Anyone who has gone boondocking in a rural area knows there’s not always a power supply. Even campgrounds can have limited access, making shore power inconvenient and unreliable.
For these reasons, generators have become essential for many campers and travellers.
But which one is right for you? Which size of generator do you need for a camper? Is there a generator powerful enough for a class-A motorhome? And where do you even start calculating your power needs?
We address these questions and more. Here’s everything you need to know about getting the right size generator for RVs, vans, and campers.
Types of RV Generators
Generators for RVs come in two basic types: portable and built-in/stationary. Portable options provide additional backup power, while built-in generators often come pre-installed.
These options further break down into different fuel types, the most common being solar-powered and gas or diesel generators. Here are some of the differences between solar and fossil-fuel-powered generators:
- Solar-powered generators use solar panels to generate electricity and store the energy in a portable power station, which is like a giant battery bank. Solar generators like the DELTA series can power class-A motorhomes and class-C RVs. Solar power has become an increasingly popular energy source for campers and RV owners who want to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and their carbon footprint when they’re out in nature or off-grid.
- Gas and diesel generators are relatively affordable, easy to use, and can run continuously with sufficient fuel. But they are also noisy, dirty, and require regular refuelling and maintenance. It pays to consider the toxic fumes and greenhouse gas emissions that fossil fuel generators create and the long-term costs of refuelling regularly.
How Much Electricity Do You Need in Your RV?
There are three major questions you should ask when determining how much electricity you need:
- How much power do your appliances and devices need? Your wattage requirement is an essential baseline because it dictates what size generator you’ll need. If you have a lot of high-powered devices (such as a microwave or hair dryer), you’ll want to buy a higher-capacity generator. In contrast, someone with only low-powered devices like smartphones and an electric blanket could get away with a smaller setup like the River solar generators. Check the amps (A) or watts (W) requirements of each appliance and device to estimate how much power your appliances and devices need.
- What is the usage pattern of your appliances and devices? Usage patterns will vary depending on what kind of camping you’re doing. For example, if you’re staying in an RV park with a hookup, you’ll likely use more energy than if you were boondocking out in the middle of nowhere with no utilities available. The same goes for whether or not there’s sufficient power to run AC or a space heater with your generator. If it’s too hot or cold outside to open up some windows or throw on an extra blanket, electrical cooling or heating becomes necessary at night. Estimating your usage patterns will let you figure out how much power you need at any given time.
- What is the starting and running power for your appliances and devices? Starting power refers to the electricity needed to start up an item, such as your stove or laptop. Also called “surge power,” it is usually higher — often double — than the wattage required to run the device. On the contrary, running power or continuous power refers to the electricity needed to maintain power continuously.
How Much Power Does an RV Air Conditioner Use?
Air conditioners require more electricity to run than any other equipment in an RV, about 1,200 to 2,400 watts. While most RVs can operate without air conditioning when temperatures aren’t too high outside (generally lower than 80°F), it’s always best practice to have some form of a cooling system in your rig just in case things get hot!
How Much Power Does an RV Heater Use?
The typical RV heater draws around 500 to 1500 watts of energy, depending on the size and model. That’s a lot of juice! To find out how much power your specific RV heater requires, check the label or manual that came with it.
How Much Power Do Common RV Appliances Use?
Knowing the amount of power used by common RV appliances lets you calculate the generator size required for your rig. Here are some common appliances to consider in addition to the ones discussed above:
- Average stove: 900 to 2,500 watts
- Microwave oven: 1,000 to 1,500 watts
- Coffee maker: 650 to 1,750 watts
- Hair dryer: 1,200 to 1,875 watts
- Camper TV: 150-400 watts of electricity when running (or more if it has a high-definition display)
- Washer/dryer combo unit: 1000-1500 watts during operation; this appliance alone could easily exceed 10% of your total electrical load.
How Do You Calculate Watt Usage?
Besides the wattage, you’ll need to estimate the run time to determine the total watt usage. Use the following calculation:
Watts x run time (hours) = watt-hours
For example, let’s say your laptop has a wattage power of 50W, and you use it for two hours a day. That would require a generator with at least 100Wh capacity to run your laptop.
However, you’d also want to leave room for the surge power and a bit more room to avoid draining the generator’s battery completely. A safe estimate here would be a generator with a portable power station with at least 200Wh. Something like the River portable power station would be suitable with 256Wh capacity.
Remember that this is only the wattage for one device. You’ll need to find the sum in watt-hours for all your appliances and devices to figure out the electricity usage for your camper. You can use an appliance energy calculator to estimate the watt usage for your RV for a year.
Once you’ve got our total wattage requirements calculated and tallied up, the easy part is checking what size generator you need.
Portable RV Generator Sizes
Portable generators are a great way to keep your RV’s electrical systems running when you’re not connected to shore power. They’re also an excellent backup power source in a power outage.
Generally, portable generators come in capacities ranging from 288Wh to 3600Wh. But with smart extra batteries and linking multiple portable power stations, setups like the DELTA Pro let you expand that capacity to as much as 25kWh.
A significant difference between portable and built-in generators is that the portable type requires minimal installation. They’re also lightweight, compact, and portable, so you can take them wherever you go.
Built-In RV Generator Sizes
Most large RVs already have a built-in generator that you can turn on and off depending on how much power you need. Sizes of built-in RV generators vary but typically range from 3,000 to 12,000 watts. A built-in RV generator is a permanent installation and can provide backup power or directly power your RV.
Built-in generators are different from portable generators in that they are wired into your RV’s electrical system. They generally use the RV’s batteries as a fuel source, although some models use propane or natural gas. They’re also typically quieter than portable fossil fuel generators.
For RVs that don’t already come with a built-in generator, you can purchase modular Power Kits that integrate with your RV. These systems come in sizes ranging from 2kWh to 15kWh.
What Size Generator Should You Get For Your RV?
When it comes to RV generators, bigger is not always better. You need enough power to run your appliances and charge your batteries. But you also need a generator that is powerful enough to run your devices without causing damage to them or the generator itself.
There are three factors to consider when selecting the right generator size: watts, volts, and amps.
- A watt is a unit of power. The number of watts you require will tell you what size generator you’ll need.
- A volt indicates the flow of electrical current through a wire. For an RV, it tells you how much voltage the RV can handle. The plug on most RVs is 120 volts.
- The amps tell you how much current the RV can handle at any given time. RVs in different classes will have different amp plugs, usually 30 amps or 50 amps.
When figuring out what size generator you should get, you’ll need to check your RV’s amp rating. Then use the following calculation to figure out what capacity you need in watts:
Amps (A) x volts (V) = watts (W)
What Size Generator Is Best for a 30-Amp RV?
For a 30-amp RV, invest in a generator that provides at least 3,600 watts:
30A x 120V = 3600W
Something like the DELTA Pro, which has a 3600W capacity, should be able to meet most of your needs. That’s enough to power your fridge, laundry machine, and other smaller devices.
What Size Generator Do I Need for a 50-Amp RV?
A 50-amp RV requires an additional calculation because of the four-prong design. This type of plug has two volt wires, meaning it can provide more electricity.
50A x 120V = 6000W for one volt wire
50A x 120V = 6000W for the second volt wire
Sum = 12,000W
While some campers may need that much power, the average RVer will find a range of 6,000 to 8,000 watts sufficient to use essential appliances together comfortably. You can link multiple portable power stations to reach that capacity or save space by installing a Power Kit.
What Is the Difference Between 30-Amp and 50-Amp RV?
As mentioned, amps refer to how much current flows through an electrical device like your generator. When it comes to RV power, 30 and 50-amp capacities are the most common types. Although the names imply a 20-amp difference between 30-amp RVs and 50-amp RVs, there’s more to it than that.
A 30-amp RV, like a travel trailer and fifth wheels, has only one 30-amp service leg that supplies power to appliances and outlets of 120-volts. In the formula above, that means multiplying amps by volts (in this case, 30 watts x 120 volts) to determine the wattage. One can figure out that a 30- amp RV can handle no more than 3,600 watts.
Larger RVs, such as motorhomes and fifth wheelers with a loft or slideouts, tend to carry 50 amp service. The most significant difference in these types of RVs is not only the amperage but also the wiring that provides two legs of service. By multiplying the 50 amps of service by the 120 voltage, you can determine a capability of 6,000 watts. But, because of the two legs of service, 50-amp RVs can handle up to 12,000 watts.
What Should I Look for When Shopping for a Portable Generator?
Portable generators come in all shapes and sizes. Some are designed specifically for RVs, while others are more versatile and work for off-grid camping and backpacking, home backup, and more. Some run on fuel, like the EcoFlow smart dual fuel generators, while others use solar energy.
Before purchasing a portable generator, make sure it’s compatible with your needs by considering several factors.
The first thing you want to look at is the generator’s capacity. This is the amount of electricity it can produce at once. If your generator has a higher wattage rating than the appliances and lights you want to power, it should be able to handle them all together without any problems.
Next, look at the recharge options. Some require you to fuel up, while others come with portable solar panels that let you take advantage of renewable, clean energy. Many generators also recharge using shore power and car adaptors.
Recharge rates are also critical since you don’t want to get stuck at the campground recharging your generator for too long. The faster the recharge rate, the quicker you can get back on the road. With roof-mounted solar panels, you can even recharge when you’re on the move.
Finally, look at the weight since that can impact portability. Some options are lightweight and compact but come at the cost of lower capacity, while others have higher capacity and diminished portability.
How Much Power Do You Really Need?
The average home in Canada uses around 961 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. Considering that many motorhomes are like traditional homes on wheels, this is a reasonable estimate for campers and RV owners who live on the road full-time.
That said, when it comes to generators, you may only need enough power to run your essential appliances. For example, if all you want to do is keep some lights and a television on at night while you sleep in your camper, then a 2,000-4,000 watt generator may be adequate. A larger generator will be necessary if you run multiple appliances at once (like air conditioning and refrigeration) or operate other devices requiring more power.
The Short Answer: RV Generator Size
The generator you need depends on your RV or camper size and energy consumption. A small pop-up camper may only need a 1500-watt generator, while larger RVs and motorhomes require more power. When it comes to generators and RVs, there are three main sizes:
- 2000 watts – Perfect for smaller RVs with limited electricity needs, like pop-up campers or travel trailers
- 4000 watts – Perfect for most light-duty RVs and small travel trailers with basic appliances
- 6000 watts plus – Ideal for larger RVs with more power-hungry appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators, microwaves, and more
The bigger the camper and its power requirements, the larger the generator you want.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will a 3500-Watt Generator Run a Camper?
A 3,500-watt generator is an excellent size for most campers, especially 30-amp RVs. With this size, you can run a small air conditioning unit or other appliances like microwave ovens and refrigerators. You may also be able to run a few lights at the same time.
The DELTA Pro portable solar generator can produce 3,600 watts of electricity. It’s a convenient way to keep your RV running while travelling. The unit’s compact design makes it easy to store and transport, while its quiet operation allows you to use it anywhere.
The biggest thing to remember with generators is that they need to be appropriately sized for your needs. If you’re trying to run too many appliances at once, it will overload the generator and cause it to shut down. A generator this size performs best when running one or two appliances at a time — not an entire house’s worth of stuff!
Will a 5000-Watt Generator Run a Camper?
You can get by with a smaller generator if you have a small RV, van, or pop-up camper. But if you have a larger RV, we recommend getting a 5,000-watt generator. This capacity is enough to power most appliances in your RV and keep things running smoothly.
As mentioned, the higher capacity the generator, the larger it will typically be. As a result, you can get up to 7200Wh by pairing two DELTA Pro generators, but you may have to sacrifice portability and floor space.
The EcoFlow power kits eliminate this problem. The power hub contains all the core components in one compact size, and you can get capacities from 5000Wh up to 15kWh.
You’ll want to remember that any device that draws more power than your RV has available could cause problems with the generator or cause breakers to trip.
Can You Run an RV Generator While Sleeping?
While technically, you can run a generator while you sleep, it is not necessarily advisable for the following reasons.
- Safety: For safety reasons, RV fossil fuel generators should not be on while sleeping. They are a fire hazard and can expose you to deadly carbon monoxide. A solar-powered generator is safe to run at night since it won’t produce fumes. Just remember that you won’t be generating any additional power without sunlight.
- Noise: Running a fossil fuel RV generator at night will produce significant noise that could keep you (and fellow campers) awake all night long. For this reason, many campsites and RV parks restrict the use of gas and diesel generators at night.
- Fuel Consumption: Running an RV generator overnight often consumes extra fuel or stored solar power compared to running it during daylight hours when there are fewer demands on your batteries due to lights being off, etc.
Choosing the right generator for your camper can be a tough decision. This guide should help you understand the significant factors in determining the right generator for your RV.
Whether you need a portable generator for your camper or a permanent installation, knowing the power needs of your RV is required to choose the right one. Do your research before making a purchase, and don’t forget to consider the long-term costs of refuelling and maintenance for fossil fuel generators.