What Is The Difference Between a Generator and an Inverter Generator for an RV?

Adventurous, exciting, RV living will take you far and wide — including, almost inevitably, to settings without access to shore power. How are you going to run your RV washer/dryer, stove, laptop, air conditioning, and other essential appliances?

The initial answer — that you need a generator in your RV to achieve complete freedom — is simple enough. It gets more complicated from there, though, as you try to figure out your different options and decide what type of generator is best for your RV. One of the first questions you’ll need to deal with is whether you should be looking for a (conventional) generator or an inverter generator.

Here, we’ll examine the differences, and look at the top portable RV generators for a comfortable life on the road.

Inverters and generators both serve the same purpose — to deliver electrical power that allows you to run your appliances. The way in which they achieve this is, however, radically different.

Conventional generators — also called standard generators — are most common, and have, as the name suggests, been on the market for a long time now. These simple machines are powered by fossil fuels, meaning propane, diesel, gasoline, or dual propane/gasoline, and have engines that need to run at 3600 rpm to give you an AC of 120 volts and a 60-hertz frequency. Because conventional generators cannot always maintain a consistent rpm, however, users will be dealing with power fluctuations. These generators can range from 2,000 to 12,000 Kilowatts, and the amount of power a generator offers you depends on its size.

Inverter generators, also called power inverters or simply inverters, are the next-generation portable power source. They’re a lot more complex, as inverters produce an alternate current that’s converted to direct current, which is then fed through an electronic inverter to finally deliver you AC, and the steady 120 volts and 60 hertz that you’re after. Like conventional generators, inverters are powered by fossil fuels. To find out more about how inverter generators work, and to get a handy visual demonstration, check out Power Tools Geek’s article; what is an inverter generator?

RV Propane Generator

Each type of generator comes with its own set of pros and cons.

The main advantages of conventional generators would be that they run for longer periods of time as compared to inverter generators, that they hold more power in kilowatts, and, simply, that they are cheaper to purchase and maintain.

Inverter generators are, on the other hand, much quieter to run — while a conventional generator will produce between 65 and 90 decibels as it powers your appliances, depending on the size of the generator, inverters don’t exceed 61 decibels. These generators are also significantly more energy efficient and deliver a stable amount of power without fluctuations, and they’re smaller and lighter. If you need more power, it is important to note that portable converters can be paralleled to double your output easily.

Which Is Better for an RV: Inverter or Generator?

Inverter generators produce smoother, cleaner, and more stable power as compared to conventional generators, and may safely be used to power computers as well. Inverters are significantly less noisy to run, and have a lower greenhouse gas output, making inverters more environmentally friendly. Which is ultimately better? A conventional generator or an inverter?

That will depend on what you’re planning to power with the generator you buy, the reason you are investing in a generator, and how often you are intending to run the generator.

People who are after a permanent generator as a back-up power source for their (non-motor) homes, need to operate a large variety of tools on a construction site, or need a generator with a long run time as a backup for commercial buildings may reasonably prefer a conventional or standard generator. The same holds true for people with a smaller budget or those who already own a conventional generator that meets their needs.

In all other cases, inverter generators take the cake. That’s very much the case for RV-ers as well, for reasons we’ll take a closer look at in a little while.

TheTinCanTravellers via Instagram
TheTinCanTravellers via Instagram

The Types of Generators

If you are investigating the possibility of buying a generator, you will quickly be overwhelmed by the large variety of different generators on the market, as well as — rather likely — confused by the technical terminology you will come across. What types of generators are on the market? To divide them into more practical categories, we can look at the different designs, whether the generator is portable or permanently installed, and at the amount of kilowatts it is able to provide.

Standard generators and inverter generators, which we have already examined, both rely on fossil fuels. They are joined by a third type of generator that offers green energy — solar generators. These generators are powered directly by the sun through solar panels. They consist of batteries that store the power harnessed from the sun, charge controllers that protect the battery, and inverters. As with inverter generators, these convert the DC power stored in the generator’s battery to AC power that allows you to run most types of appliances.

Generators can further be divided into permanent vs portable generators. Permanent generators, also called backup generators, are designed to kick in as soon as a home or commercial building loses power. They are permanently installed, and conventional or solar generators are most commonly used for this purpose.

Portable generators are, on the other hand, smaller machines that can easily be transported. They are, as such, good solutions for people going camping, for job sites, or to invest in when a sudden emergency knocks your power out and you need a quick solution.

Some people may think that RV generators are necessarily portable — and while that may be true in the sense that the RV itself isn’t permanently in one location, permanent RV generators are also widespread. These generators are built in to RVs and powered by the same fuel tank as the RV’s engine itself, making them very convenient to use.

The third factor to look at would be the amount of power a generator provides, usually described as the generator’s “size” (not to be confused with the physical dimensions of the generator). This determines which, and how many, appliances you will be able to run with a generator.

For reference, turn to Consumer Reports’ very helpful guide on how to choose the right size generator. With 2,000 watts, the smallest generator available, they report, it is possible to power a (regular-sized home) fridge, laptop computer, up to 10 light bulbs, a home alarm system, and a smartphone charger. With the largest backup home generator of 20,000 watts, people can confidently go about their business as usual, and still have power left over.

RV Generator for Off Grid Camping
By Nate & Maud at WanningWilder via Instagram

What Is the Best Generator for an RV?

Avid RV-ers, and especially full-time nomads, will almost always find that a portable inverter generator is going to meet their needs optimally. The reasons due to which portable inverter generators are best for RV life are many.

  • Smaller and lighter. Space is precious in an RV, and you always have to consider your gross vehicle weight rating and load capacity as well. While a conventional generator is heavy and takes up a lot of space, an inverter generator weights significantly less (30 to 50 pounds is not unrealistic) and has smaller dimensions as well. This makes an inverter extremely appealing for life in an RV.
  • Less noise. Even the least noisy standard generators are much louder than an inverter generator will ever be. A noisy generator will interfere with your quality of life on the road, but it is also, without question, going to annoy any temporary neighbors you may have. Using an inverter generator to power your RV appliances is being a considerate citizen.
  • You can run sensitive appliances. The clean power inverter generations provide means that you can turn in sensitive electronics like computers and new televisions without any worries.
  • Increased fuel efficiency, which will lead to savings.

What size generator will you need in your RV?

The obvious answer is that your needs depend on the size of your RV and the types of appliances you need to run. Air conditioning units are by far the most demanding appliances used in any RV, however, generally requiring between 1,500 and 1,900 watts, although the BTU plays a role here, too. This will require a 2,000 watt generator — but that’s not counting the other appliances you have in your RV, some of of which you will want to use at the same time.

Most full-time RV-ers will want a 3,000 to 4,000 generator. To find out what your unique needs are, you can experiment with this RV power calculator tool.

Do I Need an Inverter Generator for My RV?

Have many RV-ers who came before you done just fine (or at least OK) with a conventional generator? Absolutely. Do you want your life on the road to be as comfortable and practical as possible? Do you want to do your laundry in an RV washer/dryer combo regularly, watch TV, charge your cellphone, use your laptop, refrigerate your food, and cook on your RV stove top? Do you depend on climate control? The answer is, again, presumably “yes”.

Unless you are the type of RV-er who drives straight to campsites that offer shore power, you may not technically need an inverter generator, but you’ll certainly love it. It will make your life a lot better, after all. This is especially true for folks who are planning on boondocking or dry camping, including doing things like parking their RV in a Walmart parking lot overnight. With an RV inverter generator, you will be able to store any power you don’t use for later, including in situations where you cannot run your generator.

Can You Parallel Two Different Brand Generators?

Connecting two generators is going to double your power output, making this a very popular practice among RV-ers using inverter generators. Most of the time, you’ll hear that you’ll need two identical generators — the same brand as well as the same size — to successfully parallel generators. You can indeed parallel two different brand generators, and that’s easier with a parallel kit. Find out more by watching this video about paralleling generators.

3 Best Portable Inverter Generators for RVs and Camping

Ready to go shopping? These are the best portable inverter generators for RV living and camping on the market today.

1. Top Choice: Champion 3500-Watt

Champion 3400-Watt Dual Fuel RV Ready Portable Inverter Generator with Electric Start

The Champion 3500-watt dual fuel RV ready portable generator is a beast! True — if your wallet had a heart, it might just break when you place this inverted in your virtual basket, but its undeniable qualities more than make up for that fact. The 3,500 watts it provides are plenty for almost anyone, but this generator is also designed to be paralleled. It takes either propane or gas, and is RV ready. It’s the best pick overall for RV users.

Check Current Price: Champion

2. Runner Up: Honda EU220icC 2200-Watt 

Honda EU2200i 2200-Watt 120-Volt Super Quiet Portable Inverter Generator with CO-Minder - 49-State

The Honda EU220icC 2200-Watt inverter generator has become much-loved among construction contractors as well as people who want a reliable inverter generator as a backup in their homes, but it’s especially popular in the RV community. Here’s why. It can keep going for up to 9.6 hours, making it one of the most energy efficient models on the market, and it’s quieter than almost any other model at 48 to 57 decibels. This inverted can be paralleled easily as well.

Check Current Price: Honda

3. Best Value: WEN 562255i

WEN 56225i 2250-Watt Gas Powered Portable Inverter Generator with Fuel Shut-Off, CARB Compliant , Black

So, you don’t want your generator purchase to break the bank? You can buy not one, but two of these WEN 56225i Fuel Shut Off RV Inverter Generator models (2.250 watts each) for less than $1,000! It’s a good thing that they can be paralleled with ease too. The shut off feature means that the last fuel is automatically used in the carburetor.

Check Current Price: WEN

What is an RV Ready Generator?

RV ready generators are those generators manufactured with a TT-30R outlet, the type of outlet you will find in most RV parks. This feature makes these generators very practical even for boondockers and dry campers, but these generators still come with standard receptacles too, and therefore aren’t limited only to RV use.

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