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How to Run Your RV Generator While Driving

Can you run an RV generator while driving? The simple answer is maybe, but there’s more to it than that. Here, we’ll explain how to use your RV generator while traveling. That way, you’ll keep all those onboard comforts and technologies running throughout your adventure!

What Types of RVs Come With Generators?

Just about all motorhomes and larger fifth wheels come with a built-in generator option. They’re generally robust enough to power most appliances in the RV.

But when it comes to travel trailers, truck campers, vans, and the like, generators are often not included in the initial build. Some come prepared to add a generator. Even if they don’t have the setup for an onboard generator, you can still add a portable generator to power your rig.

generator start button
Many RVers will rely on generators to power their RVs while camping.

What Does a Generator Power in Your RV? 

Generators play an important role in powering key components of RVs when you’re not plugged into shore power. A generator can power lights, air conditioners, microwaves, and refrigerators.

Without a generator, campers would have to go without many of the comforts of home during their outdoor trips. Most simple electric-powered items like lights, pumps, and control panels can operate from the 12-volt house battery. The house battery needs to be recharged occasionally, however and can be recharged by the generator.

But generators also operate devices that run on 120 volts, such as TVs, stereos, coffee makers, and hair dryers. You don’t need to be so rough when roughing it when you have a generator.

Can You Run an RV Generator While Driving?

The short answer to this question is yes, you can run a generator while driving if it is built in. There are a few caveats to that answer.

For one, if your motorhome generator operates on gas or diesel, it typically pulls from the same tank that fuels your vehicle. Remember that when factoring mileage and refueling. Your tank will empty much quicker with the generator operating while you’re driving. Frequently generators will shut down when the tank reaches a certain level, like 1/4 or 1/8th a tank. Thus if you’re running it while driving it might shut down on you as your fuel gets lower.

If your generator is propane powered, whether in a motorhome or a fifth wheel, it may not be legal to use it while driving. Check local laws regarding propane usage in RVs before operating it while driving. Propane is sometimes required to be turned off when at gas stations, in tunnels or on ferries too.

Some folks would also argue that it’s not safe to use propane for a generator or to power any appliance (even an RV refrigerator) while driving. Many folks don’t think it is a grave concern. Either way, look into the laws regarding propane and your situation.

motorhome generator compartment open while driving
Most motorhomes and some fifth wheels have built-in generators that are designed to be run while driving.

Pro Tip: If you prefer propane appliances, make sure you have our Complete RV Propane Tank Guide on hand.

Can You Run A Portable RV Generator While Driving?

Portable RV generators generally are not designed to be run when driving; however, we have seen it done. If your RV has a plug on the back, we have seen portable generators placed on a hitch hauler or a specially built platform on the back of the RV.

If you do want to run a portable generator while driving, there are some safety concerns your need to think of. Keep in mind the generator needs to be ventilated and not in an enclosed space. Even in a box with an exhaust tube, generators get very hot and could be a fire hazard.

In addition, portable generators use plugs and not hardwired connections. Because of this, the likelihood of a plug coming loose and causing a poor connection is higher, so be sure you have very secure locking plugs. In addition, monitoring of a portable generator on the hitch is going to be much harder, and if something goes wrong, you might not be able to shut it down. We would highly recommend only doing this if you have a remote shutdown capability for your generator.

Close up of installed RV generator
Don’t be in the dark on your next road trip! Use your RV generator while driving.

Why Would You Want to Run an RV Generator While Driving? 

There are several reasons why you would want to run an RV generator while driving. Several things a passenger might want to do in an RV require more power than the house batteries can provide.

To Run the Air Conditioning in the “House”

RVs are notorious for being extremely warm when it’s hot outside. The benefit of running the generator while driving is you can power the RV’s air conditioning unit. An RV’s house batteries aren’t able to do that. This makes traveling in the living quarters much more comfortable for passengers.

In fact, most motorhomes are designed to run the generator to provide most of the air-condition needs while driving if it’s hot out.

Charge RV House Batteries

While driving, the vehicle’s alternator sends electricity to the house batteries. Though this charges the house batteries, the vehicle’s alternator powers more than just the house batteries. It’s also keeping the vehicle and its appliances charged. That leaves very little electricity to get the house batteries up to a full charge.

Running the RV generator while driving gives maximum power to charge the house batteries. This allows them to charge faster and more fully.

This works for common deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, but it’s even more effective with lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries charge faster than their lead-acid counterparts, reducing generator run time whether you’re charging the house batteries when driving or stationary.

RV at campsite with generator plugged in
While many people use their generator for camping, it is possible to use it while driving.

Power AC-Powered Appliances

An RV generator fully powers the 120-volt power outlets throughout the rig. This provides enough power to operate the RV air conditioning unit and appliances like a full residential-sized refrigerator and other 120-volt items. Passengers can then power their computers, a television, and other electronic devices.

Pro Tip: We crunched the numbers to determine How Long Can You Run an RV Generator Continuously?

How to Run Your RV Generator While Driving

Okay, so you’ve decided to run your RV generator while driving. But how do you do it? It’s not difficult, but you should follow a specific process to do it safely.

Make Sure You Have Enough Gas or Fuel

Your generator runs off the same fuel as the rig. So while you are driving and operating the RV generator, you’ll be using more fuel than if you were solely driving.

Whether your RV runs off gasoline or diesel, be sure to load up with enough fuel to get you to where you want to go while also operating the generator.

RV parked with generator
If you’re going to use your generator while driving, make sure you properly calculate how much gas or fuel you will need.

Start the Generator and Give It Some Time to Prime

Before you head out, start the generator and give it time to get up to full operating power. A couple of minutes should be long enough for the generator to reach prime power.

Start Your RV

After the generator has had a chance to prime, start the RV’s engine. With the generator running as it should, you can safely operate the RV.

Turn on Anything You Want Running While You Drive

When the generator is operating at full capacity, you can turn on anything you want to have running while driving. Whether that’s a full residential-sized refrigerator, the A/C unit, computers, or other electronics, the generator should be able to do all that while simultaneously charging the house batteries.

Pro Tip: Keep your generator quiet by using one of these 5 Best Portable Generator Covers to Protect and Muffle Noise.

Generator installed under RV
Make sure to research if the state you are in allows you to use propane while moving.

Is It Safe to Run Your RV Generator While Driving?

It’s generally safe to run your RV generator while driving if it’s well-maintained. However, be sure you’re following local regulations, particularly if your generator operates on propane. There are some places that restrict the use of propane while an RV is in motion.

Always make sure your generator is clean and operating well before driving with it. The extra air movement and less ability to monitor it increase the risk of it causing a fire. Any engine with a fuel source is a potential fire hazard, so making sure there is nothing like a bird’s nest built on it and it’s not sprayed with oil are good ideas.

If your generator runs off of the fuel from the RV’s fuel tank, ensure you have enough fuel to reach your destination while also powering your generator. It will take more fuel to do both than driving from one location to another.

How Much Gas Does the Generator Use While Driving?

An RV generator will vary in usage by the size of the generator and the load that is on it. Your generator burn rate will be the same as if you are not driving, so look up your particular generator burn rate. You can then add this burn rate to your fuel economy and get an idea of how much extra fuel you will use.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Can You Continuously Run an RV Generator?

Theoretically, you can continuously run an RV generator for days on end. That is, if you have enough fuel. 

Whether an onboard generator or a portable generator, it must have fuel to operate. A portable generator should always be powered down and allowed to cool off before refilling it with gas.

Technically, you could keep an onboard generator running while fueling your RV – some people do. But even if the generator is far away from the fuel filler neck (the point at which you fill the tank with gas), it could be a safety hazard to leave it running while pumping gas.

It could also go against gas station rules that typically require you to stop your engine while fueling, which could also apply to an RV generator engine.

How Often Should You Run Your Generator in Your RV? 

Generators operate more smoothly and start better when run regularly. Even when you don’t need the generator for power, running it for at least 5 to 10 minutes every month is a good idea. This includes when it is in storage.

Running the generator keeps the fuel in good condition and keeps the engine’s moving parts lubricated. It also has the side benefit of alerting you to any problems that may arise.

No Generator RV Alternator Charging Electrical System Overview & Performance | Go North Explore More

Stay Powered on the Road

Now that you know all about safely operating an RV generator while driving, there’s no reason to be in the dark on your next road trip!

Stay powered on the go by knowing how to operate your generator safely and legally. With a little bit of planning, you can keep all your appliances running and charge your house batteries while driving cross country. So gas up the RV and hit the open road with confidence!

What are your RV road trip tips to make the drive a little easier? Tell us in the comments!

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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Mark

Saturday 28th of January 2023

I almost always run my generator the last two hours of a drive so the air conditioner can have time to cool off the rig before I pull into an RV park. That way we are more comfortable at the end of our drive vs waiting for the air conditioner to start up only once hooked up to shore power.

Best, -Mark

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 8th of February 2023

That makes a lot of sense! We have done that too when it's hot.

Cheryl

Saturday 28th of January 2023

Thank you for this article. I'm new to rving and I'm learning. My question is: can I run an absorption refrigerator while driving? I want to use my generator, but I'm concerned that I won't always be level. Thanks for your consideration.

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 8th of February 2023

Yes you can, some dont like to run it on propane, but if the back of the fridge is clean its usually safe. The unlevel problem is really only if its sitting unlevel for an extended amount of time. https://www.mortonsonthemove.com/running-rv-fridge-on-propane-while-driving/

Rick C.

Friday 27th of January 2023

I have 800 amp hours of lithium. On travel days, my alternator in my 2017 Newmar will have my batteries charged in about 110-130 miles, no generator is needed. In fact, I have to force myself to exercise my generator since the only appliances that I can't run off of the batteries are the A/C and the washer/dryer. My next rig will have a larger battery bank (likely 1600 amp hours) and I will delete the generator altogether.

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 8th of February 2023

Nice! How many amps do you run off the alternator? We disabled ours because it was pulling over 200 amps which is way too much for our alternator continuously.