RV 101: How to Operate an RV Generator

Whether a veteran or newbie to the RV life, it’s important to know how to operate an RV generator. Those new to the life soon realize how difficult camping becomes when you have no power source. After all, the RV battery can only run your appliances and air conditioning for so long. 

When you have an external power source, you have a way to make camping without hookups much easier. One of the most common sources of power is an RV generator. Often, these devices intimidate people who haven’t used them before. 

However, that’s why we’re here!

The Different Types of RV Generators

First, before you learn how to operate an RV generator, which one is right for you? There are two different types of generators for motorhomes. 

  • Portable generators
  • Onboard generators

Most of the larger coaches, like a Class A or Class C, come with an onboard generator wired in place. Additionally, some newer fifth wheel trailers have them as well. An onboard generator is a part of the RV. 

Usually, you turn it on with a switch somewhere inside the RV. Generally, they use the same fuel that powers the engine. However, this isn’t always the case, so be sure you know what you’re dealing with. 

Onboard generators run on diesel, gas, or propane. This all depends on the model. If you have an onboard generator, the owner’s manual should tell you how to operate an RV generator specific to your rig. 

A portable generator plugs into the trailer with a power cord. Now, these generators come in a wide range of sizes and outputs. Moreover, they use different types of fuel. 

All of this is information you should gain whenever you purchase the generator. If your rig has no onboard device, this is a great way to stay powered without access to hookups. 

How to Choose Your Generator

While newer rigs often have an onboard generator, those with trailers likely want to buy a portable generator before they hit the road. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all option when you want to find the right gear for you. 

First, you have to consider the fuel type required: propane, gas, diesel, or a combination. Then, consider the size and power output that works for you. 

  • How often do you need a generator? 
  • What appliances do you run and how often? 
  • How big is your recreational vehicle? 

Additionally, part of learning how to operate an RV generator and selecting the right option for you is the noise level. For instance, an inverter generator might be more expensive, but it’s a much quieter option. 

Safety Considerations

Once you have a generator for your RV, it’s time to learn the basic safety guidelines. 

First, ensure you have a carbon monoxide detector in your trailer or rig. When this equipment burns fuel, it emits carbon monoxide. Unfortunately, that’s very poisonous but also odorless and hard to detect. 

No one wants poison flowing through their RV, so be sure you have a functioning detector. Additionally, never run a generator in a closed area or any space with poor ventilation. 

With a portable generator, it’s important to keep tabs on the weather and general conditions of the area you’re in. For instance, you should not run a generator in the rain or snow. Alternatively, dry conditions leave the potential for wildfires, so avoid using your generator near dry tree branches, bushes, grass, etc

Next, it’s a good idea to have a storage plan as you travel. Never leave the generator somewhere where it might tip over. Keep it upright in a secure location. 

Lastly, while this isn’t a matter of safety or how to operate an RV generator properly, it’s important to be a good neighbor. Be thoughtful about where and when you use your generator. 

For example, it’s not a problem if you are dry camping far from anyone else. However, leaving your generator on through the night with other campers around leaves you with displeased neighbors. 

Additionally, many campsites don’t allow generators to run at night. Before you power it up, check the campground rules.

How to Operate an RV Generator

Now that you understand the dos and don’ts, let’s cover how to operate an RV generator. First, take a look at the user manual. This provides the specific details for your model. 

Every generator is a bit different. However, we can offer a general guide on how to work them. Still, when you have specific needs, trust the manual. 

Onboard Generators

Typically, it’s pretty easy to use an onboard RV generator. Most motorhomes have a Start/Stop switch at the control panel. This allows you to turn the generator on and off. 

Simple enough, right? 

In some cases, you might also see a “Prime” button.This readies the generator before you turn it on. Alternatively, you might have to hold the “Stop” switch in order to prime it. 

Check the user manual to see precisely how to prime and start the generator. It should also tell you how long it takes to prime. Once ready, hold the start button until you hear it kick on.  

Portable Generators

Learning how to operate an RV generator is a bit more complex with portable models. Again, it’s incredibly important to cover the user’s manual. It explains exactly what to do and should be pretty straightforward. 

First, unload the generator and place it a minimum of 5-10 feet from the rig. Additionally, ensure the exhaust faces away from your vehicle, setup, and any neighbors of yours. Depending on your camp situation and the noise level, you may want to move it a bit farther away. 

Next, check the oil and fuel levels to ensure you have enough for your needs. Then, make sure everything in your trailer is off and plug the shore power cord into the power supply port. 

Now, prime the generator. Follow the instructions and guidelines in the user manual. Once it is primed and running, let it warm up for a few minutes. 

When it is warm and running, plug the other end of the power cord into the generator. In some cases, you may need an adapter. 

Need Help Powering Your Rig?

Now that you have a better idea of how to operate an RV generator, remember that the team at TX RV Repair Shop is here whenever you have power problems. Our certified technicians are ready and available to help ensure your RV is adventure-ready. 

Call our shop today to book your appointment!