Generator Usage: Operating Tips and Rules for RVs

RV Generator usage has become a hot topic amongst RVers and campers; especially when boondocking, dry camping or parking overnight within close proximity to other RVers. The debated questions are: “When and where is it appropriate to run your RV generator?”

Since the 2020 pandemic reared its’ ugly head, people of every age and demographic went out and bought RVs and campers and hit the road running.

Because of this, campgrounds and RV parks are now busting at the seams with reservations and occupancy. And if there are campsites available, pulling in and parking for 8 hours of sleep now costs upwards to $100 a night.

So, many of those new RVers have turned to overnight parking at Walmart or other gracious businesses with large parking lots. Or, they are join RV memberships like Harvest Hosts, Hip Camp or Boondocker’s Welcome for other overnight RV parking options. And generator usage has skyrocketed because of it.

Read more: Where to Find FREE Overnight RV PARKING

RV Generator Usage - RV boondocking

Unfortunately, there’s a whole new society of RVers and campers who have become quite verbal with, “well, my RV came with a generator, therefore, I’m using it!”

And trust me, I do understand wanting all the comforts of home. They want electricity to power everything from their tablets and tv to their RV air conditioners. However, this is where the raging debate ensues.

Many RVers have seemingly left their dry camping etiquette at the last exit. Without regard or respect for others, they’re firing up their RV generators.

So, the questions remain, when and where can you run your generator to power your RV. Or, shall I ask, when and where you should not run your RV generator?

Let’s take get the answers to your RV generator usage questions 

RV Generator Usage Etiquette

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Generator Usage: Operating Tips and Rules for RVs and Camping

First, let’s take a look to discuss the viable reasons why you may need (or want) to run your RV generator. 

RV Generator Usage - Electricity

Recharge Your RV House Batteries

The most common reason to run your RV generator or portable generators is to recharge your RV house batteries.

It’s important to never allow them to get below 50% state of charge if if your motorhome or camper has lead acid batteries. Which, in a lot of RVs, that means you have to be really frugal with your electricity usage.

But even if you have lithium batteries, you still may need to recharge your RV house batteries. There may be stretches of cloud cover or stormy days that disallowed your solar panels full solar absorption. Or, if you’ve used quite a bit of your stored energy, you may need to use your generator to recharge them when they get at a low percentage.

We have a couple suggestions for running your RV generator to recharge your batteries without bothering other RVers.

The first way to recharge your RV batteries is to run your RV generator (hard-installed) while you’re driving your RV.

The second way of course is to run your generator while you’re parked.

Read more: Why We Chose Battle Born Lithium Batteries

Medical Devices

Another reason why RVers may need to run their generators, especially at night, is so they can utilize their CPAP and other medical devices.

However, this reason alone has caused quite a stir amongst RVers who don’t have these disabilities. There are two sides to this. While I can understand those who want to boondock in the quiet, but who’s to tell those that they aren’t allowed to enjoy camping just because they may have this type of disability?

There are different ways to power a CPAP or small medical device that don’t involve a complex solar install. But, by installing solar panels, lithium batteries and necessary components to bridge them all together can eliminate the need to run your RV generator.

Be aware though, for those CPAP users, know that when using the humidification feature on your CPAP device, that draws more electricity which can deplete your battery storage more quickly.

Check out how we configured our Winnebago View’s solar and energy management system in our Winnebago View to be able to operate two CPAP devices at the same time without generator usage.

Read more:  RV Living: CPAP Device Power Solutions for RVs

Kitchen Appliances

All kitchen appliances are 120 volt thus, requiring generator usage or an ample sized inverter. Kitchen appliances that generate heat, such as toasters and toaster ovens, coffee makers, microwave ovens, air fryers and convection ovens, draw huge amounts of electricity. Which, if you’re RV doesn’t have enough energy storage, long term usage could drain your batteries quickly.

This is the reason why you’ll hear a lot of boondocking RVers fire up their RV generators early in the morning and late afternoon when they are preparing evening meals.

However, there are ways to alleviate that; cook outside using your grill or camp stove. But also, when looking for kitchen appliances to use in your RV, opt for those with the least amount of wattage.

If we cook indoors, we typically will either use our propane stove cooktop or our Instant Pot. The wattage of each Instant Pot size:

Whereas, our Convection Oven/Microwave uses 1500 watts. Yet, if we used our Air Fryer, it averages about 1700 watts. And a portable induction cooktop tops out at about 1800 or more watts for a single burner.

Read more: Instant Pot Programmable Pressure Cooker – Product Review

So, as you see, using your generator while boondocking or lotdocking may not be the wisest when it comes to energy management. That said, that doesn’t mean you bring out the grill or camp stove. That is a huge lotdocking no-no.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat delicious meals. If you’re parking at a restaurant or Harvest Host that offers meals, support them by eating at those establishments. (Good etiquette says you should anyways!)

And speaking of appliances, be aware that a hair blow dryer averages 1875-2000 watts while a flat iron or curling averages only about 300 watts.

Read more: Overnight RV Parking: Dos and Don’ts of Lotdocking

Electronic Devices and Television

Watching television and using multiple electronic devices will drain your RV batteries quickly when camping off the grid. Televisions and computer monitors generate heat thus, requiring more amperage from your batteries.

Those who do not have ample energy management systems in their RVs must rely on their generators for this reason.

This is another reason why generator noise is most prevalent in the evenings. That’s the time when campers and families will surf the internet or enjoy a movie or two before turning in for the night.

One important note that we want to share. We noticed that our Apple MacBook Pros draw a 60 watts. But multiply that two and it adds up.

So, if you can’t afford expensive lithium batteries or don’t want to deplete your lead acid battery storage, opt for a portable laptop charger and a couple portable chargers for your smaller digital devices and smartphones.

Run Your RV Air Conditioner

Unless you point your compass north to cooler temperatures, you may be forced to turn on your generator so you can run your RV air conditioner.

Now, as we mentioned in our  Depending on the wattage size of your generator, you may have to parallel two together to get ample draw to run your air conditioner.

To remedy your initial wattage requirement to start your RV air conditioner, you may want to look into getting a SoftStart.

Now you can run your RV air conditioner(s) with minimal start-up power, even 2 units on a 30 amp pedestal!

The SoftStart is designed to connect directly to the compressor motor and reduce the power surge that occurs on startup. It gradually increases this power until the compressor is running, creating a very smooth start that reduces the peak current by 50 to 70% or more.

An RV rooftop 16000 BTU, 120-volt compressor can now start with under 20 amps of current.

With SoftStart RV you can:

      • Run one air conditioner using only a small portable generator
      • Run one or two air conditioners using your onboard inverter system

Read more: Top Portable Generators for RV Camping

RV Generator Maintenance

Like anything mechanical on your RV, if you don’t conduct proper generator maintenance, chances are, it won’t work efficiently when you need it. 

Onboard Generator Maintenance

Conducting regular monthly RV generator maintenance will help keep all components well lubricated and from seizing. Generator maintenance should include inspecting, cleaning and running it at least monthly. You should also change the oil in your RV generator at regular intervals depending on how often you use it.

But most important, you should exercise your generator at least once a month for at least one hour under load. Under load means using the air conditioner or electrical appliances such as your microwave or convection oven while your generator is running.

But how do you do this if you’re in an RV park or campground? 

Simple! You’re not! Because most campgrounds or RV parks won’t allow you to run your generator unless there is an extended power outage or when they dictate permission.

So, to avoid bothering fellow campers, we recommend running your RV generator while you’re driving your motorhome or pulling your fifth wheel or trailer to your next destination. We’ll tell you about that in our next section.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for those RVers who have portable generators, so respectful discretion is advised when your generator maintenance is due.

Can you use your RV generator underway?

For those with onboard generators (propane or diesel), you can do run it while you’re driving or pulling down the road. This can be beneficial two ways.

First, when the outside temperatures are hot, you can keep your RV interior cool by running the air conditioner. And second, because you’re running your AC, this is allowing your onboard generator to operate under load.

So, essentially, you’re doing two things at once; running your monthly required generator and cooling the inside of your coach.

RV Class C Driving - RV Generator Usage

A few things to know and remember though.

If your RV has an onboard propane powered generator, make certain your RV’s propane tank is full. However, there’s one caveat to running your propane generator underway. Some states or local jurisdictions may not allow for your propane to be on; especially through tunnels or while driving on some bridges. So, plan accordingly.

If you’re motorhome has a diesel generator, be sure you have enough diesel fuel to run it as well as having enough to fuel to drive your motorhome to your next destination.

For safety sake and per local ordinances or laws, ALWAYS secure your generator power as well as shut off your propane when fueling at service stations.

RV Generator Usage

Generator usage issues you need to be aware of:

Audible Noise

Running your RV generator is noisy despite what others may report. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read on social media platforms “I can’t hear my generator at all when I’m inside my RV”.

That may be true. However, what about your neighbors, businesses and residents outside or near your RV?

No Generator Zone

Trust me, every generator is noisy. And while onboard or inverter generators may produce less decibels, they still produce intrusive sound or be a nuisance to others in close parking confines. Imagine being parked next to your RV while your neighbors are trying to enjoy the peaceful environment or enjoy waking up to nature sounds.

Carbon Monoxide Fumes

But also, what about your RVing neighbors who need to have their windows open for ventilation. It’s not only about the sound of your generator but also about the dangerous fumes your generator produces.

RV Generator Usage - RV boondocking close

Speaking from personal experience, I acquired carbon monoxide poisoning from generator fumes that came from a motorhome parked close to ours. It actually happened recently while Dan was out running errands and I stayed behind to work inside our RV.

When he returned, I complained of a nasty headache and told him I all of a sudden felt extremely sleepy.

We both realized it was from the motorhome parked about 12 foot from our motorhome that was running their generator during a short-term power outage. Meanwhile, our windows were open and our fantastic fan was drawing in air flow from the ceiling (reason our carbon monoxide detector didn’t alarm). Their generator exhaust was pointing right at our door. Of course, I didn’t realize it because carbon monoxide is odorless.

So, be respectful for other RVers who may be parked close to your RV. While their windows and doors may not be open, their Fantastic Fan could very well be pulling in those fumes.

Ground Vibration

What a lot of RVers don’t realize is some generators, especially onboard generators, produce a level of ground vibration.

Cummins Onan QG 3600 LP generator

A few years ago, we attended an RV rally where we were parked awning to awning; some even closer. Our fifth wheel bedroom was in the front cap section of our RV. The neighbor on our drivers side had a brand new motorhome.

For some unknown reason, his generator kept automatically starting and stopping throughout the night. His generator was located in the front of his motorhome; literally feet away from our RV’s bedroom walls.

The vibration that onboard generator produce could felt even in our beds. We both woke up with awful headaches because of it. While our new RV friends were extremely apologetic, it was a lesson we all learned.

So, realize this by our experience that this could be an issue your neighbors may not take lightly.

RV Generator Usage

Final thoughts on generator usage for RV boondocking and dry camping

Look, just be aware of your surroundings and have common sense and simple courtesy. Always use good discretion when operating your generator.

Let’s briefly go over some RV generator usage etiquette and safety rules to remember regarding RV generator usage:

      • Never assume you can run your generator wherever you park. Always ask for permission regardless of where or what time of day or night your RV is parked.
      • Even if the property owner allows you to run. your generator, ask your neighbors as well. If either disapprove, simply relocate your RV.
      • Respect and abide by quiet hours; typically between the hours of 11:00 pm to 7:00 am.
      • Be observant to those parked close to you and have their windows open. Be cognizant of your generator’s fumes that may go into your neighbor’s doors or windows. 
      • If you are using a portable generator, use inverter generators only! Using contractor generators will get you kicked out or a knock on the door by angry neighbors or property owners.
      • If running your onboard generator underway, make certain you are in compliance with federal, state and local laws concerning propane and fueling.

We hope this article clears up any questions or misconceptions about your RV generator usage. Regardless of what type of RV you own, we all need to collectively work to preserve these overnight parking privileges as well as practice good boondocking etiquette while camping off the grid.

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2 Replies to “Generator Usage: Operating Tips and Rules for RVs”

  1. Please check the ‘quiet hours statement, seems to be backwards

    Let’s briefly go over some RV generator usage etiquette and safety rules to remember regarding RV generator usage:
    Even if the property owner allows you to run. your generator, ask your neighbors as well. If either disapprove, simply relocate your RV.
    Respect and abide by quiet hours; typically between the hours of 7:00 am to 10:00 pm.

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