What You Need To Know When Buying A Generator For An RV

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Choosing a generator can be a daunting task, if you are new, with an abundant selection on the market these days. Do you just go with a name brand from a big box store or ask your friends and family what is best? What about maintenance and care for your generator? Do you just fill up gasoline and pull the cord and wham you have power! Well not so fast. It’s a steep learning curve to learn everything you need to know when choosing a generator. Fortunately, I have distilled pretty much everything you need to know to get your first generator so you can feel pretty confident when you purchase your first generator you have made the best decision. So let’s get started. 

Types Of Generators For Your RV

When it comes to generators for RV’s there’s really only 2 types of generators to choose from:

  1. The built in generator
  2. The portable generator

The two types of generators run on gasoline, diesel or propane to produce electricity for your use in your RV or elsewhere. However, there is a third type of generator that has gained momentum in recent years due to the energy efficiency movement, though it’s not really a generator, but more of a battery as it does not generate electricity, but stores it till needed with lithium batteries. I will not elaborate on it here, but save that for another article.  

Built-in RV generators today are primarily dominated by one company that produces a variety of wattages of generators from small to fairly large generators for RVs. Cummins Onan generators are the majority shareholder in the RV industry. The great thing is, that a built in generator is typically integrated into your electric system and the confines of your RV, so it’s not easily noticeable you have an onboard generator unless it is running.  Plus you have the added bonus of an electric start, so it can be started with a push of a button from within the comfort of your RV.  

Portable generators are also typically cheaper than your onboard generators and smaller, plus they have the portability of moving them around where power is needed.  Plus many of the portable generators today are inverter generators, so they are more efficient at producing a cleaner power. However, you would need a location in the basement storage of your RV when not in use, or some kind of storage for when not in use. 

Fuels To Run Your Generator

Most portable and built-in generators use gasoline, but some use only propane, and some use both gas or propane to run the engine to produce electricity. It’s possible to modify the carburetor to have your generator to run on either gasoline or propane as alternative fuels, but not diesel. As diesel engines operate differently.

Gasoline Vs Diesel Engines: How Are They Different?

The engine in your generator that turns the alternator to produce electricity, burns fuel. It can either be gasoline or diesel. These two types of engines ultimately do the same thing, in that it spins the alternator to produce electricity. The difference between the two is where the fuel and air are mixed together to create power out of the engine. Gasoline engines mix the fuel in the carburetor before it goes into the piston where it is ignited with a spark plug. In Diesel engines on the other hand, the air goes through an intake value to the piston and is then compressed to the point where it is very hot and diesel is injected into the compressed air, where it is ignited and thus causing an explosion within the chamber. This video can explain things a little better if you are interested in learning more. 

Built-in generators draw on the fuel that you have in the tank of your RV. So there’s no need to worry about carrying additional fuel to run your generator when you are out boondocking or needing that extra power when you need it.

Conventional Generators VS Inverter Generators: What’s The Difference?

There are two types of generators. All fuel powered generators (gas, propane, diesel) use a motor to turn an alternator to generate electricity. Here is the difference: 

Conventional Generators – need to run at a constant speed (usually 3600 revolutions per minute) to produce 120 Volts AC / 60 hertz. The fluctuations in the motor can alter the quality of the power that comes out of the generator.  Any speed difference can alter the quality of the electricity coming out. 

Inverter Generators – are similar to conventional generators in that it produces AC electricity, but is then converted to DC, then back to AC using electrical circuits. If you want to read more about inverters, you can go here. In this process the power can be boosted up to the desired AC output with a smaller motor and thus lighter weight and more fuel-efficient. Plus, they are also more stable in producing a steady electrical flow and cleaner power, with the added bonus of being quieter than the conventional counterparts. If power demand increases, they will typically ramp up power to meet the needed drawl on power. 

Every running generator makes noise, but how much is too much and how much is tolerable? Choosing one that’s too loud can be quite annoying not only for you but others nearby camping. 

Decibels In Choosing A Generator

The noise from generators are calculated in decibels, this calculation is the audible level of the machine while it’s running at different speeds. The higher the decibel the louder the generator is. Noise comes from several different parts of the generator: exhaust, engine noise of the piston moving, the alternator. Majority of the noise comes from the exhaust of the generator. Generators running in the 50 to low 60 dB is ideal, as this is typically conversation noise and not loud enough to be disruptive to your camping or others around you. Assuming your portable generator is placed about 10 feet away from your rig on the back side away from your campsite and others. 

Here’s a simple chart that shows you how loud certain noises are to give you a reference point for sound.  You can learn more about it here from the CDC

SoundAverage Decibels (dB)
Normal Breathing10 dB

Soft Whisper

20 dB
Refrigerator / Rustling Leaves

40 dB

Normal Conversation60 dB
Washing Machine or Dishwasher70 dB
Traffic / Gas powered Lawn Mower80 to 90 dB
Train / Car Horn / sports event (hockey, football)100 db
Shouting in Ear or Barking110 db
Firecrackers going off140 to 150 db

When it comes to built in generators, they tend to be a little louder inside your RV, than a portable generator as you can’t get distance between you and the generator and you can often hear the rumbling of the motor within your RV. The typical range for most built-in generators are about 60 to 70 dbs. Aside from noise, generators come in an inverter model or conventional type. 

Silencing A Loud Portable Generator

Lowering the noise of an existing generator can be achieved through a couple of methods. 

  1. See if you can get an additional muffler for your portable generator
  2. Build or purchase a box to cover up your portable generator to muffle the sound
  3. bring along a few extra plywood boards cut to the size of your portable generator and lean it against your running generator to deflect the sound downwards and away from your RV and campsite

Operating Your Portable Generator

There are a number of things to consider when running a portable generator:

  1. Operate your portable generator outside in a well-ventilated area away from any open windows to your RV. In no circumstances, should your generator be run inside of your motorhome or trailer or in a garage where the doors are closed. 
  2. Check the oil level in your generator before using to make sure it did not spill or leak out when it was stored. 
  3. When it is wet or damp outside, the portable generator should be covered with a canopy or cover when it is running. 
  4. Bring along enough fuel to run your generator for several days depending on if it’s an emergency situation or if you are going out for the week boondocking. 
  5. Make a habit of just adding fuel stabilizer to your storage tanks of fuel as you never know if you will use it all up on this trip or when you might go out again camping again or when you might use your generator. 
  6. Start the generator, before plugging in any appliances or your RV, and make sure everything is off in your RV, then turn one appliance on at a time. 
  7. Wait till the generator is cool before handling when turned off. 
  8. When refueling your generator, make sure it’s cool before filling the gas tank. 
  9. Keep the portable generator away from where kids and pets might get near and potentially burn themselves. 
  10. Consider locking your portable generator to a nearby tree with a cable bike lock to avoid any temptation by others that might want to pick it up for themselves.

Transportation of your Portable Generator

When transporting your portable generator from location to location, it’s important to make sure to follow a few safety precautions to protect yourself and your generator from damage. 

  1. Before storing your portable generator, wait till it cools before putting it into either your basement storage or your truck to avoid any fires or burning of anything nearby.
  2. Make sure all gas caps are tight and prone to leak or splash around any fuel remaining in the tank
  3. Secure your portable generator with a cable bike lock or cord, if it’s exposed in the back of your truck or if you are transporting it with a hitch cargo carrier.
  4. Cover your portable generator during transport if you are expecting any rain or precipitation when driving from location to the next to keep it dry and prevent damage with the moisture getting into any electrical parts.

Storage Of Your Portable Generator

The season almost always ends for most of North America when it comes to Rving and storage of your generator becomes almost inevitable. Here are a few key points to remember to make sure your generator will start again the next time you need it. 

  1. If you know you are at the last trip for the year, you might want to run your generator dry, which means you don’t add fuel to the generator and just let the motor run all the fuel in the tank. If not then
  2.  You might make a habit of just adding fuel stabilizer to your storage tank, now is a good time to do that as you don’t know when the next time might be when you will be using your generator. 
  3. If you are in need of using your generator ever few months or if you are also using it as and emergency back up generator for you house, you might want to just make a habit of starting your generator every month and run it for 5 minutes to make sure that it runs smoothly and does what its supposed to do. 
  4. If you are done and you know you are done for the season and it will be put into storage, it might be a good idea to remove the spark plug and pour a little bit of motor oil in the hole put the plug back and pull the crank a few times slowly to get the oil moving through the piston. 
  5. Keep it in a well ventilated area such as a garage or shed. 
  6. When you take it out of storage, inspect the unit for rust or any other kind of damage that might have occurred during storage or oil leaks.
  7. Check the oil again with the dip-stick 
  8. add fresh fuel into your generator and start it up at your house to make sure it runs and produces electricity before you take it out camping.

Maintenance Of Your Generator; Don’t Miss it!

Scheduled maintenance is probably the most important activity you can do to extend the life of your generator and to have it start when you need it. Here are a few things to consider to make sure your generator is in top shape and be there for you when you need it. 

  1. Use Freshest fuel you can use in your generator. 
  2. Check your oil frequently to make sure that it’s still good and has not broken down and cause more damage than good. 
  3. Change your oil 5 hrs after the first use and every 100 hrs of use depending on the type of oil and where you might be using your generator. If you are using it in a dirty environment, you might want to change it every 50 hrs but in a clean area, it might be up to 200 hrs. Plus, if you are using a synthetic oil you might get a few more hrs of use than regular oil.  
  4. Use the specific oil your generators operating manual recommends or use a synthetic oil
  5. Check the air filter to make sure it’s clean and add filter oil to it as necessary
  6. Inspect fuel hoses for cracks and clamps are tight. 
  7. Inspect fuel filters for debris that might have been introduced from the fuel

Here’s a video that goes into depth on inspecting and maintaining your generator

What Portable Generators Brands Have The Highest Reliability?

So does a well known brand actually provide the highest reliability when it comes to starting every time you need your generator to start up? Looking for the longest warranty from a generator brand is going to give you a hint of exactly how long the company expects that your generator will last. The longer the warranty, the longer the company expects that it’s generator will last. It only makes economic sense for the company to provide a warranty long enough so that they will not be providing too many replacement generators or they may be out of business.

What Brands of Portable Generator Have The Largest Market Share?

Portable generators make up the lion share of all generators sold, 70%,  around the world that are in existence. The USA has the most in ownership of portable generators, while other places in the world it is gaining traction. The most popular of the generators brands are:

  • Honda
  • Yamaha
  • Briggs & stratton
  • Cummins
  • Generac 
  • Champion

Why is this important? Well, if you come across a brand you are not sure about you can check to see if this is some no name brand that is a fly by night operation that will be gone in a few years or are around for a long time and you just haven’t heard of them before. 

longevity of Portable Generators

Regardless of brands a typical gasoline portable generator should have a lifespan of 2000 to 3000 hrs. As opposed to diesel generators that are meant to last 20,000 to 50,000 hrs. The lifespan really depends on the preventive maintenance and oil changes of the portable generator. 

What About EPA Ratings?

EPA (Emissions Protection Agency) ratings are standards put out to control the emissions of motors. This does not tell you the longevity of the generator itself. Though it does indicate that the generator is built with higher standards,  to ensure that the generator will meet the EPA standards for a longer period of run time. 


There you have it pretty much everything you need to know before you lay some cash down for a new generator. From portable generators to built-in generators. If you think I missed anything, reach out to me to let me know what I might have missed in this article. 

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