not a safety issue, be thoughtful about where you use your generator. Dry camping in the middle of nowhere won’t be a problem, but running a generator all night in a busy campground will leave you with angry neighbors. Many campgrounds won’t allow generators to be run at night, so check with the campground for any restrictions before starting it up.

a camper set up in a forested site with a campfire burning

How to Operate an RV Generator

Ok after all that we’re finally ready to operate your generator. The first thing to do is to open up your trusty user manual and read exactly how to use your specific generator model! RV generators are all a little different, but we’re going to give you a general guide on how to use them. For all specifics on operating and troubleshooting your generator, turn to that user manual!

How to Operate an Onboard Generator

Using an onboard generator is typically pretty easy. Most RVs will have a “Start/Stop” switch on the control panel that will allow you to turn on and off the generator. Depending on the rig and generator you might have a “Prime” button that will prime the generator before it turns on, or you might have to hold the “Stop” switch to prime the generator. Check your user manual to see how exactly to prime and start your particular generator and how long it needs to be primed. Once it’s primed, hold the start button for a few seconds until you hear the generator kick on.

How to Operate a Portable Generator

Portable generators take few more steps to operate, which is why it’s incredibly important to read the user’s manual to know exactly how to operate it (noticing a trend here?).

First you’ll need to unload the generator and place it at least 5-10 feet away from your rig. You’ll also want to make sure the exhaust output is facing away from your rig to avoid fumes getting inside. Depending on where you’re camping and how loud the generator is, you might want to put it farther away from your trailer so it won’t be so loud. Check the oil and fuel supply levels to make sure you have enough for how long you’ll be running it. With everything in the trailer off, plug your shore power cable into the power supply port on the side of your rig.

Next up it’s time to prime the generator. Check your owner’s manual and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to prime and start your particular generator model. Once it’s primed and started, give it a minute or two to warm up. Once the generator is warmed up and running, plug the other end of the rig’s power cable into the generator. Depending on the type of generator, you might have to use a dogbone adapter to connect the cable. And there you go, your rig now has 120-volt power!

If you’re looking for more information on types of generators and how to purchase one, check out our other blog post How to Select the Best RV Generator for Your RV.

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