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Portable Generators

Read This First: Disclaimer. I’ve written what I personally did, and my opinions. Don’t assume what I did was safe, and don’t assume it will work for you. Do more research, and make your own choices. I am not responsible for your outcomes! :-)

If you do much dry camping it’s likely that you’ll want a generator.

The majority of motor homes, and some other RV’s like high-end 5th wheels, already have a built in generator. This is a large generator, usually capable of operating every electrical system in the RV at the same time including roof air conditioner units. Running this generator is convenient, because the associated systems are all automatic. You push a button, the generator starts, and things work. However, there are a few drawbacks to using this generator in dry camping situations.

If you don’t already have a generator

If you don’t have a generator the portable type is the way to go. Doing a built in after-the-fact is very expensive, especially if you have no prepared generator bay. And if you have a 5th wheel or TT what fuel will you power your genny with? Where will you put the tank? For you, a small, efficient, quiet, portable generator is far and away the better choice. Although if you want to run the air conditioner you’ll need a larger portable, 2200 Watts or more depending on the size of the air conditioner.

So which generator do you buy?

Be careful! You’ll see many generators advertised by auto parts stores and online that are dirt cheep, like 3000W generators for $250. These are mostly junk. They are loud, bulky, heavy, and use a lot of fuel. Also if you run them a lot they’ll wear out quickly. Likewise you’ll see “construction generators” for sale at home improvement stores. Although these are a little better quality they’re still big, heavy, and loud.  Because they’re so loud they’re banned from many organized dry camping areas.

What you want is a compact, quiet, high-efficiency generator that will last you a long time. The two leading manufacturers of these are Honda and Yamaha. Other contenders (second tier) are the Kipor and the Robin Subaru. Based on talk in online forums the Kipor and Robin rank below the Honda and Yamaha but they are solid performers and cost less.  You’ll also see comparable sizes from Generac, Honeywell, Briggs & Stratton, Hyundai, Lifan and others.

Lots of retail and online stores sell portable generators, but it’s hard to get a low price online for the Honda, you’ll need to call because Honda doesn’t allow deeply discounted prices to be advertised.  For Honda generators I recommend Mayberry  For all others see the links above.  Note that Honda has a high resale value with 2nd hand generators often going for 80% of new price.  Still, you may find a bargain on Craisglist.com or on the bulletin board at your local RV park.

Reasons not to use your RV’s built-in generator

Cost of operation. The large generator in a motor home is inefficient at low output levels. If you’re just running the generator to charge the batteries a typical 5000 to 7500 watt generator will use a minimum of a half gallon of gas or diesel an hour. By comparison a small generator will be much more efficient. At $4.00 a gallon, large generators will cost about $2.00 to $3.00 an hour for battery charging and smaller generators between $.64 and $1.84 an hour.

Noise. Large generators, even “quiet” ones, make some noise although the newer quiet diesels are much quieter than the old ones. In contrast, there are small generators specifically designed to be super quiet — under 59db at full load. How quiet is that? Here are some comparisons

Freeway at 50 ft — 76 dB

Vacuum cleaner — 70 dB

Air Conditioner Unit at 100ft — 60 dB

Normal Conversation — 60db

Honda EU2000i Generator at full load — 59 dB

Honda EU2000i Generator at 1/4 load — 53 dB

Other models by Yamaha, Honda (and maybe other manufacturers) can also achieve this level of quiet and fuel efficiency.

Reasons for using your built-in generator

Do we have a portable generator?  Yes, but we didn’t for a long time.  On our old RV (1997 Southwind, gas engine) we used the somewhat noisy, built-in Onan 5000W generator. Why? Because for us the positives outweighed the negatives.

Cost of ownership is one reason.  One negative I gave before was “cost of operation”. But consider that a high quality, fuel efficient, quiet portable generator is not cheap to buy.  A 1000W Honda costs about $700, but that’s too small for us. We need at least a 2000W generator, and that’s about $1000.

That same $1000 would buy a lot of gas back when it was $2.00 a gallon and run our built-in generator for a long time. If we subtract the times that we ran the generator for air conditioning, we only used ours about 90-100 hours a year for battery charging, microwave use, etc.  So, for the price of a Honda EU2000i we could run our old generator a lot!

Convenience is a good reason.  You just push a button, the generator starts, and everything works. No going outside in the rain, no carrying gas cans and refilling the generator, etc.

But what about the Noise? Well, we just put up with it. Because we had 360W of solar panels we only needed to run our generator on cloudy days, or to operate the microwave, vacuum cleaner, etc,. While dry camping we typically ran it about an hour first thing in the morning about two or three times a week, and 15 minutes or so around lunch or dinner, but not every day.

I always figured if our dry camping increased (it was about 50% back then) maybe I’d buy a nice little Honda generator, maybe an EU2000i, or the Yamaha EF2400iSC. I finally did after we bought our current motorhome.  It has a 7500 Watt diesel generator and it seems like overkill to crank that up to charge batteries.  I picked up a Honda EU2000i in the winter of 2011-12 and I’m very happy with it.  I bought mine from Mayberrys and including shipping it was $100 lower than any local prices.

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