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How Do RV Generators Work?

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Last Updated on November 19, 2022 by Jessica Lauren Vine

Are you asking, “How do RV generators work?”

For RVers who are looking to take their rigs off-grid, having an RV generator is essential. RV generators allow you to live without electricity hookups for an extended time. However, there are many RV generators and sizes to choose from. There’s a chance your RV will come with a pre-installed generator! 

No matter what type of RV generator you have, the concept of how they work is always the same. The generator creates electricity via some form of gas and transmits it to your RV. You can use your air conditioner, lights, outlets, and any other electrical appliances in your camper with a generator. 

If you’re new to RV generators and are wondering what the buzz is all about and how they work, you’ve come to the right place. This article will answer most of your questions about RV generators, whether you already have one on your RV or are considering getting a portable one. 

The Basics About RV Generators 

As we briefly stated, RV generators work like any other type of generator. It uses a form of fuel to generate electrical power for your camper. Here’s a brief overview of how the process works.

  1. You fill your generator with the fuel of some sort, usually propane, unleaded gas, or diesel fuel.

  2. In the case of portable generators, you turn the generator on by flipping a switch or pulling a rip cord.

  3. As the generator runs, it creates chemical energy, which converts to mechanical energy, which it then converts to electric power.

  4. All of this happens in the blink of an eye, and you have electrical energy from the moment the generator activates.

  5. You can transfer the power created by a portable generator to your RV through an electric power cord.

  6. If you have a built-in generator, the generator is hardwired into your electrical system and negates the need for a power cord.

  7. If your generator is big enough, it can provide the same ac power supply to your RV as you would with campground shore power.

  8. RV generators can power your refrigerator, heating and AC system, electrical outlets, lights, appliances, and anything else in your electrical system.

While the overall process is fairly technical and complicated, this is essentially how RV generators work.

Terms to Know

When it comes to RV generators, there are three terms you should know.

  • Watts

Watts is a term that describes how much power is flowing through something and usually applies to specific appliances or electrical devices. You can calculate the amount of wattage by multiplying amps x volts.

  • Amps

Amps is another term for describing how much power is flowing through something. Amps, however, usually apply to electrical cords and circuit breakers.

  • Volts

Volts, aka voltage, is one of the more confusing terms in electricity. Simply put, it refers to the amount of potential energy in an electrical system. Most RVs, for instance, have a maximum electrical output potential of 120 or 240 volts. If you exceed this total amount with all your combined appliances and devices, you’ll either trip the main breaker or have a power surge.

Knowing these terms will help you understand how RV generators work. It will also help you know what type and size of generator to purchase if you need one.

What Does an RV Generator Do?

Simply, it converts rotational energy (produced by a mechanical means, say a combustion engine) into useable electrical energy that can power modern appliances, lights, charge batteries and drive electric tools.

Simple breakdown of a generator – Image Credit: http://learn4electrical.blogspot.com

The Parts that Make the Whole

The generator is a power producing tool that converts mechanical energy from burning fossil fuels like gasoline, natural gas and propane to electrical energy used to power alternating current (A/C) consumers like refrigerators, DVD players or your air conditioning unit. Generators are considered on-demand electricity. Unlike solar and wind which are more supplemental power. The saying goes “sometimes wind don’t blow, and sun don’t shine”.  Generators can run day or night, sun or rain.

Engine

This is the source of the mechanical power. Generator engines, like motorcycle and car engines can range in size from 2 to 8 cylinders – depending on the workload. This year, 2022, has seen a rise in both bi-fuel and tri-fuel generators, which is very convenient. Modern generators can now be purposed to burn gasoline, natural gas or propane.

Fuel System

This system gets your engine fuel. It’s built from a tank to store fuel, pipes and hoses that feed fuel to the engine and a pump that keeps the fuel flowing. At the business end (combustion chamber) the fuel system incorporates a fuel injector that atomizes the fuel that is fed into the combustion chamber, awaiting ignition.

Voltage Regulator

Lots of knowledge in complex math and electrical analog circuits needed, so I’ll keep it simple. The Voltage Regulator is the key device to ensure that your sensitive electronic devices (such as a laptop) get clean and reliable power, so they don’t burn up

Different Types of RV Generators 

Now that you know a little more about how RV generators work and a few associated terms let’s dig into the main types of RV generators on the market.

Gas Generators

Gas generators are the most common type of RV generator. Gas is especially common with portable generators because it doesn’t require the RV generator to have a permanent gas pipe connected. With a gas-powered portable generator, you can take the generator wherever you want to, as long as you have a gas can.

LP Generators

If you have a built-in generator in your RV, there’s a good chance that it operates with LP gas. LP, short for liquid propane, is used with a built-in RV generator because you can permanently connect a gas line to the generator on one end and your propane tanks on the other. It allows for a constant flow of gas that has your built-in generator ready to work at a moment’s notice.

Diesel Generators

For several reasons, diesel RV generators aren’t as common as other generators. A diesel generator doesn’t burn fuel as cleanly as other types of built-in or portable generators, and the fuel is also more expensive. However, a diesel RV generator is certainly a viable option.

Solar Power Generators

Solar power generators aren’t quite as common as other RV generators, but they’re growing rapidly in popularity. With a solar generator, you can power your RV batteries, DC power, RV air conditioner, and much more when you have one that’s big enough. You can do anything you would with a gas generator, but with less muss and fuss.

Solar generators don’t have exhaust from fuel, a fuel pump, a fuel tank, a fuel filter, or any other pesky things that require ongoing generator maintenance. A solar generator makes electricity from the sun, an outside power source, or other forms of renewable energy.

RV Inverter Generators 

If you’re looking for one of the most fuel-efficient and quietest generator options for your RV, you should consider inverter generators. Inverter generators work like gasoline generators, except they have special parts that make them run cooler, quieter, and more efficiently.

The main downside of inverter generators is that they aren’t as powerful as most portable generators. However, to work around that issue, inverter generators can run on a circuit, meaning that you can hook several of them up to your RV. Most people who need a portable generator tend to go for inverter generators because they have a lot of benefits.

Portable Generators Vs. a Built-In RV Generator

Portable Generators

Portable generators aren’t quite as big as built-in generators but have numerous other advantages. For instance, you can take portable generators with you wherever you want and use them for things other than being an RV generator. Because of their flexibility and portability, people love using portable generators as RV generators.

But, unless you buy an inverter generator, portable generators are usually less efficient than those built-in. Even if you buy a more efficient inverter generator, a portable generator is still cheaper than a generator built into an RV.

Built-In RV Generators

When it comes to serious RV generators, most people prefer built-in generators. As their name indicates, built-in generators are built into your RV and included in the package deal when you purchase it. Built-in generators have a permanent supply of fuel running to them via your propane tanks and are hardwired into your RV’s electrical system.

In most cases, built-in generators are easier to use and operate than portable generators. Built-in generators also tend to be easier to maintain than other RV generators.

How to Choose the Right RV Generator 

Budget 

If you have a built-in generator in your RV, you don’t need to worry about purchasing one. However, if you’re looking for a portable RV generator, your budget will play a big role in your choice. A portable generator can cost anywhere between $500 and $5,000. If you want an inverter generator, you’ll likely spend even more.

Sound Level 

Apart from your budget and the power it produces, how loud your RV generator is will play a huge role. We’ll use decibels to give you an idea of how loud portable generators can be.

The average human has conversations at 60 decibels, street traffic is usually around 80 decibels, and a lawn mower operates at around 90 decibels. Depending on the type and size you buy, portable generators make between 40 and 100 decibels of noise. If the noise is a major concern, choose one that operates at a lower decibel.

Power 

No matter how expensive or quiet your portable generator is, it won’t do any good if it isn’t powerful enough to power your RV. A portable generator can have between 2,000 and 12,000 watts of power. The more powerful appliances and devices you want to operate, the bigger your portable generator should be.

Are Newer, Multi-Fuel Generators More Efficient?

To put it simply, the industry is near to hitting the ceiling in generator efficiency without the development of new technologies. Scientists and engineers in the field are focused on new and improved magnetic materials, insulating tape to manage heat flow between components and more efficient cooling systems; however, improvements to efficiency are measured tents and hundreds of a percent.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, we’ve answered the question of “how to do RV generators work” to your satisfaction. RV generators aren’t overly complicated appliances, and they’re a great asset to have on hand, especially if you enjoy camping off-grid. Regardless of what type of RV generator you choose, they all work similarly and fulfill the same purpose.

You’re good to go if you’re lucky enough to have a built-in RV generator. However, if you need to purchase a portable generator, this article will help you understand how it works and choose the right one.

Before heading off, make sure you check out these other helpful articles about RV life.

Where Are Champion Generators Made?

Gifts for RV Owners – Gifts for the Camper Who Has Everything

6 Best RV Trips for Families – Make Everyone Happy

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