Generator Buyer's Guide

Isaac Cleanup Continues

Camping World proudly shipped a truckload of portable generators into the area affected heaviest by the storm. Please keep the families of those affected by the storm in your thoughts and prayers.

© AP Photo/Matthew Hinton

An air boat speeds past debris and a home flooded by Hurricane Isaac along Louisiana Hwy 23 near Port Sulphur, La., in Plaquemines Parish Monday, Sept. 3, 2012.

Portable generators can reduce the effects of a hurricane by being prepared.



Portable Generator Power For Your Outdoor Lifestyle

A generator makes it possible for you to enjoy your RV’s 120-volt electric accessories even when hookups are not available. Portable power is also handy during power outages at home, weather emergencies and for work projects.

Here are some guidelines to selecting the generator that will best fit your needs.

Key Questions

Before you purchase your new generator, here are some points to consider:

1. How will I use my generator?

If you plan to use your generator primarily to provide power to your RV, you will need a 30 or 50 amp connection. Some portable generators come with an RV-ready outlet that lets you plug in directly; others may require an adapter to accommodate your RV power cord. If you have a 50 amp RV, you can use 30 amp output with an adapter to power one air conditioner. To power two air conditioners and laundry appliances, you will need 50 amp output from your generator. For use at home or at the worksite, look for multiple 120-volt outlets and features like wheel kits, and carry or tow handles that make the generator easier to move to where you need it.

2. How much power do I need?

Generator power output is measured in watts. You can determine how many watts of power output you need by calculating the wattage requirements of all the accessories you plan to operate on generator power. This applies whether you use your generator for your RV, for home back-up power or worksite power.

Here’s how:
Add up the wattage of all the electric accessories you plan to use at the same time. This information is usually listed on the device, typically on the back or bottom. If the wattage isn’t stamped somewhere on the device but you find the amps listed, you can calculate watts using this equation:

Amps x Volts = Watts

Multiply the device’s amp rating by the voltage. Most RV and home appliances and worksite tools are 120 volt. Appliances like stoves and clothes dryers are typically 240 volts.

Let’s use a 120-volt coffeemaker rated at 14.5 amps as an example:

14.5 Amps x 120 Volts = 1740 Watts

Another easy way to determine wattage is to use a Load Tester (#55963) that simply plugs in between the electrical device and the power source, measuring and displaying watts or amps.

Here’s a chart of typical power requirements for household and RV accessories. (Your devices may require more or less wattage; these are general guidelines.)

When determining your wattage needs, keep in mind that devices with electric motors will require additional power at start-up (sometimes as much as two to three times as much power), so the generator you choose should produce enough running watts to operate all your devices plus sufficient surge or peak watts to start them. Since you probably won’t start all of them up at the same time, you won’t need surge or peak power at all times. In an RV, the biggest power users are usually the air conditioner(s), the microwave oven and washer/dryer combo or freestanding washer and dryer.

Once you determine your total wattage needs, including surge power, be sure to choose a generator that produces that many watts with some to spare. This will help eliminate annoying appliance shutdown when power needs exceed generator capacity at start-up and prevent brown-out damage to air conditioner compressors, other appliances and electronics.

3. Do I need a gasoline, diesel or propane powered generator?

The type of fuel your generator runs on usually depends on whether it is an onboard or portable model. Portable generators have built-in fuel tanks and run on regular grade gasoline. An onboard generator for your RV may operate on gasoline, diesel or liquid propane (LP), depending on what type of RV it is and what fuel source is already available. Diesel generators are typically found on diesel powered motorhomes and gasoline generators on gasoline powered motorhomes. Towable RVs such as travel trailers, toy haulers and 5th wheels may have LP powered generators.

4. Do I need a portable generator or an onboard, permanently installed model?

This goes back to how you intend to use your generator. If you have a motorized RV and you only expect to use a generator while in your RV, an onboard model may be your best option, particularly if your RV came from the factory generator-ready.

However, portable generators can offer more flexibility for diverse power needs—you can use them for RV power (30 amp or 50 amp, depending on a particular model’s output) plus home back-up, weather emergency or worksite power. You may even opt for two portable generators that link in parallel, allowing you to use two to power your RV air conditioner and accessories, or just one for smaller power requirements such as an electric hedge trimmer, saw or drill. If your RV is not equipped from the factory for an onboard generator, a portable unit (or two units linked in parallel) can still give you the advantage of having electric power available anywhere, any time.

5. Do noise levels matter?

Depending on where you will use it, noise levels are an important factor to keep in mind when selecting a generator. A generator you will use while camping should operate as quietly as possible to avoid disturbing other campers as well as you and your family. Likewise, a noisy generator used as home back-up or emergency power can annoy you and your neighbors. The noise level of a generator used at a busy work site may not be as important. The good news is that advanced technologies have significantly reduced noise levels for both portable and onboard generators of all sizes and output capacities.

To compare, look for the measured noise level of a generator, listed in decibels (dB) in the technical specifications in the owner’s handbook, on a retail display or website or on the manufacturer’s website.

Here’s a diagram of comparative noise levels by decibels, from quietest to loudest:

10 dB Soundproof room—threshold of hearing

20 dB Watch ticking

30 dB Quiet conversation

40 dB Residential area without traffic

50 dB Private office

60 dB Normal speech

70 dB Vacuum cleaner

80 dB Busy street

90 dB Symphony performance

Permanent hearing damage begins at this level without hearing protection

100 dB Heavy city traffic or power lawn mower

110 dB Chain saw

120 dB Car horn at 3' or loud rock music

130 dB Jet airplane at 50'

135 dB Emergency siren at 100'

140 dB Jet taking off or artillery fire--threshold of pain

6. Will I need to run my generator for an extended period without refueling?

If you plan to operate your generator overnight or if refueling often would be inconvenient, such as with an onboard generator in an RV at a remote campsite, look for a generator with an extended run time. Run time is typically measured at 50% load levels. Keep in mind that power demand directly impacts run time. The more power you are using from your generator, the shorter its run time and the sooner you will have to refuel.

As with noise levels, newer technologies have made today’s generators more fuel efficient than their predecessors.

7. How “clean” must my generator’s power output be?

If you need a generator to power sensitive electronics such as a desktop computer, audio/video components or satellite television antenna system, you may want a generator that uses inverter technology. This technology stabilizes the electric current from the generator, eliminating power fluctuations so it is comparable to your home power from a local electric utility company.

If you need power for less sensitive accessories such as lights and power tools, a generator without the inverter process may serve just as well and be more affordable.

8. Will I need additional equipment or accessories to use my generator as I intend?

Depending on where and how you use your generator, you may need some additional accessories. As mentioned earlier, you may need an adapter to connect your RV power cord to your portable generator. Some generators have a locking-type 30 amp receptacle that your RV plug won’t fit, requiring an adapter to connect your RV to the generator.

If you opt for two portable generators for home and RV use either together or separately, you will need a parallel kit to link them. Be sure you select the correct parallel cables for the model generators you plan to operate in parallel. Check the owner’s manual, manufacturer website or retail location to ensure that your generators are designed for parallel operation and the correct parallel kit to link them.

Extension power cords let you locate a portable generator farther away from your RV or home to minimize noise and exhaust fumes. Always use a properly rated extension cord for safety and to minimize power loss over the length of the cord.

If you are permanently installing a generator on your generator-ready RV, a transfer switch automatically switches your RV from shore power to generator power, delaying long enough to let the generator get up to speed before drawing power for onboard accessories. This automatic switch eliminates having to manually plug your RV power cord into an outlet on the installed generator to draw power.

If you plan to use your portable generator for weather emergency or home back-up power, you may want to have a residential transfer switch installed at your home by a licensed electrician. This will allow you to safely connect your generator to your home’s electrical system, preventing power from flowing back into utility lines and putting electrical repair crews at risk. It will also protect your home wiring and your generator from damage when power is restored. Contact your local power company or a licensed electrician for more information.

Generator Safety Tips

Once you have selected and purchased the generator you need, here are some important safety tips to keep in mind.

* NEVER operate a generator indoors. Keep generators outside for adequate ventilation to prevent possible carbon monoxide poisoning which can result in death.

* ALWAYS use heavy-duty extension cords and avoid running them under rugs or carpet to prevent electrical fires. Route extension cords to prevent tripping in high traffic areas.

* NEVER refuel the generator while it is running. Always turn it off to refuel and avoid spilling fuel on hot surfaces. Have a fire extinguisher handy when you refuel for added safety.

* ALWAYS be careful when operating a portable generator and handling electrical cords in wet conditions to avoid injury or death by electrocution.
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