Important features to consider before buying an RV generator
There are a number of important features that differentiate RV generators. In this section, we’ll define them and highlight the things you need to consider when evaluating the features of particular generators.
Engine and power
The engine is the heart of your generator – the essential component that allows fuel to be converted into electricity. In general, a larger, more powerful motor will have a higher wattage rating, and particularly a higher surge wattage rating, so that you can run more appliances and electronics at the same time.
A larger engine also means a larger and heavier generator, so there is a trade-off between power and portability.
This is one of the main reasons that generators can be separated into those boasting 224cc motors, like the Pulsar, Westinghouse, and Champion generators, and those with much small 80cc motors, like the WEN and Generac generators.
When considering the engine size you need, think about how many appliances you have installed in your RV and how many of them you will need to power at one time. In addition, consider how much space your RV has – if you are relatively limited, it may be worth opting for a smaller generator so you have more space to actually enjoy your RV.
There are several generator types you can settle upon, from propane, gas, or diesel generators to even solar generators, and from single-fuel to tri-fuel generators, which usually run on gasoline, LPG, and natural gas. In our review, we focused on either gasoline or dual-fuel generators as these are the most common options for an RV. Depending on the model of RV generator you choose, it may be powered on either gasoline or propane – or, like the Champion 76533 and Westinghouse WGen3600DF generators, it may allow you to choose which of the two fuels you prefer. Both gasoline and propane generators have advantages and disadvantages, but we made sure that all of our top picks are able to run on at gasoline since this is the fuel your vehicle uses.
When you’re on the road in populated places, both fuel sources are typically easy to find, although you can procure gasoline at the same time you are refueling the RV itself. However, farther afield where gas stations are few and far between, using gasoline can become problematic since it is harder to carry in large quantities than propane and will go stale if you plan on being off the grid for more than a few weeks.
Gasoline is also typically much more expensive than propane and the price can vary much more from state to state depending on local taxes.
On the other hand, gasoline is a much more efficient fuel than propane, especially when the temperature drops. Most generators that are able to run using either gasoline or propane actually have two wattage ratings – one for running on gasoline, and a lower rating when the generator is running on propane.
Rated and maximum output
Once you’ve settled on the type of fuel you’re planning to use, the next big decision you need to make is how much wattage you need from your generator. The rated output is likely different for gasoline and propane for dual fuel generators, so be sure to take this into account. To find the wattage you need, a simple solution is to add up the required watts of all the appliances you plan to run at a single time – this number will define the rated wattage that you need from your generator. In general, leave yourself some leeway on this number since you are better off having slightly too much available power from your generator than too little, especially if your family members want to charge their small electronics at the same time that your appliances are running.
Any appliances that have motors, such as air conditioning units, refrigerators, and freezers, will have an additional power draw when they are first started. This is where the maximum output wattage, also known as surge wattage, comes into play. Your generator will only be able to support this maximum power for a few seconds, long enough to start these appliances without stalling as the power requirement surges.
If you have left yourself leeway when calculating your running power requirement, your generator will likely provide enough surge power to get all your appliances started as well.
Fuel tank capacity and generator runtime
The capacity of the fuel tank is an important consideration when using a gasoline-powered generator since it will affect how much fuel you can store, as well as how long your generator will run on a single fill. The size of the fuel tank is typically scaled according to the size of the motor – for example, the 224cc Pulsar generator boasts a 3.4-gallon fuel tank, while the much smaller WEN generator has only a one-gallon fuel tank.
You can also look directly at the rated runtimes of different generators to get an idea of how long they will run on a single fuel tank fill. Runtimes are typically measured at half-load or quarter-load, meaning that only half or one-quarter of the generator’s available running output is being used – remember that running the generator near capacity will drastically reduce your fuel economy and your runtime.
You probably got in your RV to get away from the city, including all of its noise – so you don’t want a generator that is going to drown out the sounds of the outdoors. RV generators are typically rated for the amount of noise that they produce. This figure can range widely from the ultra-quiet WEN generator, which makes only 51 dB of sound, to the relatively noisy 69 dB Westinghouse WGen3600DF. However, note that larger engines – thus, generators with higher output wattages – will typically be noisier than their smaller counterparts so you have to consider noise as another trade-off for power.
Having the outlets you need on your generator can be just as important as having enough wattage. Most of the generators we reviewed come with a 120-volt, 30-amp RV outlet so you can plug your vehicle’s electrical infrastructure directly into the generator. However, note that on the smaller generators from WEN and Generac, you’ll need to plug your appliances directly into the generator, since there is no RV outlet.
Weight and portability
Once your generator is loaded onto your RV, its weight and portability may not seem like a huge concern. However, if you plan on taking your generator out of the vehicle to refuel it, or to pull it out into your campsite to run electronics outside of the vehicle, weight can be a major factor in your decision. The weight of RV generators is typically directly related to the size of the engine – as a result, you’ll need to decide where you wish to fall on the trade-off between output wattage and portability. Small, 80cc generators like those from WEN and Generac weigh less than 50 pounds, while the more powerful generators we reviewed can weigh as much as 109 pounds in the case of the Westinghouse WGen3600DF.
Note that some of these heavier generators are also mounted on wheels, which can improve their portability but makes them significantly harder to store inside your RV because of the space they take up.
Adding a generator to your RV can be a significant investment, so you want to be sure that the generator you choose will be able to stand up to years of use. One of the best ways to ensure this is to choose a model with a long warranty from the manufacturer. Warranties on RV generators range from the relatively short one-year policy offered by Pulsar to the impressive three-year warranties that come with the Honda, Champion, or Westinghouse generators.
How to use a generator with your RV?
Using a generator with your RV is relatively straightforward, especially if your generator has a 30A RV outlet built in. In this case, you can simply plug the electrical circuit for your RV directly into your generator so that all of the wall outlets in the RV and all of the appliances plugged into the RV’s electrical grid will run. If you don’t have an RV outlet, you can either use an adapter or plug your appliances directly into the outlets on the generator.
When starting your generator, make sure that you adjust the choke – if it is not automatic – according to the amount of airflow that the generator needs. If you are operating the generator at altitude, you may need to open the choke more than normal. In addition, it is important to always operate your generator in a well-ventilated space or outside. It is good practice to have a carbon monoxide monitor installed in your RV just in case of any leaks.
When operating the generator, make sure that you don’t exceed its capacity. Turn on any motor-operated appliances, like a refrigerator or freezer, first since these will have surge requirements when powering on. If you are using an air conditioner, make sure it is turned off before you start or stop the generator to avoid a dangerous power surge that could burn out your motor. Always check the wattage requirements of your appliances so that you know how much power you are drawing and be careful not to exceed the rated output of your generator.