Food Truck Generator Advice

How we define "The Best" Generator

Generators are a very important if not essential part of food truck life. It is one of the larger purchases you will be faced with having to make, and getting the right one will make operating your business go that much smoother. 

We embarked on a quest to truly find only the very best generators there are. How did we define “the best” food truck generator?

The best food truck generator has: 

  • the right power output for your build; 
  • the best review ratio across all places it is sold at, with vetted reviews and a substantial amount of reviews;
  • the best comments when it is mentioned as an answer in food truck Facebook groups whenever someone asks for a generator recommendation, with the obvious shills selling their own used cr*p filtered out of the responses;
  • great service and support from the original manufacturer or the retailer or is really easy to service yourself;
  • very high quality or very high quality-to-value, meaning that if it is not an outstanding high quality unit it must be at least very good value for money, i.e. the best low budget buy;
  • our professional blessing as a food truck builder to be sold as an add-on when you buy a food truck from us, knowing it will lead to high customer satisfaction (>8,5/10), no complaints and no maintenance issues down the road for you or for us. 
 

The best food truck generator

Overall the results point to two clear winners – Honda for modest amounts of rated power (under 10kw) or a paired parallel generator set up and Cummins Onan for larger units. Both brands have a 90% mention rate in Facebook comments in food truck groups when asked for generator advice, such as; 

 

In addition these generators have a stellar >4,5/5 review score on all websites they are sold and have over 50 reviews on such as;

  • Amazon
  • Honda
  • And many large to midsize retailers such as Northern Power or MachineryTrader
 

Either brand provides great if expensive service direct from the manufacturer or licensed technicians and out of every food truck and trailer sold with a generator as a package deal we have so far had zero complaints and issues in all our years of operating.  

Considerations and downsides

Buying the top of the line unit comes at a cost: Honda’s popular EU7000 generator with 7000 peak performance and 5000 watt rated power retails for $4495 and a larger Cummins easily goes over $10k. Although this is a small expense in the total cost of a high end top of the line truck or premium Airstream conversion, it can be too big a chunk out of your budget for many operators running a more modest concession trailer or a used food truck.  

Not only is the initial ticket expensive, it is also a difficult machine to service yourself and doing so will void the warranty, meaning you are forced to go to a licensed technician. This license is expensive and as a result so is the service. An additional issue is that there is not always a licensed technician nearby for a Honda in more remote areas of the US or smaller cities, meaning you will have to ship it out and be out of a generator for longer if it does break. 

Where to buy ? - Is Amazon the best place to buy a food truck generator?

Amazon is a great and convenient shopping experience but rarely if ever carries the right Cummins generator themselves and the Honda is always out of stock on Amazon. Every other blog on food truck generators will give you no option but Amazon – and this has a very simple reason; their affiliate commission. We have zero stake in selling you a generator though so this is 100% affiliate free pure advice. 

New Honda generators are a $4495 item – not something you want to be skimping after-sales service on. So while the Honda generator or a Cummins is an overall great choice take particular care to also vet the actual third party seller that is using Amazon to list their product before ordering.

As Honda regulates pricing quite tightly there is a 99% chance your local store has the same $4495 price as Amazon does – and if you know them and they do service it makes more sense to buy there and they could offer an offline discount that Honda would have their head for if they advertised it online. Another option is to buy a used generator.

Buying a Used Generator for your Food Truck

Few operators exhaust the runtime of a good brand generator – they are designed to last thousands of hours if properly maintained and can usually be easily repaired by a professional at modest expense if something does break. In short, buying a used generator is not a big risk. 

As everyone in any trade that uses generators however knows brand name used generators are a good deal, they do go fast so keep an eye out for local Facebook marketplace groups and Craigslist in your area and be quick and decisive when you see one you like. 

The best value option generator or compromise

 

If your budget is a bit short and there is no used brand name generator available at a decent price, a good value compromise is to combine a second tier brand like Yamaha or Hyundai or even a Lifan or low end open model generator with a sound proofing box such as a Zombie Box or a custom sound proofing box made by a food truck manufacturer like yours truly.  

The reason is that exactly what makes a good generator is:

  1. putting out the required amount of power, 
  2. doing so reliably,
  3. doing so economically,
  4. doing so quietly. 
 

Box number 1 is not hard to check – even Generac generators put out their stated wattage. It is the other three performance aspects that you pay top dollar for on a brand.  You can greatly balance out the dollar aspect of reliability and fuel economics of a generator if you buy a cheaper unit and take some risk on downtime if it breaks – only IF it does break and IF you run a LOT of hours the value of Honda or Cummins shines through vs your broken budget buy, meaning buying the quality brand is thinking long term and risk proofing yourself at a short term cash expense.  

All you are really left with in the short term is compensating the noise. Showing up at an event with a construction site generator noise level is not going to earn you many customers’ endearance nor that of your fellow food truckers and a quiet generator is a must. 

Building a good soundproof box for the average generator should be no more than $1500 and combined with a $1000 generator you are still saving a bundle. One thing to keep in mind is that running it in a sound enclosure often voids the manufacturers warranty on a generator. 

However: a warranty on a $1000 product is not the most important thing in the world, certainly not vs having a quiet setup. Zombie Box can void your generator warranty all day long if it means absolute quiet, selling a few extra items or one event will earn you enough margins to get a whole new generator or save up for a better one. 

The only thing to keep in mind is the INSURANCE and INSPECTOR need to OK your set-up both for legal and insurance reasons and to make sure you are not operating a fire hazard. For that reason it is a must to get a brand name enclosure like Zombie Box or a trusted food truck manufacturer to make your sound proofing. 

If you ARE doing it yourself make sure to get it approved before use. 

How do I know how much power my food truck needs?

Calculating the power needs of your truck or trailer is straight forward: 

  • make a complete inventory list of all your equipment
  • read the labels and note down the amps, volts and watts listed 
  • sum it up to get your total wattage
 
That is the minimum size genny you need. 

Ohm's Law - Watt = Volt x Amp

It could be that not all labels list all information so you have to figure it out for yourself. You can do that using what is called Ohm’s law – Watt = Volt x Amp. Try the free tool below to simply calculate it for you. 

While it is punny to hear someone is “shocked the generator will run everything”, neither your generator output nor your food truck power usage should be a surprise or unknown to you. 

 

Do you need more than 25KW power output?

 

Requiring 25kw or more is in some ways insanity or at the very least a sign that we can rethink your food truck build – you could do well to reconsider doing some of that equipment, likely ovens and deepfryers, on gas in stead of electric to save on generator costs and operating expenses.  

 

What is an inverter generator and why should I (not) want one?

An inverter generator has a “feel” for how much power your operation is trying to pull from it and will adjust output accordingly. What this means is if your generator has a 10kw capacity but you are using only 6kw, the generator will not run on full blast and put out only 6kw of power, translating in to lower fuel costs and less noise. 

If all your equipment is more or less always on having inversion does not add a lot of operating efficiency to the generator. An exception can be sensitive high tech ovens that need the stable output of an inverter generator to prevent their microprocessors from being fried. 

In general inverter generators are more expensive for a given amount of rated power but make up for this in quietness – the Honda EU7000 model is an inverter for example while a 20kw Cummins is not.

Calculating Generator Fuel Efficiency

Generator fuel efficiency is often advertised in terms of “run time” on a “quarter/half/full load”, for example 14 hours of runtime on a quarter load or 12 hours at half load. Properly split up this means:

  • “Run time” is the amount of hours that the generator will do on a full tank, e.g. 12
  • “Load” is the share in rated power output used, e.g. half load on a 5kw rated output generator is 2,5kw of use
  • “Capacity” is how many gallons of gas, diesel or propane fit in the generator tank
 

So if a rated output of 5kw generator runs for 14 hrs on a quarter load and has a 5 gallon tank, that means:

  • Run time of 14 hrs,
  • A quarter of 5kw = 1250 Watt output 
  • Consuming 5 gallons of gas 
 

And you are using 5/14ths of a gallon per hour at 1250 watt, quarter load, would use 10/14ths of a gallon at half load (2,5kw) and 20/14ths or about a gallon and a half an hour on full load so you can assume you will run 3,5 hrs on a full load, although generators are less fuel efficient at higher loads. 

A gallon of gas is not wildly expensive – Imagine a 3,4 gallon capacity generator that has a 15 hr runtime at half load with a 3500 rated output. You are getting 1750 watt an hour for (3,4/15=) 0.23 gallons of gas. Even if that unit was 150% as inefficient you would only go up to 0.35 an hour for the same power, and at about $2.5 a gallon that is a whopping 30 cents an hour of inefficiency. 

You would have to be pretty strapped for cash if generator fuel efficiency is saving your financials in most cases but it is still good to calculate the total costs using the above formula. 

Take note if the generator runtime is advertised on a quarter load or less it likely has low fuel efficiency and they are using the low load to make it seem better in comparison. 

USB ports and other useless features

In our opinion USB ports add no value to generators and only pose a risk of malware and machine corruption. Simply don’t  risk it and just plug your phone or laptop chargers in a regular socket inside the truck. 

Is it legal to run my generator while driving?

Yes! And it makes a lot of sense too or it’s simply a must to run your refrigeration and freezers while on the go. 

Optionally you could even get a smaller, loud and cheap generator to do just this if your whole set up runs on a big Cummins given that the amount of noise you put out while on the highway does not matter. 

Pairing Generators vs. Getting one Big Generator

A big generator is cheaper than multiple paired generators for an equivalent amount of rated power output and is more fuel efficient when operating, especially if you get a diesel model.

Simply put, it makes sense to go big when you know that you need a large amount of power for sustained periods of time, for example if you have a lot of deep fryers and ovens and they are always on or you are in AZ/FL and the A/C is always on.

If you only go up to 25kw rarely and usually operate on 15kw or less it makes more sense to pair smaller generators, for instance to have one running to power cooling and refrigeration and to have an optional pairable unit to power your A/C and equipment as you go and plug it in. 

What Generator brand would you not recommend?

We would strongly advise against buying anything from Generac or a big box hardware store’s private label like L*w*’s or H*m* D*p*t based on our own and food truck user experience. 

What about generators for sale on Alibaba?

In our experience with importing and upgrading Chinese trailers to the standards of American and European customers for our budget concession trailer options, items are often both overpromised and underdelivered. 

Certainly not always; there are high quality gems out there in OEM shops and some models of Yamaha and Honda generators are actually already made in China but simply according to the Japanese specs, and obviously so are iPhones and quality can be found.

It is simply very hard to tell what you are getting before you open up the box, and you can generally forget about warranties  and compensation actually being carried out no matter how assuringly they have been given and written down.

If you are considering a large generator it could be very well worth the gamble if you’re feeling lucky. 

 

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