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Onboard RV Generator vs. Portable: Which Is Better?

Onboard RV Generator vs. Portable: Which Is Better?

Should I get a built-in onboard RV generator or a portable one? It’s a question faced by new and experienced RVers alike. While many people have strong opinions about which is best, the decision is not as cut and dry as it may seem.

Let’s plug in and take a closer look at these two types of RV generators. Which one is right for your travels?

What Is an RV Generator and What Do They Power?

An RV generator converts fuel into power for your RV or trailer. Generators typically produce AC electricity, which can power things like air conditioners, TVs, microwaves, and traditional wall outlets.

This is in contrast to your RV’s house batteries, which (without an inverter) produce DC electricity. Batteries power items like your lights and water pump.

RV Electrical Safety Tips and Recommendations- RV Security and Safety Series Part 3

Onboard (or Built-in) RV Generators

Onboard generators (also called built-in generators) are installed in your RV and travel with you everywhere you go. These generators are discretely stored but easily accessible. You’ll usually find them in compartments in the basement area or the front of your rig.

Onboard generators are connected directly to your RV’s electrical system and often start with a switch or touch of a button. They receive their fuel directly from your motorhome’s fuel tank or an auxiliary built in tank.

Portable RV Generators

Portable RV generators offer an alternative to built-in units. They can be taken with you or left at home as needed. You may be able to plug your entire rig into your portable generator or connect certain devices or appliances directly. They also require separate fueling. 

Built-in RV Generator
Built-in RV Generator
Portable RV Generator
Portable RV Generator

Onboard vs. Portable RV Generators: What Are the Key Differences?

Now that you know the basics of these two types of generators, let’s take a closer look at the crucial differences you need to know.

Convenience

If ease of use and convenient power is your primary goal, you’ll want to opt for the built-in RV generator. They’re always ready to go, as long as you have fuel available. On the flip side, you have to take out portable generators, set them up, and start them. That process can be time-consuming or tedious if done frequently.

Additionally, onboard RV generators are already connected to your rig’s electrical system. However, portable ones need to be hooked up each time. 

When it comes to service or maintenance portable units win inconvenience. Portable units are very easy to serviced or replaced as they can be moved whereas servicing built-in generators requires moving the entire RV.

Another convenience of onboard generators is that they can run while you drive. Sometimes people run the generator while driving to run additional air conditioners.

Power Output

Heavy power users will usually do best with an onboard generator unit instead of a portable one. Generally speaking, these built-in generators provide a higher power output to help RVers run as many systems and appliances as they can. Portable generators may not even provide enough power for standard RV systems like air conditioning or microwaves. It is possible to get large power output portable units but they end up being very large and heavy.

Common sizes:

Portable: 2000-4000 Watts

Built-In: 4000 – 12500 Watts

Can a Honda Generator Run The AC? ⚡ RV Living & Van Life // Honda EU2200 & EU2000 Inverter Generator

➡ Not sure how much power you need for your camper? Read this: What Size Generator Do I Need for My RV?

Noise 

Anyone who’s ever used a generator (or camped or lived next to someone who does) knows how loud some of them can be. Noise output will vary from generator to generator and both portable and built in generators offer quiet options. Those looking for the quietest option will appreciate the flexibility of portable generators.

This is because you can move your portable generator further from your camper to reduce noise. Your onboard RV generator, on the other hand, is right under you all the time sending that noise directly into your rig. 

Weather Restrictions

If you’re dealing with rain, snow, or extremely hot or cold weather, an onboard generator will be a better choice. Many portable generators specifically warn users not to run them outdoors in inclement weather. That means those who rely on them will be out of luck until things clear up or will need to find a way to cover them.

Portable Generator Cover Comic

Pro Tip: Purchasing a generator cover can help protect it from the elements. Find one to fit your machine here: 5 Best Portable Generator Covers to Protect and Muffle Noise

Onboard RV generators don’t have any such restrictions. Since they’re inside your RV, you can run them and enjoy their power output regardless of outside conditions. 

Versatility

One advantage of a portable generator is in its name—it’s portable! You can use it at home during power outages, while tent camping, or any other time without your RV.

On the other hand, your onboard generator is built right into your rig. That means it only has one purpose—powering your RV. Those who have multiple uses for their generator may find the versatility of a portable generator to their advantage. 

Portable camping generator on a truck bed
The versatility of a portable generator make it a winner for those who enjoy several different types of camping.

Fuel Usage

Your built-in RV generator will draw fuel from whatever source your RV runs on, be it gas or diesel. This means you’ll always have the right type of fuel on hand when you need it. This does however mean that you will be burning driving range as well. Many generators shut off when the tank reaches 1/4 to prevent you from not making it to the fuel station.

Depending on your portable generator type, it may run on gas, diesel, or even propane. This means carrying around a second fuel type—just another thing to remember during busy RV trips.

➡ Want to learn more about propane fueled generators? We’ve got the details here: How to Use Propane Generators for RV: The Basics.

Price

Those looking for a budget-friendly option will find more choices among portable generators. Due to their lower power output and the other potential limitations we’ve mentioned above, they tend to be a more affordable option.

Naturally, an onboard generator’s extra power and convenience will cost a premium. Plus, repairing an onboard RV generator is more expensive and complicated than getting your portable unit fixed. 

Onboard RV Generator
Onboard generators are generally more expensive, but have a higher power output.

Do You Need a Generator on Your RV?

If you’re talking about whether or not a generator is a requirement to enjoy your RV, the answer is no. However, without a generator, you’ll need to connect to shore power or install an inverter to use some high-voltage appliances. You’ll also have to learn to live on DC power when you’re camping off-grid

However, generators can be an incredibly useful addition to your RV’s electrical system. These machines provide convenience and improve your quality of life while using your rig. You’ll be able to enjoy your air conditioning, TV, and regular outlets wherever you go.

Portable RV Generator
If you like to dry camp from time to time, it’s useful to have an RV generator.

Which RV Generator Is Best?

Both types have pros and cons that users may weigh differently. You’ll need to consider your circumstances, travel style, and budget when deciding whether to choose an onboard or portable RV generator.

If you’re on a budget, portable units will be much more affordable and can even power your home during power outages. 

Conversely, onboard RV generators offer incredible convenience. There’s no setup or remembering to fuel them. They’re also ready to use any time you need them, regardless of the weather. Plus, heavy power users will enjoy the additional capacity of onboard units. 

Built-in or Portable RV Generator: The Choice Is Yours

The question of whether to choose a built-in RV generator or a portable one isn’t simple. But your new knowledge of the ins and outs of this valuable piece of equipment should make your decision easier.

Built-in Motorhome Generator
Large Class A motorhomes generally require onboard generators for their power needs.

Whether you prize convenience, price, versatility, or power output, the right generator for your rig is out there, just waiting to get your electric system humming! 

Do you prefer onboard or portable RV generators? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
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Get Greight

Thursday 24th of February 2022

My one experience with an onboard generator was a nightmare. The way it was installed the carburetor was inaccessible unless you removed the whole generator. I've had a portable for many years and it has served me well. Much preferred as it can serve multiple purposes. Also parts are less expensive than the built in variety.

Mortons on the Move

Friday 18th of March 2022

That is a very good point, onboard gens can be very difficult to work on unless they are on a slide-out tray.

Doug Donnelly

Monday 7th of February 2022

You missed one of the biggest advantages of an onboard generator: it is MUCH less likely to be stolen than a portable! I have heard way too many horror stories about stolen portable generators, but have never heard of an onboard generator being stolen.

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