How do Portable Generators Work – The Ultimate Guide

How Portable Generators Work

Being outdoors, whether camping or in a motorhome, is a truly amazing experience – but we are all a bit too used to electrical devices which can be a real pain if we can’t use them whilst traveling.

This is where a portable generator when camping can come in really handy. They provide electricity in the remotest places to power your RV, or devices connected when camping.

But how do portable generators work?

Portable generators work by burning gas, which rotates the alternator. As the alternator turns it produces an electrical current. This electrical current can provide electricity to any device plugged in to the generator if the device wattage requirement does not exceed the generators wattage output.

In this post we will look under the hood at how a portable generator actually works, the mechanics of what goes on inside to provide power when you need it as well as some of the reasons you may want to take one on your next camping trip, and some reasons why you may not!

They have a lot of plus points, but a few negative ones too – for example, they can be very noisy.

Let’s first look at the workings of a generator and how they provide electricity.

Suggested Reading: Don’t miss our 5 Best Portable Inverter Generators post. The best generators in five different award categories!

The Mechanics of a Portable Generator

The concept of producing electricity in the way generators do now dates way back to a law introduced in the mid 1800’s. Faraday’s Law.

Faraday’s Law of Induction

Essentially Faraday’s Law of Induction states that any object passing through a magnetic field is capable of producing electricity.

A portable generator uses powerful magnets to create a magnetic field, which creates electricity each time it rotates. To create this rotation a generator uses fuel. As the fuel burns it turns the alternator. This rotation rotates the magnetic field and as such provides a steady flow of electricity.

Years ago, generators were hand turned to create the rotation, but fuel is now used to power the rotation instead.


Portable Generator Engine

The engine inside a portable generator is where all the electricity magic happens.

This is where the fuel is burned, alternator is continuously rotated which ultimately provides lasting power, or until the fuel runs out of course.


Portable Generator Alternator

The alternator is essentially an electrical generator than turns mechanical energy to electrical energy.


Portable Generator Fuel

There are three types of gas fuel a generator can use power it’s internal engine to create electricity. These include natural gas, propane, and gasoline.

We will cover these three in depth later in the post.

Top Tip: Your generator will be more fuel efficient when running on a full tank of fuel than half a tank of fuel and could provide 100% more electricity!

Control Panel

Portable Generator Control Panel

The portable generator control panel gives you the options needed to control the device. General settings include:

  • On and off Switch
  • Choke or control dial
  • Alert and control indicators
  • Power output connectors
  • Low Idle switch

Types of generators for traveling

There best types of generators for traveling are:

  • Portable Generators
  • Inverter Generators

Both types are portable in size, so we are going to refer to the generators in this post as portable – as the intention is to take the generator traveling, but let’s have a look at these two types in a little more detail:

Portable Generators

Standard portable generators are used by companies and small businesses who require power tools when working off-grid. They are also used by RV travelers to power all the electrical sockets whilst out on the open road.

They are generally larger in size than inverted generators and can provider a higher wattage output.

They can be noisy though and heavier, so not ideal for a small camping trip.

Inverter Generators

Small Inverter generators are perfectly suited to small camping trips or a boating trip.

They are lightweight, much easier to carry and much quieter than bulkier portable generators.

Inverted generators usually provide less wattage output power and may not be suitable to power larger and more power-hungry appliances such as a microwave oven, or air conditioning inside an RV or motorhome.

It is possible to connect some inverted generators together and double the power output.

What can I use my generator for?

Portable Generator Uses

A portable generator has many different uses whilst traveling, but ultimately it is to provide electricity for all your electrical devices, equipment, and needs.

Here are just a few of them:

  • It can provide power to your RV or Motorhome just like an electric hook-up
  • It can power small appliances such as a camping stove – if you can’t make a fire
  • It can provide power to electrical devices such as a kettle, or your cell phone, tablet and more
  • It can power your home during an electrical blackout
  • Provides power to tools in remote locations without electricity
  • You can even use it to power an electric car!
  • With the right type of generator, it can even be used to jump start a car or truck

Not all these options involve traveling, camping, or driving around in an RV, but an investment in a portable generator provides lots of uses, some for day to day and others when you need them most, like during a blackout.

How do you use a portable generator?

Portable generators are simple to use. You are using fuel to convert to electricity, and with all types of electricity you need to make sure you follow all instructions to stay safe.

Here is how to use a portable generator:

  • Add the fuel in to the generator
  • Unplug any connected devices before you start the generator
    • This is important as the generator gradually starts to achieve optimum power output, and may cause damage
  • Start the generator
  • Wait for the generator to complete the start sequence and power up
  • Plug in your RV, motorhome, camping devices, tools, or other electrical items

You should now be able to provide power to all your devices!

What fuel does it take?

Portable generators take three types of fuel, these are:

  • Natural Gas
  • Propane
  • Gasoline

You need to check with your instruction manual, or manufacturers recommendations, to find out which fuel and gas are suitable for your generator.

What wattage appliances can be run with a portable generator

2,000 – 7,500 watts, on average, can be run using a portable generator. Larger portable generators can run appliances of up to 16,000 watts or more, such as air conditioning. Smaller inverted generators may only run appliances of up to a 2,000 wattage, such as a microwave oven.

Of course, it stands to reason the larger and more expensive your generator, the more wattage you can run with it.

You need to take a rough estimate of the wattage you will need and make sure you choose a generator powerful enough to keep you up and running.

What size generator do I need for camping or my RV?

Wattage needed for camping

A 2,000-watt portable generator should be suitable for most basic needs when camping. It will power your electrical devices.

Whereas a 3,000-wattage generator may be better for RV travelers who may need to provide electricity to more powerful appliances and equipment, such as a microwave oven, air conditioning, hair dryers etc.…

If you plan to run a microwave, hairdryer, or air conditioning, you will need to either join 2 x 2,000-watt generators together or buy a higher wattage generator, for example 3,000-5,000 wattage.

Campsites are places people go to relax and enjoy the outdoors and the surrounding nature and wildlife. It may sound great to invest in a large 7,500 wattage generator to power EVERYTHING, but the larger and more powerful your generator, the noisier it will be.

Be mindful of your traveling neighbors who may be sleeping off a long road trip, or simply want to unwind.

Is it safe to use a camping generator at a campsite?

When dealing with any type of electrical generators, you need to stay safe and follow the recommended guidelines and instructions, but in the main camping generators are safe to use at campsites.

You may need to check ahead of your travel to see whether your campsite allows generators to be used onsite, or whether there is a blackout window for times of use.

Although the technology to drive down how loud generators are, they still can be very noisy.

It can be frustrating to other travelers to hear constant generators going as they try to relax, especially at night as people are trying to sleep.

Besides, we travel to disconnect from the urban lifestyle.

They are safe to use on a campsite, with the campsite’s permission, but be considerate of your fellow traveling neighbors who may just want to enjoy the peace and quiet the outdoors provides.

How loud are they?

Portable generators range between 70 dB to 100 dB.

It may surprise you to know that a 100 dB isn’t 1.4 times as loud as 70 dB, it’s almost 8 times as loud!

You’ll be thankful of a quieter generator, especially on a smaller quiet campsite.

Try to make sure you find the sweet spot between the number of wattage output, to powering all your devices, and the quietest model available.

Do campsites allow them?

Some campsites do and some don’t.

There isn’t a hard and fast rule here. You need to check ahead and visit the campsites website or give them a call.

The reason why many campsites are reluctant for their use is the noise the emit. They can be very loud, and the last thing the campsite owners wants is lots of complaints of noise.

Check to see whether your campsite provides an electric hook up, you may be able to use this as an alternative to a generator.

What portable generator should I buy?

iPower Portable Generator

If you are planning on taking a portable generator camping, you really want one as quiet as possible. You also want to make sure the output connector options are suitable for the devices you need to provide power to.

Noise Levels

Noise volume is indicated by the decibel (dB) rating.  The higher the number, the louder the generator will be.

The quietest portable generators range from 60 dB- 70 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of a vacuum cleaner.

The noisier portable generators range from 90 dB- 100 dB, which is the equivalent to the noise of a movie theater or live music concert when standing 1 meter away from the speaker.

These are better suited to outdoor workers in remote locations, where noise and noise pollution is not so much of an issue.

Best Portable Generators for Camping by Noise Level

Here are some of the best-selling portable generators available, with their decibel rating:

WEN 56380i Super QuietInverter380057$765.81
Generac 7127Inverter350071$999.00
WEN 56200iInverter200053$407.43
A-iPower SUA2000iVInverter200052$386.00
Jackery Portable Power StationSolar2000$199.99
*Prices correct at time of publishing

Reader’s Questions: Portable Generators

Hopefully this post has helped answer your questions about how a portable generator works, and best options for your planned traveling and adventures.

Here though are answers to other regularly asked questions that may also help you:

Do I need to ground my generator when camping?

Portable generators do need to be grounded. Whether any additional steps are required once your portable generator is set up is depending on the make and model.

It is best to read and follow your instruction manual, or if you are unsure try and call or email the manufacturer for advice.

What size generator do I need for camping?

If you are tent camping or need power for a small number of electrical devices such as a cell phone, tablet, laptop (if working) or perhaps for a stove, you should find a small, up to 2,000-watt inverter generator, ideal.

If though you plan to power a motorhome or RV you may need to look at portable generators in the 2,000-5,000-wattage category, particularly if you need to provide electricity to air conditioning units and other appliances, particularly if you plan on using multiple devices at the same time.

How many hours can a portable generator run for?

Most portable generators can run for 8 hours. Larger models can run for up to 10-12 hours continuously.

This means a generator can be left on all night BUT be mindful and considerate of your traveling neighbors.

Do portable generators work in the rain?

It is never advisable or recommended to run a portable generator in the rain.

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