What to do if you Have Generator Problems

Renting an RV

You’re out on a camping trip, boondocking in the middle of nowhere and having an amazing time, when all of the sudden your generator stops working. This is no good because the generator is your only power source. What do you do when you have generator problems while on a trip?

In this article, we are going to give you some troubleshooting tips, offer some maintenance suggestions, and help you understand when calling in a professional might be necessary. Hopefully, this article will help you get a good understanding of what to do when you have generator problems. 

Big generator

Common Generator Problems

Let’s first touch on some of the most common generator problems. Make sure to check these things first, as most are easy enough to fix, even with little to no experience. 

How to Restart a Generator

Sometimes a generator might die in use. In this case, there is usually an underlying problem that should be looked into after your trip is over. That said, you might be able to continue using the generator for the duration of your trip if you can just get it to start again. 

To restart an onboard generator, you should be able to use the interior switch, pushing it to one side (typically the ‘Off’ side) for a few seconds to prime the generator, and then the other side to start it up. If this doesn’t work, head outside and try to use the same process to turn the generator on using the switch on the side of the unit itself. It also helps if you ensure that all electric appliances in the house are turned off to avoid putting a load on the generator as it starts up.

If you’re working with a generator that is not built into the RV, the process to restart the generator is likely to be a little more complicated. The steps below should help you get it going again:

  1. First, unplug all electrical cords from outlets in the RV so the generator won’t be trying to run a load as it gets going. 
  2. Ensure the fuel valve is on. If your generator was already running, the valve should already be in the correct position, but it never hurts to check. 
  3. Flip the choke valve from right to left. 
  4. If your generator has one, flip the ignition switch to the “On” position. 
  5. Now you will pull the choke to start the generator. If it doesn’t start on the first pull, return the choke to the halfway point and pull again. You might have to repeat this process a few times. 

Resetting Generator Breakers

Let’s say following the instructions above won’t restart the generator, or maybe you do get the machine started but it isn’t sending any power to the RV. In these cases, you might want to check the breakers and fuses on the generator. 

Generally, a generator will have a main breaker as well as GFCI breakers on any outlets on the generator. There may also be fuses to check, so look for those. If the generator is running but you aren’t getting power, it could also be beneficial to check the breakers in the RV itself. 

Checking the Battery

If the generator won’t start up at all, it could be that you’re working with a dead battery. Oddly enough, generators require battery power to start up in order to recharge your batteries. This means that if you let your RV batteries get too low before running the generator, you won’t be able to use the generator to charge them back up again. In this case, you will have to find another way to charge the RV batteries. Heading to a campground with electric hookups or using solar power are both good options. 

Portable generators also use battery power to get going. This battery does need to be charged periodically, and if this bit of maintenance is neglected, you might just find yourself without a working generator. If you do find that your generator battery is dead, you will have to find a way to give it a little charge. This can be done with a car battery charger, but you will need a way to plug the charger in. 

You can also jump-start a portable generator battery using a car battery by following the steps below:

  1. Park the car near the generator (but don’t place the generator on the car). Leave the car running.
  2. Remove the cover from the generator battery in order to gain access to the battery terminals. 
  3. Connect the red side of the jumper cables to the positive post on the generator battery and then to the car battery, ensuring that both pairs of positive and negative clamps do not touch. 
  4. Connect the black clamp on the car side of the jumper cables to the negative terminal on the car battery.
  5. Connect the black clamp on the opposite side of the cables to any unpainted metal surface within a foot of the generator battery. 
  6. Start the generator as usual.
  7. As soon as the generator is running, disconnect the cables in reverse order. 

How to Check a Generator for Fuel

A generator cannot run without fuel, and many onboard generators won’t run if your RV’s fuel tank is below ¼ full. If you have an onboard generator that runs off of the fuel in your RV’s fuel tank, check the fuel level on your dashboard to make sure you have over ¼ tank. If not, you might just need to add some fuel to get the generator going again. 

If you have a portable generator or an onboard generator that uses its own fuel source rather than sharing with the motorhome, check the fuel gauge associated with the generator. (If you’re using a rental and don’t know where to look, ask the owner of the RV.) If it looks low, add some fuel, as this might be a super quick and easy solution to your problem. 

Checking the Generator Oil Level

Many generators won’t run if the oil level is too low. Fortunately, it is usually pretty easy to check the oil level in a generator. It involves finding and pulling a dipstick to see how much oil is left. 

If it looks low, you can add more oil, but you will want to check the owner’s manual to make sure you know what type of oil to add and in what quantity. If the generator is not yours, we recommend asking the owner about whether you can add oil and what type/amount to add in order to get the machine running again. 

Bottle of oil

Generator Maintenance

There are certain maintenance tasks that you have to stay on top of in order to keep a generator running smoothly. If these tasks are put off too long, they can be the cause of generator problems while out on a trip. 

Some of the maintenance tasks you will want to be sure to stay on top of include:

  • Running the generator under load for at least an hour each month. 
  • Changing the oil every 100 hours or so.
  • Changing the air filter as needed.
  • Changing the fuel filter every six months or so.
  • Changing the spark plug every 200 hours or so. 
  • Adding fuel stabilizer when storing the generator in a cold climate. 

Obviously, you should not be responsible for these things if you’re renting the generator, but if you’re the owner and your generator is giving you issues, these are definitely things you’ll want to check. 

When to Seek a Professional Opinion

If none of the troubleshooting and maintenance tips above help you get your generator running again, or if you find your generator either A) dies frequently, B) runs rough, or C) presents other problems, it’s probably time to get a professional to look at it. You might get lucky and find someone dedicated purely to fixing and maintaining generators, but if not, a small-engine repair shop should be able to get the job done. 

There you have it, a quick rundown of exactly what to do if you have generator problems. Hopefully you never have to use these tips, but if you do, you’re now very well prepared!