Portable generators can be a lifesaver when you are camping. They can keep things running when you’re dry camping or boondocking (camping with no connected utilities) and ensure that you’ll still have access to your RV’s amenities that require power.
Yamaha Portable Generator
Let’s take a look at what a portable generator does and how it can help you out while RVing.
What does a portable generator do and do I need one?
A portable generator supplies your RV and batteries with 120-volt power (The same ‘type’ of power you get when you plug in at a campground). This allows you to use certain features you otherwise couldn’t when you are only using battery power (without an inverter). Plugging your RV into a generator also charges your house batteries. However, a portable generator is not right for everyone.
If you are ALWAYS connected to power via full hook-ups, you don’t need a portable generator.
If you already have an on-board generator, you probably don’t need a portable generator. There are two main reasons you may need a portable generator:
- To recharge your batteries (if you don’t have solar)
- To use 120-volt electronics and appliances
If you are dry camping for a few days, you need a way to re-charge your batteries and possibly use some of the appliances in your RV. Unless you have enough amp-hours stored in your batteries to last your whole trip, you’re going to need a generator.
You also might need it at times because some things in your RV will not work without it. Some typical things that won’t work without 120-volt power are your household power outlets (if you don’t have an inverter), your air conditioner, your microwave (in most cases), and televisions that require a 120-volt power source.
Additionally, if you have the most common type of RV batteries, lead-acid batteries, they should never be brought down to more than a 50% charge. (Lithium batteries are different, but most people don’t have lithium.)
Lithium Battery Installation
Lead-acid batteries need to be charged back up to 100% charge any time they get close to 50%. They can easily get down to (or below) 50% daily, depending on your power consumption. Allowing your batteries to go below more than 50% charge over and over will prematurely, and quickly, ‘kill’ the batteries.
Plugging your RV into a portable generator is a great way to get the batteries re-charged. While you are plugged in to charge your batteries, you will also have 120-volt power available to you inside your RV.
This means you can use most anything in your RV, being cautious to not use two power-hungry devices at the same time, such as your microwave and your air conditioner, as doing so can exceed the amount of power the generator is able to produce.
How do I use a portable generator?
Well, it’s simple. Plug your RV power cord into it! Oh, but wait. Some generators don’t come with a power outlet that will fit your RV plug. In such a case, you simply need a ‘dogbone’ adapter that fits your RV plug and fits the generator outlet. Some generators come ready to accept your RV plug. Many do not.
To connect, turn your generator on according to manufacturer’s instructions. Let it run a minute or two, then plug your RV power cord in, and boom… you have 120-volt power and you are automatically charging your batteries!
What size/power do I need?
Generators come rated to produce specific wattages (power output). One very common and suitable small size for smaller power needs is a 2000-watt generator. However, generators come rated up to 5500 watts and more.
How do you know which size is enough for you? We cannot answer this one for you. You need to know how much wattage the most power-hungry appliance you want to run needs to start. It could be the air conditioner or curling iron. Be aware that starting watts are higher than running watts. Find yourself a guide online and find out what you need. Here’s an example of one.
Wen Portable Generators
How do I store my generator?
You will need to keep it somewhere where it will not tip over during travel. The gas and oil in the machine will come out otherwise, as it’s not meant to be on its side. The leakage makes a mess and might cause your generator to not work.
Camp Addict Kelly built a box to house both of her two generators so they wouldn’t fall over in the back of her truck. (After one of them fell over in the back of her truck!)
Don’t store your generator inside your RV. NEVER run your generator inside of your RV. It produces carbon monoxide, which is a very deadly gas.
If you need to store it somewhere where you will also be, such as in an SUV, we recommend finding an airtight container with a lid that can contain the entire generator. This will keep gasoline odors from leaching into your breathing space. With a larger generator such as a 3500-watt generator, this may be difficult.
Shouldn’t my RV come with a generator?
Most motorhomes come with an on-board generator. Some toy hauler trailers do as well. Most regular travel trailers do not. I suppose most people who get a travel trailer are expected to be in a campground connected to power. Plus, there is a cost issue associated with an on-board generator – they are pricey, and people want cheap trailers. We wish they would all come with on-board generators, but they don’t.
How much maintenance does a portable generator need?
Not very much. Treat them right and they will treat you right (if you buy good quality). We recommend keeping gas from sitting in the lines by getting a brand that allows you to shut off the flow of gas before you turn it off. This will eventually cause the generator to shut off on its own as the gas leaves the lines.
Leaving gas sitting in the fuel lines (and fuel tank) too long is a great way to kill an engine. Gas eventually evaporates, leaves some residue behind, then this ‘gums’ up the carburetor and potentially the fuel lines.
Portable generators need oil changes (check with your manufacturer for frequency) and they should be run periodically (drain the fuel lines and tank before storing).
Changing Generator Oil
Inverter generator or contractor generator?
This question tends to be a hotly debated topic. However, Camp Addict fully supports only having inverter generators. First, an inverter generator produces a ‘cleaner’ type of power than a contractor generator produces.
A contractor generator can damage electronics.
Additionally, and quite possibly more importantly, who wants to listen to the constant very loud drone of a contractor generator? Even if you don’t mind the noise, we guarantee you that your neighbors will NOT be happy.
Trust us, even distant neighbors will hear it. Contractor generators are so loud that they carry for surprising distances.
Inverter generators have become much more affordable in the past few years. These days, there is no excuse not to have one.
Even if you have a giant solar array, a portable generator can be very helpful. You could have multiple cloudy days, need to use your air-conditioning, or be able to use your Instant Pot without draining your batteries over their limit. These are just a few examples of when a portable generator comes in handy, even if you have solar.If nothing else, if you have a generator, you have peace of mind that you can still have power if something goes wrong with your 12v system.
We do recommend having one for those ‘just in case’ moments!
You might also be interested in these related videos and articles:
- Basic RV Generator Maintenance: What To Review Annually
- How To Winterize An RV Generator
- 120-Volt Electrical Basics: Part 1
- 120-Volt Energy Management: Part 2
- Essential Guide To 120-Volt Power Converters For RVs
- Running 12 Volt Appliances On Generator While Boondocking:
About the authors: Marshall Wendler and Kelly Beasley are the co-founders of Camp Addict. Both are full-time RVers and boondockers with a combined 9 years on the road. They became friends and started caravanning together in early 2016. Shortly thereafter they created Camp Addict.