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?
Table of Contents
- What Is an RV Generator and What Do They Power?
- Onboard vs. Portable RV Generators: What Are the Key Differences?
- Do You Need a Generator on Your RV?
- Which RV Generator Is Best?
- Built-in or Portable RV Generator: The Choice Is Yours
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Portable: 2000-4000 Watts
Built-In: 4000 – 12500 Watts
➡ Not sure how much power you need for your camper? Read this: What Size Generator Do I Need for My RV?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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