If you own an RV, the chances are that you have thought about purchasing a portable RV generator for times when you don’t have access to shore power. Generators have seen many innovations over the years, have become much more affordable, and are available from dozens of manufacturers. As a result, many generators on the market today are very quiet, compact, and can run for more extended periods with less fuel.
However, when choosing a generator for your RV, it’s important to think about what you plan to power with it and where you’ll be using it. There are so many different generator options available that it can get confusing when selecting the right one. It’s easy to purchase a portable generator that is underpowered for your needs and purchase one that’s too big. This article will help you figure out what you need, identify some of the tradeoffs, and review some of the best models available on the market.
Types of generators
There are two types of generators that you’ll find at your local stores: Open frame conventional generators and inverter generators. While I’ll briefly describe the differences between the two, if you’re purchasing a generator for your RV, you’ll most likely be interested in an inverter generator.
Understanding the difference between the two types of generators is important. A generator converts mechanical energy into electrical power. Portable generators use an engine, just like your car, to produce the electrical current, turning it into AC (alternating current) used in household electronics.
A conventional fuel-powered portable generator runs at 3600 rpm to generate 120 volts and a frequency of 60 Hertz. It’s the speed of the engine that creates the electricity supply. Since engines can fluctuate slightly, their energy is not always steady electricity or clean. The fluctuations are referred to as harmonic distortion.
This distortion isn’t a problem for many electricity needs when powering mechanical devices. It is why you often see these generators used on construction sites to power heavy power tools. They work fine off of this type of electricity. However, in the last couple of decades, more and more devices have integrated electronics that prefer clean, steady energy. We’ll call them sensitive electronics. Things like computers, cell phones, TVs, streaming boxes, etc., all have sensitive electricity needs. For this reason, traditional generators aren’t always the best choice. Your electrical needs in your RV likely have many items that fall into this category.
While these devices will often still work off of non-clean electricity, you create more risk for them to fail. Eventually, a power surge can cause them to fail. This is why inverter generators have become so popular, among other reasons.
An inverter generator involves a few extra steps when producing electricity. While it will initially operate similarly to a conventional generator, it adds a few more phases to produce clean, steady electricity. It will initially create a high-frequency AC, turn it into DC electricity, and then back to a stable AC. This conversion from DC back to AC allows it to produce a steady stream of constant power.
Why choose an Inverter Generator?
Aside from the clean power benefit, inverter generators have many more great features that make them perfect for camping and RV travel. Below are the key benefits that you’ll get with many portable inverter generators.
Inverter generators are much more energy efficient because of the way they produce electricity. In an inverter generator, the engine automatically adjusts to the requested load on the generator. Unlike conventional generators, which produce their full power all of the time, inverter generators will throttle up and down depending on the amount of electricity you need.
For instance, let’s say you have your generator connected to your RV and are running the refrigerator, air conditioner, lights, and TV. Depending on the size of your generator, it may be running at maximum speed. Next, let’s say you turn off your air conditioner, significantly reducing the power consumption. Your inverter generator will throttle down and run slower, outputting less electricity. This fluctuation results in lower fuel demand and will improve efficiency.
Many inverter generators also off an eco-mode, which keeps the generator running at the lowest setting possible. With a conventional generator, you may be getting 3 hours or so per gallon of gas of runtime; however, with an inverter generator, you may get 8-12 hours per gallon of gas for the same electricity use.
The fuel savings is one of the best features of inverter generators. Across the board, they will be much more efficient. This fuel-saving feature is an excellent benefit for folks using them for extended periods while camping. For a typical weekend camping trip, a 5-gallon container of gas may be more than enough to give you all of the electricity that you need.
Conventional fuel-powered generators which produce more power have a large fuel tank and larger engine, which inevitably makes them heavier and larger. However, inverter generators are more portable because their fuel tank is smaller, and they don’t need as big of an engine to run. This difference significantly reduces a lot of weight and size of the generator. In addition, while many conventional generators must be moved around on wheels, many inverter generators are often light enough to be hand-carried with a handle. As a result, most inverter generators weigh less than 100 pounds. However, it is common for an inverter generator only to weigh around 40 – 60 pounds.
The most noticeable benefit of inverter generators is the noise or lack thereof. If you’re familiar with a conventional generator, you know that they’re loud. Just drive through any town during a power outage and you’ll likely hear the rumbling of generator engines echoing in the distance. On the other hand, inverter generators are quiet, which is ideal for camping situations.
Inverter generators are significantly quieter for several reasons. First, as described above, they can throttle down when the electricity demand is low. When camping, most electric equipment you use won’t require a lot of power when running. Your biggest energy hogs, like air conditions, will require a lot of power to start, but when running, they don’t need nearly as much to stay running (more on this later). As a result, you can use most of the electrical components of your RV with a relatively low power demand. Your generator will adjust to this and simply run slower, making it quieter.
Think of your car noise when idling vs. accelerating. A conventional generator engine would be running at the acceleration speed all of the time. The inverter generator would ramp up when needed but fall back to the much quieter idle speed when demand is low.
The second feature that makes inverter generators quieter is their design and engineering. They’re enclosed in a noise dampening shell rather than the engine being open in a frame like conventional generators.
Better-designed inverter generators will offer better noise shielding than conventional ones. Even the cheapest inverter generator will be quieter. This difference is good news for you, as well as your camping neighbors. Some inverter generators are no louder than a window air conditioner,
Since inverter generators usually produce less electricity than conventional generators (wattage), many manufacturers try to make up for this by installing a parallel connection. With a parallel connection, you can connect two separate inverter generators (of the same model) to deliver double the amount of power.
Each state has its own regulations on the accepted greenhouse gas emissions of generators. These regulations can be stricter when the portable generator is used inside national parks or nature reserves.
In most cases, a portable generator must be at least EPA compliant. In the state of California, the generator must also be CARB compliant.
Inverter generators already produce fewer greenhouse emissions than conventional power-fueled generators. Therefore, it is easier to find an inverter generator that meets the environmental requirements than a traditional generator.
Choosing the right Inverter generator
Now that you know all of the benefits of an inverter generator, how do you choose the right one to purchase. You not only need to think about the brand, but more importantly, about your power need or generator size.
Since almost all generators will advertise their size by watts, you can start to think about your power needs according to this number.
What are watts?
The first thing to know is that watts are the product of voltage times amps, typically expressed as: (watts = amps X volts). Therefore, if you know the operating voltage and amp draw of an appliance, you can determine watts. Many of your electric needs in your RV will be 120V appliances (pretty much anything you plug into a standard outlet). Knowing this, you can simply multiply the amps of a device by 120 to get the watts. However, since you are in an RV, some of your appliances will run on 12V DC. For example, your RV furnace may have an amperage draw of 7 amps, giving you 12V x 7amps=84 watts.
With some appliances, the amperage draw varies depending on how you use it. For example, you may have a flat-screen TV that allows adjustment of the display’s brightness along with volume control. These settings will affect the number of amps required to power it.
Additionally, you likely have an appliance that cycles on and off like a refrigerator. This appliance may use more power when starting up, but it will use significantly less electricity when running.
When choosing a generator and powering your RV with it, you will want to think of watts to start the appliance and run it. Below is a table providing general estimates on appliance starting and running watts.
|Appliance||Starting Watts||Running Watts|
|Air Conditioner||1000 W – 3500 W||300 W – 1700 W|
|Refrigerator||500 W – 600 W||150 W – 200 W|
|Microwave||600 W – 1500 W||600 W- 1500 W|
|Oven||2800 W – 3000 W||2800 W – 3000 W|
|Heater||1200 W||1200 W|
|Coffee Maker||500 W – 600 W||500 W – 600 W|
|Hair Dryer||900 W – 1500 W||900 W – 1500 W|
|Laptop||220 W||220 W|
|Television||200 W – 300 W||200 W – 300 W|
|Fan||100 W||40 W|
|Lights LED||3 W- 30 W||3 W – 30 W|
|Satellite Receiver||200 W – 250 W||200 W – 250 W|
|Electric Grill||1500 W – 1800 W||1500 W – 1800 W|
|DVD Player||300 W||300 W|
|Washer Dryer||600 W – 1900 W||600 W – 1900 W|
|Water Pump||40 W-60 W||40 W – 60 W|
Air conditioners and starting watts
Two of the appliances in many RVs that will have vast differences in starting watts vs. running watts are refrigerators and air conditioners. You’ll be able to hear an audible difference in your refrigerator or air conditioner when they start. What you’re hearing is the compressor kick-on. This high-demand power need will only happen when the appliance starts up or cycles. A standard 12,000BTU air conditioner may efficiently run off of 900 watts, but it may require nearly 2,200 watts to start up.
Some inverter generators are just too small to start your air conditioner even though they’ll be fine for running it once started. For this reason, it’s critical to size your generator for your starting power needs. While this usually isn’t an issue with refrigerators, air conditioners can be. They are typically the Achilles heel of choosing a properly sized generator.
Fortunately, you don’t need to purchase a huge generator just to get your air conditioner to work. You can add an accessory to your air conditioner called a hard start kit. This is a simple, affordable product that acts as a mini-capacitor that gives your air conditioner starter an extra boost when powering up. A hard start kit can reduce your wattage needs to a level that a moderately sized generator can handle.
Choosing the right-sized generator
Now that you have explored the various wattage needs of different electronics and appliances, you may be even more confused about selecting the appropriately sized generator. Luckily, you should note that you won’t be running everything simultaneously under normal conditions. This means that you don’t need to budget your generator size to run everything. If you did that, you would purchase an oversized generator for your needs.
For most RVers, your generator needs will fall into several categories. I’ll describe them below:
1,000 Watt inverter generator:
Typically the smallest available generators. They’re also the most portable, efficient, and quietest. A 1,000-watt generator won’t run your air conditioner but is a good option for powering your lights, TV, electronics, and RV essentials like a furnace. For many people, this is enough and provides a super-quiet generator experience.
2,000-2,500 Watt inverter generator
This sized generator seems to be to most common for many RVers. Aside from the air conditioner, it will power almost everything in your RV. They are relatively small, efficient, and quiet. Most people run into the problem with this size when they want to power an air conditioner.
In some cases, a 2,500-watt generator will be enough to start up and run a single 13,000 Watt air conditioner, but depending on what else you’re using in the RV, it may fail from time to time. However, this is where a hard start kit comes into play. With a hard start kit, you should be able to start your single AC rather than bump up to the next sized generator. If you search around online, you’ll see a lot of discussion on powering air conditioners with this sized generator
3,500-4,500 watt inverter generator.
If you don’t want to run into any issues with your air conditioner, then bumping up to this size might be your best option. However, you lose in size, efficiency, and noise from what you gain in power. While still significantly better for these concerns than their conventional counterparts, they will be louder, use more fuel, and are heavier than a smaller generator. They’re also significantly more expensive.
6,000+ watt inverter generator
These are your most costly and heaviest options. I’m not sure I would consider them very portable as it will likely take two people to move around. However, if you have two large air conditioning units and want to run them both without power issues, these will do it.
My recommendation for size :
I own and use a 2,200 watt Yamaha inverter generator. I think this is the sweet sport for power, noise, and efficiency. It will run my single 13,000 BTU air condition as long as I don’t have a high power demand when starting it. The next size up Yamaha generator is a 4,500 watt unit, which would give me more than enough power for everything, but it would be overkill for 99% of the time. It also would be louder and heavier, two issues that I want to avoid.
Most RV inverter generators that you find are gasoline models. However, there is a growing trend to provide duel fuel models, which use gasoline and propane. Overall, gas models will be more affordable to run, but having a propane option is a nice feature, especially for RVers. You’ll typically pay more for a dual fuel option. Personally, the increased cost steered me away from this option for my needs. Also, gas is easy to find, especially when camping in a remote location.
My top pick models
If you want the most reliable generators available, you can’t go wrong with the two leading brands: Yamaha and Honda. Both companies offer comparable models, with the 2,200-watt lineup being their most popular. These are often considered the quietest and most efficient options available. However, they’re also the most expensive. They both offer a standard 30AMP plug connection, making them perfect for connecting your RV.
If you want to bump up to the next wattage level, you’ll get 4,500 watts of power. However, you’ll pay for it with your wallet.
This generator is quiet, but it also packs a powerful 3800 watts to run all your RV needs. WEN has a solid repudiation and is a reliable option for RVers. It also offers a 30A RV plug connection and other features like a digital fuel display and USB port. The best part about this generator is the price. You can find it for about $700, which is less expensive than even the smallest Yamaha and Honda generators.
Small, quiet, and affordable
If you want a small generator for your non-air conditioner needs, you can’t go wrong with the Generac 1,200 unit. This generator is super quiet and efficient and can be found for under $400. It’s a great value. However, you won’t get a 30A plug outlet like the larger models. You’ll need to use dogbone to connect it to your RV. This fact shouldn’t be a problem since you won’t be powering large appliances with it.