Like most motorhome owners, we have a generator in our rig to supply electric power when we are not plugged into a campground’s power outlet. And like many RVers who own generators, we had been abusing our Onan auxiliary power plant for a long time. Not by using the generator too much, but by not using it hard enough!

Yes, we used our generator. Once in a while when we were dry camping we would start it up and let it run an hour or two to charge our batteries, or in the morning for a few minutes to make coffee or run the microwave oven. But that was about it. We thought we were using our generator properly, but in actuality, we were abusing it!

Over time carbon began to build up on the pistons, and the generator began to knock when it was running, and the knocking began to grow louder every time we had the generator on.

A few years ago we spent some extended time dry camping and living off our generator and solar panels. An experienced dry camper listened to the sounds our generator was making and told me that just like an automobile that is always operated at low speeds in stop and go traffic, and needs to be taken out onto the highway and have the carbon blown out of it, our generator needed a good hard workout.

We fired up the genset and began applying loads to it. The rooftop air conditioner, then the microwave oven, we even plugged in a big electric frying pan! The old generator began to cough and wheeze, and I shot some Marvel Mystery Oil into the carburetor a few times. Smoke belched out of the generator’s exhaust pipe, and it would lug down to the stalling point, then come back to full power. We did this over and over for an hour or more, and then began to back off on the loads.

I was surprised at the difference it made! The generator quieted down considerably and runs much smoother. Just like an old Ford, it needed the carbon blown out to be able to perform at its best.

So now we use our generator. Really use it. We’re not shy about traveling down the road with our rooftop air conditioner running at full power on hot summer days. When we are plugged into campground power for any length of time, we will disconnect the shore power and fire up the generator at least once a month and give it a hard workout under load for an hour or so. Like all of us, our generators need some strenuous exercise once in a while to stay healthy.

Nick Russell


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  409. Hastings Lamb

    Does the same apply to diesel generators?

  410. MacEgel, you have had much better luck over the years than I have with gasoline engines. I have had motorcycles and cars that were in storage for the winter refuse to start several times because I did not use as fuel stabilizer. I’m not very technical, so maybe it’s the quality of gas? I don’t know. Any of you gearheads out there want to wade in on this?

  411. MacEgel

    Please allow me to echo everyone’s thanks for the excellent article, and the comments are most pertinent also. Yes, I am another victim of this generator foible.

    But I must ask a stupid question, one which is apparently not addressed in any of this. WHY? Why must I travel to the storage yard where my motor home is kept every month winter and summer and run the generator? Why do the pistons have carbon build up problems? Why does the fuel system gum up when not in use?

    In my 63 years I have owned many gasoline engines, from .049 model airplane engines up to a big V-10. I have owned cars from every decade from the 30’s on. I have owned 2 and 4 stroke lawn mowers, snow blowers, chain saws, etc. And not one of them has ever exhibited these problems. The lawn mower always starts right up after sitting all winter. Ditto for the snow blower after sitting all summer.

    Nothing I have seen on this makes any attempt to explain this. What is going on here? I can understand that running the generator will warm up the windings and hence dispel moisture, but why is the gasoline engine so cantankerous? Is this just a bad design, or is something else operating here?

    The only thing that I’m getting out of this discussion is that I had better NOT get my genset repaired, because I have no intention of becoming a slave to it to keep it in operation. As far as I am concerned, it is just a hunk of useless ballast. For the little use I have gotten out of it over the years, I would never own one again.

  412. Lila

    Too late. I bought my 2002 Roadtrek 190 in July 2008, my first RV ever, and no one told me to do generator maintenance (Yes, I read the manual but it was all pretty overwhelming for this 62-year-old woman). So, of course, now it won’t start, and a Cummins tech told me it would cost hundreds of dollars to get it going. I opted not to do it at this time. Is this a further mistake? I don’t expect to need the generator as long as I drive the RV, but will need to have it in good order when I sell my RV (in about 3-4 years). Can I wait to have it serviced?

  413. Generators need a load to keep them healthy. Dummy loading the genset is a pretty simple task and while there are commercial unit$, all one needs are some appliances that is not harmed by voltage and frequency swings.

    If you have womenfolk in the house, then you probably have a passel of hair dryers. Each one is worth a kilowatt of load or more. Voltage/frequency swings don’t bother them too much, but they usually have a thermal shutdown after 20 minutes use. Still, that more than enough time to warm up the engine and keep the generator happy. Two or three will do the trick for the small genset, and 4 plus on the bigger ones.

    Other candidate appliances are toaster, coffee makers, or big worklights. They all can do the job. Big worklights in the 500W-1,000W range are considered the traditional cheap dummy load.

    Of course, if you are using you generator every month and exceeding its 50% rated load, then your genset should only require traditional maintenance.

  414. Bob

    Nick: Very good article and comments. I have two questions. First, my Onan runs on liquid propane, would I have carbon buildup on the pistons? I believe running with a heavy load is still good for the generator in either case.

    Second question; you mention that you run the generator and roof AC while on the road on hot days. Our coach AC when charged can’t compete with the hot weather when driving thru Texas, New Mexico and Arizona on those 100 deg. days. Is it acceptable to run the generator and roof AC while driving on the road?

    Thanks again.


  415. Francis X. Schilling

    If you buy “pre-owned” (like I did) there may not *be* an owner’s manual and if the unit is sufficiently “mature” your chances of obtaining same are slim and none. I, for one, really appreciate the article and the knowledge that comes with your invaluable experience. Might just save a noob like me from one (more) mistake! 😉 Thanks, Nick!


  416. Guys READ your Owners Manual it,s ALL in there.

  417. Nick,

    Great article and very true. We got our first rv, a class A, in Oct. ’04. We attended the Rally in Redmond OR. the summer of ’05 and one of seminars I attended was the Onan presentation. He was very blunt – generators were made to work – under load – and we needed to that on a regular basis. We don’t “save” anything not using/working it! He said that most of the “problems” people had with their generators when they brought them in was from lack of use and very low hours on 3 year old and older generators. He also mentioned that Onan was starting to void warrenties on generators that hadn’t been used and had low hours!

    I remember when I bought my sailboat with a diesel – Yanmar – engine. I talked to the local Yanmar/diesel shop and they said that sailors were too easy on their diesels. Make them work and they will last longer than just puttering out of the marina and shutting down to sail and then back to the dock. I did and it never missed a beat for the 20 years I had it!

    Trying to take the same approach with the generator!


  418. Rick

    Nick ,
    Thanks for the information. I believe I have a little over two hundred hrs. Guess I’ll change it this weekend.
    Thanks about the clean out of the exhaust system. Question what is the spark arrester?

  419. Marion Peters

    This really hit home for me. About 4 years ago, I started my Onan 7500 kw gen set only to have it rattle, bang and stop. After further investigation it was discovered by an Onan service center that the magnets had come off from none use. The local Onan shop was backed up with service calls so I had to take it to Sacramento and they dropped the unit from the front of my motorhome and 2 weeks later reinstalled it with the warning that the unit must be run and loaded up for at least 1/2 hr every month. which I now do faithfully. I have a “to do” list on my computer and together with my battery check, it’s done on a regular basis.
    Thank goodness for my extended warranty which covered 95 % of the cost. That one repair actually covered the cost of the extended warranty.

  420. Rick,
    Under nornal operating conditions, Onan techs have told me to change the oil at 100 hours. More frequrntly if you are in sandy places like the desert, or if the generator has not been operated in a long time.

  421. DAN

    don’t forget to clean the carbon out of your exhaust system/ muffler/ spark arrester.

  422. Rick

    Thanks Nick,
    When I have my RV in cold storage I start my generator once a month sometimes twice a month and turn on every light I possibly can. If I am on a rode trip I start it up and run the AC and fridge and it runs like a champ. I do have a question how many hours should you run your generator before you have to change oil and filter?


  423. jack barton

    very good article on maintaining a generator, without having to do an overhaul. simple, direct approach that has worked for us (and my father before us) for many years. i’m surprised this method hasn’t seen more widespread (print) amongst rv publications. it’s the best exercise routine for an rv genset that i’ve seen in print to date… thanks for ‘printing’ it.
    jack b 🙂 in midland, tx usa