Portable Generator Buyers Guide

Things to look for in Portable generators

Wattage

The very first thing that you’d want to look for in an RV generator is its wattage. It will determine what kind of equipment you will be able to run simultaneously.

RV generators have startup and running wattage’s. The startup wattage is higher because electronic devices usually require more power on startup. Both startup and running wattage’s need to be considered when choosing a power generator.

Startup and running wattage’s may also be called max & rated and running & continuous power respectively. Don’t get confused if you see other names.

The idea behind determining the right wattage is pretty simple: you just need to add up the starting and running power requirements of the equipment you will be running simultaneously. You don’t need to add up the requirements of your every single appliance unless you will be using them all at the same time.

To make this a bit clearer, let’s have a look at the following wattage guide:

Appliance Estimated starting watts Estimated running watts
Kitchen appliances
1000W microwave oven 1000 1000
Coffee maker (4-cup) 600 600
Dishwasher (cool-dry) 540 216
Refrigerator 1200 132-192
Blender 850 400
Electric grill 1650 1650
Recreational devices
DVD player 350 350
TV (46” flat screen) 190 190
Laptop computer 200-250 200-250
Desktop computer 600-800 600-800
LCD monitor 30 30
Radio 50-200 50-200
RV air conditioner
11000 BTU 1600 1010
13500 BTU 2800 1800
15000 BTU 3300 2000

 

Keep in mind that the numbers in this chart are just approximations. The electric devices you are going to use may have power requirements that are vastly different from the ones in the chart.

Let’s assume you’ll be simultaneously running a 1000W microwave oven, a dishwasher, and a blender. Adding their startup and power requirements from the chart, we would get 2390 startup watts (1000+540+850) and 1616 running watts (1000+216+400). Your power generator thereby needs to be rated at least 2390W at startup and 1616W when running to support this equipment.

To calculate the numbers for your own equipment, consult their manuals or ask the manufacturers to find out their wattage’s. And follow the guidelines we provided.

Fuel type

RV generators run on gasoline, propane, or diesel. Most generators only run on one type of fuel. However, there are generators that can run on any type of fuel.

Gasoline, propane, and diesel have their own advantages, as well as disadvantages.

Gasoline

This is the fuel of choice for most homeowners. Most of the generators you will find out there will be running on gasoline. It is very easy to find gasoline, and gasoline generators also cost less than others.

Besides, gasoline is more efficient than propane, but it is less efficient than diesel. Gasoline offers 125.000 BTU per gallon, while propane delivers 91.300 BTU per gallon. And diesel offers about 140.000 BTU per gallon of fuel.

With that being said, gasoline has two disadvantages.

First, gasoline is somewhat more dangerous to store than other fuel types because it has a lower ignition temperature.

The second disadvantage is that gasoline has shorter shelf time, with most blends breaking down and starting to absorb moisture within a month. Due to this, gasoline isn’t the best fuel choice if you’ll be using your generator infrequently. If you will be running your generator rarely, you need to either look for another generator or use a fuel stabilizer.

Propane

Propane is the least efficient fuel among the three, but it has one crucial advantage.

The thing is that propane doesn’t degrade in storage. If you’ll be using your generator not too frequently, then propane will be a better fuel choice for you.

The downside of propane is that it requires a fuel tank that is separate from the generator. Even if you have a dual fuel generator, you probably won’t be able to use its internal fuel tank. You’ll have to use a separate tank.

If you have a grill or a heater that operates on propane, then you may use its tank with your propane generator. Otherwise, you’ll have to buy one separately.

Diesel

As we already mentioned, diesel is the most efficient fuel type among the three. Aside from it, diesel also requires less maintenance, especially when compared to gasoline models. You could run your diesel generator for years without any maintenance.

In addition, because the ignition temperature of diesel is higher, it is safer than gasoline.

On the other hand, the shelf life of diesel and gasoline is about the same. So you shouldn’t opt for a diesel generator if you won’t be using it often. Moreover, diesel generators may break down frequently if they are not run regularly.

Runtime

Manufacturers usually indicate the run time of their power generators at either 25% or 50% load. The runtime represents the time for which the generator will run with a full tank at a given load.

The run time indicated by the manufacturers is rather difficult to match with real-life applications. The actual load on your generator may be anywhere between 0 and 100%, so it isn’t really possible to say how long it will run. Instead, you should treat those numbers as a way to compare different generators with each other.

Starter

RV generators mainly have manual push-pull starters or electric starters.

Push-pull starters require you to pull and push the starter handle several times to start up the generator. This type of starter is relatively maintenance-free, but it requires more hassle from you for startup.

Electric starters, on the other hand, require just a push of a button from you. In terms of convenience, electric starters are definitely much better.

However, electric starters require a battery to operate, so you’ll need to make sure that it has charge in it. Besides, if the generator comes with no batteries, you will have to buy them.

Outlets

Needless to say, your RV generator needs to have all the power outlets you need.

At the minimum, you need a 120V 30A RV outlet to power the devices of your RV, as well as a couple of 120V 20A household outlets to power home kitchen appliances, your laptop or desktop, and other devices that need 120V AC current.

And, if you need it, make sure that the generator has a 12V DC outlet for devices that need DC current.

Noise level

The noise level of an RV generator is exceptionally important for some people, mainly for those who need to get a quiet RV generator.

Most typically, generators produce noise in the 50-70dB range. For some perspective, let’s have a look at the sound levels of common sources:

Sound Decibels (dB)
Normal breathing 10
Whispering at 5 feet 20
Computer 40
Refrigerator 50
Moderate rainfall 50
Electric toothbrush 55
Normal conversation 60
Washing machine 63
Electric shaver 65
Shower 70
Vacuum cleaner 73
Alarm clock 73
Coffee grinder 75
Toilet flush 80
Blender 85

 

Hopefully, this chart helps you get an idea of how loud 50-70dB actually is.

Obviously, if you want a quiet generator, then you would need to look for one with lower decibels. However, choosing a quite RV generator isn’t as easy as it may seem.

The thing is that manufacturers provide the sound levels of their generators in varying conditions. Some write “60dB at 25 feet”, others “60dB at 50% load”, others just write “60dB.” The noise measurement criteria differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, so it is often impossible to compare different generators with each other.

However, the indicated noise level should nonetheless give you a good idea of how loud a generator will be.

Weight

RV generators are heavy, but how heavy should your generator be? This will depend on several factors.

The main factor is the weight capacity of your RV. Obviously, you shouldn’t get a too heavy generator: you should keep the total weight of all your stuff below the max capacity of your vehicle.

Another factor is whether you will be able to carry the generator or not. If you will be traveling alone or have disabilities, you’d want to go for a lighter generator.

Also, keep in mind that more powerful generators tend to be heavier. Thereby, choose a generator that has a power/weight balance that is alright for you.

Size

If the generator is too big for your RV, you will have a hard time transporting it. You would thus need to get a generator that you can comfortably store in your vehicle.

To pick the right generator, just measure the spot where you are going to store it and pick a model that will fit in. Simple as that.

Carry handles/wheels

RV generators usually have carry handles and/or wheels to assist you with their transport. While you probably won’t find a generator that has neither of them, you should pay attention to whether or not your desired generator has carry handles/wheels.

How to use a generator?

Having a generator with you while travelling can certainly make things a lot more convenient. But to make sure that you have a positive experience with your generator, you will need to use it properly and safely.

To help you with that, we’ve prepared a couple of tips for you.

Running the generator

Read the generator’s instructions

Whether you have experience with generators or not, you have to read all the instructions provided by the manufacturer. Every generator is unique, and there may be some caveats to keep in mind with your particular model.

Place the generator outdoors

It is critical to place your generator outside your travel trailer. Not only is it noisy and gets hot, but it also produces dangerous fumes.

The generator should be kept in a dry location outdoors. Ensure that it is 20 feet away from any open doors and windows and that it is 3 feet away from any objects.

Check the fuel level

Before starting up the generator, make sure that it is filled with fuel adequately. Add more fuel if you need it.

Any generator should have some sort of a fuel gauge, so you should be able to easily check the fuel level. If your generator doesn’t have one, you could find a fuel gauge online.

Make sure to use fuel that is approved by the manufacturer. Inappropriate fuel may be dangerous and may void your warranty.

Check the oil level

Generators require oil to lubricate their moving parts. It is critical that the generator is lubricated properly. Otherwise, it will get hot and may even go bad.

Following the generator’s manual, check the oil level in the machine. If necessary, add more oil following the instructions.

Check the generators air filter

Generators rely on combustion to produce power. And because combustion needs air, generators are equipped with air intakes to draw in air. The intakes have filters that trap dirt and debris to make sure that the generator takes pure air. Besides, debris may damage the generator, so the filters also ensure that its motor stays safe.

Again, following the generator’s instructions, check the condition of its air filters before startup. If the filters are dirty or clogged, they need to be cleaned or replaced.

Turn off the generator’s circuit breaker

Make sure that the circuit breaker switch on the generator is in the “off” position.

Open the fuel flow

Your generator will have a fuel valve. Turning the valve in its open position will allow fuel to flow into the generator’s motor.

Start the generator

Generators can have different starting mechanisms, so the startup process won’t be the same for every generator. You should consult the generator’s manual to start the generator properly.

Let the generator warm up for some time, and then switch the circuit breaker on. Check the manual to see how long the generator should warm up.

Connect your devices to the generator

Plug all the necessary devices into the generator. Many generators have outlets that allow you to connect your devices directly. You may also use an extension cord. Just make sure that it is approved for outside use, is heavy-duty, and has grounding pins.

Turn the generator off

After you’ve done your job and no longer need power, you’ll need to switch the generator off.

First of all, turn off the machine’s circuit breaker. Then, switch off the generator using its power button/key. Lastly, close the generator’s fuel valve.

How to use a generator safely?

Get an appropriate power generator

You should get a generator that will deliver the amount of power your devices need. If your devices use more power than the generator can supply, you risk damaging either your devices or the generator (or both).

Don’t use a power generator indoors

Generators produce deadly carbon monoxide and other fumes. If they get trapped indoors or in poorly ventilated rooms, they may build up and cause injury or even death from suffocation. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, so it is crucial for you to place your generator in an appropriate area.

First of all, place the generator according to our recommendations in the previous section.

Secondly, you may want to consider installing portable monoxide detectors in your RV. They essentially work like fire alarm. If you have monoxide detectors, make sure that they are working and have charged batteries.

If you feel sick, dizzy, or weak when running a generator, get away from it towards fresh air immediately.

Don’t operate the generator in wet conditions

Unsurprisingly, you shouldn’t run a generator in wet conditions or when it is raining. Generators produce electricity, and electricity combined with water can be deadly.

The generator should be set up in a dry, level surface so that no water can get to it. If it is raining but you need power, keep the generator under a canopy or any other well-protected area. The area needs to be well-ventilated and open from all sides so that no moisture builds up in the air.

Also, avoid touching your generator with wet hands.

Don’t plug the generator into a wall outlet directly

So-called back feeding may occur if you plug the generator directly into a wall outlet. Backfeeding is the flow of electricity in the reverse direction from the intended flow. This phenomenon can harm you and your RV.

Store the generator’s fuel properly

To store your fuel, make sure to use only approved containers. Besides, make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally, fuel needs to be kept in a cool and dry place, away from home, flammable materials, or other fuel sources.

FAQ

Can you convert a generator to use other types of fuel?

You may do this if the manufacturer offers a conversion kit. Along with using a third-party conversion kit, but keep in mind that this may void your warranty. You should consult with the manufacturer before attempting to convert your generator.

Can an RV generator be run in the RV?

You should not run a power generator indoors. Power generators produce deadly fumes, so running a generator inside the RV is dangerous. Instead, set it up outdoors at least 20 feet away from your RV.

What kind of devices can be powered by a portable generator?

Any device that supports the voltage provided by the generator. And besides, any devices that the generator can supply with power.