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Basic facts about RV generators for travel trailers

A reader of our weekly email newsletter RV Travel wrote with this question,which we asked our technical expert Mark Polk to answer.

My wife and I are new to RVing. My question concerns generators for travel trailers. What will one do and not do? How do they hook up? What size generator do I need? I have read some things about generators and every time I get more confused. It's also challenging figuring the power needs of our RV components. Can you help?
Steve Kline

Dear Steve,
I will try to explain it in as simple terms as possible. It can be confusing. First of all the only time you would need a generator on a travel trailer is if you plan to do some dry camping, without electricity. If this is the case you would need the generator to operate the air conditioner, microwave, TV or any 120 volt appliances, the refrigerator in the electric mode and your 120 volt outlets.

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Your trailer has a 30 amp electrical service. What this equates to is you can operate 3,600 watts before you have a problem. 120 volts X 30 amps = 3,600 watts. You are probably aware that you cannot operate everything in the trailer at one time without a breaker tripping. This is because you are exceeding the 3,600 watt limit or the 30 amp limit. For a quick example, the A/C draws about 14 amps. If you use the microwave, another 13 amps, and a coffee pot at 8 amps, all at the same time you exceed the 30 amps and a breaker will trip.

Generators are rated in kilowatts. Each kilowatt is 1,000 watts. So a 3kw generator is 3,000 watts. This is less than the 3,600 watts your trailer is designed for. If you plan to use the A/C with the generator I recommend a 4kw generator, 4,000 watts or 33.3 amps. There are many different types of portable generators available. You need to determine how you will mount or transport the generator. Some people have a small platform mounted to the rear of the trailer that they mount the generator on. Other people just transport it in the tow vehicle and when you get to your destination set it up where you will be camping. You need to take additional fuel depending on where you are going and how long you are staying. Be sure and route the exhaust away from the trailer. Carbon monoxide is deadly! To connect to it you either need a generator with an outlet designed to plug the trailer plug into or you can use an adapter to go from the trailer plug into the generator receptacle. Try to avoid using any extension cords as this affects the voltage coming into the trailer. When you use the generator select the number of appliances that will be operating at one time just as you do when you're plugged into campground electric. Most appliances have a data plate that tells you the wattage or amperage requirements of the appliance. Here is some basic information on amperage draw for common trailer appliances and electronics.

Coffee maker - 8.3 amps
Converter - 8 amps
Hair dryer - 9 to 12 amps
Microwave - 13 amps
Refrigerator - 2.8 amps
Roof air conditioner 13.5 amps
TV - 1.5 amps
Toaster - 8 to 10 amps
VCR - 2 amps
Electric skillet 6 to 12 amps

Mark Polk is the host of the RV Education 101 series of RV "how to" videos.

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