Gas and diesel generators for food trucks are popular among operators across the country. While they are known to be cost-effective upfront, they actually come with hidden costs that can affect your health, energy use, and bottom line. Knowing about them can help you decide the best generator for your food truck power needs isn't a generator at all.
Portable gas generators require a lot of fuel to power food trucks. Gas needs will vary with each operation, but a rough estimate is spending half of your total fuel costs on powering a food truck generator.
But there are hidden fuel costs involved. For one, the cost of gas and diesel can rise or fall, forcing you to rely on costs you can’t control. In the past three months, the average cost of gasoline increased by 35 cents according to Gas Buddy. That adds up and can unbalance your budget in a hurry.
For another, your food truck generator may not be energy efficient and cost you more money than necessary. For example, diesel is typically three to four times more expensive for the energy gained ($/BTU). And unless you can dial down the throttle of your generator to match your food truck electricity needs, you’re paying for wasted energy. In other words, you don’t get as much energy bang for your buck.
Like any machine, food truck generators require regular maintenance to ensure they operate efficiently and safely. Depending on your generator model and its sophistication, maintenance can cost hundreds to even thousands of dollars.
According to leading generator manufacturers, filters and oil should be changed yearly. Cranking batteries, belts, hoses, and coolant should be tested or replaced every few years. Parts and service are each costs of maintenance and generator breakdowns.
On top of that, sometimes only a specialized mechanic can work on your generator. One food truck client of Joule Case had to wait six weeks before her diesel generator could be repaired and put back into operation. That cost her weeks of business, not to mention time, because of generator maintenance problems.
Finally, there are also hidden costs of not maintaining your food truck generator properly. The biggest one is being forced to replace a relatively new generator because it wasn’t properly maintained. One food truck owner had to replace his generator after less than a year of use. Another cost is losing your manufacturer’s warranty because of poor maintenance. No matter how you slice it, food truck generators will always cost you more money than you expected.
Traditional portable generators produce considerable noise, with popular models typically emitting 55 dB up to 90 dB of noise. To give you an idea, that’s the difference between a household refrigerator and a chamber orchestra in a small auditorium. Generator noise can affect your business and health in different ways.
Generator noise is annoying and distracting to customers who must yell to order and strain to listen. When you consider that food truck customers look for fun, curiosity, and entertainment—in addition to a good value meal— food truck generator noise and exhaust can turn many customers away and cause you to lose business.
Additionally, most cities have noise ordinances that can cause you to lose business by limiting where and when you can operate your food truck generator. For example, Los Angeles has a maximum noise limit of 85 dB during the day and 70 dB at night, on Sundays and holidays in commercial zones. To avoid a misdemeanor, food trucks with even moderately loud generators have to either get a permit or go somewhere less desirable.
And don’t immediately trust the “silent” noise calculations made by manufacturers; many test the dB of their models from 23 feet away, not the four feet between you and your food truck generator. When you consider that noise above 70 dB over an extended amount of time can damage your hearing— ask yourself: “is using a cheap, noisy gas generator worth my health and the health of my employees?”
Any time you work with machines, safety issues are apparent and can become a cost. For gas and diesel generators, the greatest danger is exhaust. Carbon monoxide, as well as nitrous oxide and particulate matter from diesel, blow from your food truck generator, sometimes at dangerous levels according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
But many food truck owners can’t operate their generator at the recommended “23 feet away from open windows and vents.” The proper extension cord may not reach that far, and generators can be outright stolen. So that often equates to being four feet away from generators that are blowing massive amounts of carbon monoxide into the air. If you use a gas generator for your food truck, make sure you and your staff are consistently breathing fresh air.
Electric shock and fires are also safety risks of operating a gas generator. Keep gasoline or propane tanks dry and stored away from heat sources. Use heavy-duty extension cords and don’t refill a hot generator. Anything else can creates leaks or explosions.
Listen, we’re not trying to scare anyone. If you’re prudent about using and storing your food truck generator, and following manufacturer recommendations, you can greatly minimize any safety risks to you and your customers.
That said, it takes a lot of prep work to fully understand and comply with safety standards.
Gas generator emissions aren’t typically considered hard costs to your bottom line. But the EPA says the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the U.S. is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.
Food truck generators fall squarely in this category.
John Ritchie, Support Engineer at Joule Case, estimates that one gallon of gas produces 20 pounds of CO2. So for a 13kW generator that holds 8.3 gallons and runs for 8 hours, one day of food truck power can create 165 pounds of CO2. That’s the equivalent of burning 82.8 pounds of coal, according to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
When you multiply 165 pounds of CO2 by the 35,000 food trucks in the U.S., that’s the equivalent of burning 12.5 train cars full of coal. A day.
Food truck generators can affect the environment on a micro level as well. In addition to noise, which cities consider an environmental hazard, generators contribute to smog and poor air quality in cities. According to PBS News, students, small children, infants, and people with asthma have all been negatively affected by poor air quality. When cities cleaned up their air by reducing fossil fuel use in transportation, health outcomes improved.
Running a food truck generator for hours, multiple times a week creates a real cost to the environment and to surrounding communities.
There are many costs of operating a food truck generator above and beyond the price tag and fuel cost. Generators are expensive to maintain, loud, create multiple safety risks, and negatively impact communities around them. All can affect your bottom line as well. Given all the negative impacts, ask yourself if running a food truck generator is worth the cost to the communities you are trying to serve.
For more information, guides, and tips on using clean energy to power your food truck, check out our website.