When it comes to powering your RV, you need portable energy. After all, an RV (like the Happier Camper) can go almost anywhere, so why limit yourself to the nearest power grid? This is where generators come in. Generators offer an alternative form of power from the standard RV pedestal hookup you’ll find at campgrounds.
Generators are portable and powerful, opening up amazing camping experiences in remote areas. With a generator on board, you can enjoy the solitude of camping deep in nature while still enjoying the creature comforts of a powered home. Solar panels are also an alternative form of power. But their leading downfall is their reliance on clear skies for continuous energy.
Solar panels also can’t quite match the load that a generator can manage. A generator is your most reliable portable power option if you’re trying to run appliances and equipment like an air conditioner. And many generators perform in any weather condition. Generators are one of the most reliable forms of portable energy out there.
Why You Might Want an RV Generator
Generators allow you to camp in remote locales, away from neighbors, noise, and crowded campgrounds. Ask yourself this key question before you decide to purchase a generator:
Are you interested in camping away from the amenities of the RV park?
Yes? Then let’s start looking at generators.
No? You likely won’t use a generator much if you’re staying primarily at campgrounds with power hookups.
One last question:
Do you experience severe storms and power outages in your area?
Camping aside, you might consider keeping a generator on hand during storm season. Generators can run necessary appliances in the case of an emergency. Practice generator safety at all times, whether using one for your home or for camping.
How Do RV Generators Work?
RV generators supply power for interior lights, electrical outlets for charging phones, and appliances like your microwave and air conditioner. For many campers, generator camping is the preferred way to camp. Over the years, generators have become more and more efficient.
Today’s generators are much quieter than their predecessors and have a smaller footprint. In RVing, there are two types of generators: a built-in onboard generator and a portable RV generator.
An onboard generator is built into the RV and gets its fuel from the RV’s chassis fuel tank. An onboard fuel tank is common on motorhomes and toy haulers. The RV’s propane system could also fuel the onboard generator.
In contrast, a portable generator has its own fuel tank. You can move this generator around and take it with you from RV to RV. For the purposes of this article, we’ll mainly be focusing on portable RV generators.
This is because most motorhomes and toy haulers that can be equipped with an onboard generator will be supplied with one from the manufacturer. If your RV comes “generator PREPPED” or “generator READY,” consult with the RV manufacturer or a Camping World to identify compatible generator options for your rig.
So You Want to Buy A Portable RV Generator?
The first question to think about is WHAT you plan to power with your generator. This tells you how much power you’ll need when you get out on the road. Think about your power needs in terms of tiers, going from most important (Top Tier) to semi-important (Mid Tier) to least important (Low Tier).
These tiers will differ from family to family. Grab your fellow campers, a pen, and paper, and discuss what powered items are most important as a group. Let’s look at some common power needs.
Top Tier Power Needs
Top tier power needs are essential – you can’t camp without them. This changes from camper to camper. It might be the ability to charge electronic devices. Some electronics, like cell phones, laptops, and tablets, can only be charged with an inverter generator. For others, it might be using a CPAP machine while sleeping. The most common top-tier power need is your air conditioner, depending on when and where you camp.
Don’t forget: your essential power needs also include things like lights and the electric components of your RV (slides, awnings, motorized jacks). Also, your water pump needs 12-volt power if you plan to use the water systems in your RV. And your furnace needs electric power to run the fans.
Some of these operations will run on 12-volt power from your RV batteries, but not all of them. Remember that your battery charge won’t survive more than a few days when you’re boondocking (camping without city power). Running your RV may charge your batteries if you have a motorhome. But that’s not an option for towable RVs. Some batteries must be charged by shore power, a portable generator, or a solar panel installation. Figure out what is true for your RV setup before you assume and run low on power.
Mid Tier Power Needs
Let’s take a look at what powered devices that you don’t need, but would sure like to have.
Kitchen electronics fit in here – things like your microwave, toaster, or coffee pot. Your refrigerator is another important appliance. However, most can be powered by more than just electricity.
For example, you can run off propane in absorption-style refrigerators, which is great when boondocking, so you aren’t wasting battery or generator power. That said, you will still need a small amount of battery power even when running the refrigerator on propane, but not nearly as much when running the refrigerator on battery power alone.
Personal hygiene items – like a hair dryer or an electric razor – aren’t essential to RV camping, but they’ll draw significant wattage if you use them.
Low Tier Power Needs
Items that fall into the low tier are not used often but are nice occasionally. Common items you’ll find sitting in this category are your television, washer/dryer combo, or dishwasher. Obviously, these things aren’t totally needed, and you could do without them. But, some might be necessary for your comfort and convenience.
What Size Generator is Required To Run an RV AC?
If you like to camp during the warmer months, you likely use an air conditioning unit to stay cool. This is not a problem when hooked up to park power, but it requires a generator if you venture off-grid. RV air conditioning units require a lot of power. Their demand will be greater than what your batteries can keep up with, assuming you have the requisite inverter to run an air conditioner off 12-volt battery power.
Not just any generator will work to power your A/C when boondocking; it must be sized appropriately. You’ll need to run the numbers to choose the correct size generator for your air conditioner.
That starts by understanding the difference between running and surge/starting wattage. An air conditioner requires more power during start-up (surge) than it does when running. Therefore, your generator needs to be rated for the initial surge of power and the running requirements.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard power rating for air conditioners. This is why checking the specs on your exact unit is important. Most 13,500 BTU units require at least a 3,500-watt generator, and most 15,000 BTU units require at least a 4,000-watt generator.
This guide to everything you need to know about RV air conditioners has a complete breakdown of amp draw and wattage requirements for different A/C sizes.
If you don’t want to lug around a large generator, consider installing a soft start on your air conditioner, reducing starting/surge power requirements. This will reduce the size of the generator you need to run your air conditioner, saving you money.
Determining Your RV’s Power Needs
The items in these tiers will differ from camper to camper. You might not consider the microwave important, while others might find it essential to cooking. This is why we recommend an open pre-trip discussion with your fellow campers on sharing power resources.
Keep in mind that generators aren’t designed to run your entire camper. You’ll need to list realistic expectations on what you need to camp comfortably. Consider these questions to help calculate your power needs and hone in on the perfect generator for your camping style:
- How many members are in your family?
- Where do you camp most frequently?
- Do you rely on campground power and only occasionally supplement with a generator?
- Or are you seeking campsites with limited amenities where a generator will be vital to a comfortable stay?
- How many BTUs is your A/C?
- How often (and for how long) will you run your A/C unit each day?
- What are your cooking preferences?
- Are you fine doing most things on the stovetop or using an outdoor propane grill?
- Or do you prefer popping food into the microwave to have it ready quickly for most meals?
- How many portable electronic devices do you need to charge daily?
- Would you be better served with a larger generator or by supplementing your RV batteries with a portable power station?
Explaining the Different Types of RV Generators
Now that you’ve taken a hard look at your power needs, it’s time to look at the types of generators. Two main types of generators are available on the market: open-frame generators and inverter generators.
Portable Open Frame Generators
Open-frame generators produce plenty of power. They are less expensive than inverter generators, too. The biggest issue with open-frame generators is that they’re loud. If you’re trying to enjoy nature, an open-frame generator isn’t for you, but it works great for construction sites.
An open frame could technically work if you plan to camp far away from other people. But the high noise level makes it untenable for typical camping situations. Forget your hopes of animal spotting or birdwatching. It also disrupts the solitude of being out in nature.
Most open-frame generators also create “dirty” power. This power isn’t safe for delicate electrical appliances. Your coffee pot is fine, but your laptop won’t play nice with an open-frame generator. It’s the type of power you need to power most things, but it’s more likely to produce unexpected surges and spikes, which could damage more sensitive electronics.
Portable Inverter Generators
With an inverter generator, power is still produced by an engine that requires gasoline or LP gas. However, the more consistent voltage makes it less harmful to delicate electrical objects.
Inverter generators produce AC (alternating current) power. That power is then converted to DC (direct current) and then back to AC. This process of inverting the power from AC to DC to AC creates the “clean” power you need to power sensitive electronics.
Then, there’s the case of the inverter generators being far quieter. Seriously, new inverter generators are much quieter than you might expect. Some barely produce more noise than the average conversation. Also, they’re typically smaller and easier to move around.
That’s the good news. The bad news is these generators are more expensive. However, they are durable, long-lasting, and much easier to fit into your RV than a bulky, open-frame generator. You can explore the different price points here.
How Will I Fuel My Portable RV Generator?
The next thing to consider is your fuel consumption. How much fuel a generator uses depends on the load you put on the generator and the fuel type running the generator. If you run many electrical appliances and multiple air conditioners, you’ll use more fuel more quickly.
Additionally, most of the inverter generators in the RV market will only burn fuel to compensate for the load. When you’re not running lights, an air conditioner, or other electrical appliances, the inverter generator won’t burn as much fuel because power is not being drawn.
In fact, you’d likely be fine to shut the generator down until you require power again to reduce fuel consumption further and keep your neighbors happy.
Propane Versus Gas
Most portable generators run on gas, but some can run on both gas and propane. These are called “dual fuel” generators. The propane option is appealing since most RVers already have a tank or two for their other appliances. Therefore, if you run out of gas while boondocking, you can use your propane tank to power the generator.
The main downside is efficiency. While running a generator on propane, you’ll see reduced power output and runtime. If you run out of propane, you’ll have a harder time obtaining more compared to gas. You’ll also pay more for a model capable of running on gas and propane.
If you don’t mind the higher cost and reduced efficiency, it’s always nice to have the option of powering your generator on multiple fuel sources.
What is the Best Portable Generator for RV Use?
Now that you know what kind of generators are out there and how they burn fuel, let’s find the right one to power your needs.
Cummins Onan P2500i Inverter Portable Generator
The Onan P2500i is lightweight, easy to carry, and double-insulated to run quietly. An easy-to-read LED display provides precise readings to inform you about your power consumption. This generator’s clean power is perfect for sensitive electronics.
The fuel-efficient P2500i has a one-gallon fuel tank that runs 10 hours at 25% load on a dependable 3.4 HP 98cc OHV 4-Stroke Engine. The best feature of the Onan P2500i is its parallel capability – allowing for two of the same models to be linked together using an appropriate cable.
Why would you want to link generators? Buying two 2,500-watt generators gives you 5,000 watts of power that will run any type of device you’ve got, including your air conditioner.
The two smaller generators weigh less than a larger wattage generator, so you’ll have an easier time moving them. Smaller generators that can run in parallel give you some options. Maybe you plan to camp somewhere where you know you won’t use your air conditioner. Then you only need to bring one of them, but you always have the option to bring both if you know you will need your air conditioner.
Using dual generators has its downfalls too. That’s twice the maintenance to keep both of them up and twice the likelihood you’ll need service on one of them at some point.
Champion 3500 Watt Dual Fuel Inverter Portable Generator
Okay, so let’s say you don’t want to mess around with the dual generator setup. There’s an option for you too.
The Champion 3500 Watt Dual Fuel Inverter Portable Generator will power everything you need it to. This generator is feature-packed. It has a 30 amp RV hookup built-in. That means there’s no need for an adapter. Champion also gave it an economy mode where it idles lower when your power needs are reduced. This saves you money on fuel in the long run.
It runs on either gasoline or propane, giving you further fuel options. It’s still quiet, although a little louder than the 2,000-watt version, running at about 60 decibels. And it’s also heavier, about 110 pounds. So you’ve got to think about how you’ll lift it into your RV or truck before you decide on this one. It has built-in wheels and a pull handle so you can move it easily from one spot to another.
Honda EU3000is Portable Generator
Honda makes some of the best generators out there. They created the “whisper quiet,” generator and are notoriously fuel-efficient, producing high-quality power ideal for RVing and camping. The Honda EU3000is Portable Generator offers a good amount of power for a reasonable price and operates at 49 to 58 decibels. It’s also small enough to fit in many travel trailer storage areas or easily in the bed of a pickup or in the cargo area of an SUV.
The generator produces 3,000 watts of power maximum and 2,800 running watts, which is enough to run an AC unit if needed in the summer. Depending on the load, it will also run for up to 20 hours on 3.4 gallons of fuel. That is excellent performance from a generator that weighs 145 pounds. The unit has a three-year warranty, and you can even string together multiple EU3000is to increase power output. If you need 6,000 watts of power, just add another generator.
Champion 2500 Watt Portable Inverter Generator
Champion 2500-Watt Portable Inverter Generator
A powerful package for those on a budget. The Champion 2,500-watt generator delivers up to 1,850 running and 2,500 starting watts of power for all your campsite needs. It’s ultra-lightweight at only 39 pounds and compact, measuring just 21” L x 13.7” W x 20” H. Rated at a mere 58 decibels, you won’t disturb wildlife or your neighbors thanks to the quiet operation.
It includes two 120V and one 12V outlet for powering your camper and electronics. The inverter will run up to 11.5 hours at 25% load. Convenience features like Cold Start Technology and a built-in carry handle make this inverter generator simple and easy to use. It also has a low oil shutoff sensor for safety.
Cummins Onan P4500i Inverter Portable Generator
Designed to go wherever you do, this advanced Cummins portable inverter generator brings together efficiency, durability, and performance to deliver power when you need it most. The Onan P4500i is capable of paralleling with another P4500 inverter generator.
At 98 pounds, this powerful, lightweight Onan inverter unit comes with wheels and a telescopic handle, making the Onan P4500i easy to manage. The P4500i features a push-button and remote start with a pull-cord backup, a double-insulated case for quieter operation, and an LED display for precise readings. The fuel-efficient P4500i has a 3.4-gallon fuel tank that runs 18 hours at 25% load.
If you plan on doing RVing without shore power, make sure you have a way to keep your RV’s batteries charged up. Solar panels can help keep things charged if the sky is clear, but generators are reliable in any weather. Use this guide as a good place to start looking for the right unit. If you want more advice, visit one of the many Camping World locations to discuss the options with an expert.
Already have a generator? What do you use and why? Leave a comment below.