There are different types of generators for different needs. If you need power just at home, for example, you might be better suited by a stationary standby generator than a portable generator. Similarly, the types of appliances and electronics you plan to power can determine whether an inverter or conventional generator is better suited to your needs.
Portable or standby?
The first choice you need to make is whether a portable or standby generator is best for you. A standby generator is typically designed to power most or all of a house’s electricity needs during a short-term or extended power outage. Because of this, standby generators are typically found in storm-prone areas where long outages are common. These generators are stationary, installed outside the home, and may be connected to a natural gas line to allow for unlimited fuel sourcing in the aftermath of a storm. Compared to portable generators, standby generators typically put out far more wattage – greater than 10 kilowatts – and produce very little noise.
Portable generators are more versatile and can be used for anything from camping and RVing to outdoor parties and powering your home during an outage. Portable generators come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and power ratings to cover the widest range of needs, but it’s important to keep in mind that some portable generators are easier to transport than others.
Inverter or conventional?
Conventional generators produce AC electricity directly from their engines, which can then be used to power appliances and tools. However, this AC electricity is relatively “dirty” – it can damage sensitive electronics like smartphones, computers, and anything with a microchip.
Inverter generators take that AC electricity and then convert it to DC power and back to AC electricity. This essentially cleans the electricity, reducing the overall distortion of the electrical waves so that it is safe to use with sensitive electronics. In addition, inverter generators use microcontrollers around the engine that allow them to be much more fuel efficient compared to conventional generators.
If you have multiple inverter generators, you can connect them in parallel to increase your power output.
However, there are some drawbacks to inverter generators. They tend to cost more than conventional generators, although that price gap is closing as the technology further improves. In addition, inverter generators are currently limited to a maximum power output of about 4,000 watts – if you need more power than this, you’ll need to choose a conventional generator.
How much power do you need?
Once you’ve decided what type of generator you need, the next thing to determine is how much wattage you need. Generators range from small portable generators offering less than 2,000 watts of power to massive portable generators like the model from DuroMax that offer up to 12,000 watts. Standby generators like the model from Generac offer yet more power – over 20 kilowatts.
The best way to determine how much power you need is to add up the wattages of all the appliances and tools you expect to run at a single time. This number needs to be less than the continuous wattage of your generator. If you have motor-driven appliances like a refrigerator, freezer, or air conditioner, you’ll also need to consider the start-up power requirements of these appliances. When starting, the wattage cannot exceed the surge wattage of your generator.
Keep in mind that it’s easier to opt for a larger than necessary generator initially than to increase your available power later. In addition, the closer you run your generator to its rated power output, the faster you’ll run through fuel and the more noise the generator will produce.
It’s always a good idea to choose a generator that is slightly larger than you calculate that you need.
When it comes to portable generators, gasoline is the most common fueling option. However, dual fuel generators like the models from Champion and DuroMax can run on either gasoline or propane. Propane is often less expensive than gasoline, but you’ll get slightly less power out of your generator when running on propane because it’s a less energy-dense fuel. That said, propane offers the advantage that you can run your generator more or less continuously by switching propane tanks out on a single fuel line.
Although more expensive and less common, some portable generators like the model from Generac XD5000E can run on diesel fuel. These generators tend to be virtually indestructible and are more immune to the frequent price shifts around standard gasoline.
Finally, some tri fuel portable generators and many standby generators can run on natural gas. Natural gas is less energy-dense even than propane, so you’ll see some power loss when running your generator on natural gas. However, natural gas is by far the cheapest fuel option and is virtually unlimited if you tap into your home’s natural gas line. This is a major advantage for standby generators, since natural gas lines often continue to provide fuel even during extended power outages and in the aftermath of major storms.
Generator fuel tank capacity and runtime
The capacity of your generator’s fuel tank and the efficiency of the engine combine to determine how long you can run your generator for in one go. The fuel tank capacity is typically measured in gallons and can vary widely even between generators in the same size class. The runtime is measured in hours, usually at a 25% or 50% load.
If you are always planning to run your generator on gasoline, runtime can be extremely important. For example, a generator with a long runtime like the model from Champion 3400-Watt Dual Fuel Inverter can allow you to generate power for an entire day of work, or an entire evening in your RV or campsite. On the other hand, a generator with a small fuel tank and limited runtime can require that you turn off the power every few hours, cool down your generator, and then refuel.
Keep in mind that for dual fuel generators running on propane, it’s possible to extend the runtime simply by using a larger propane tank or by connecting multiple propane tanks to a stopcock valve. If you are running a tri-fuel generator or a standby generator on a natural gas line, the runtime may be extended up to several days.
Modern generators are equipped with several important safety features that protect both you and your generator. The first of these is a low-oil shutoff – every portable generator that we reviewed will automatically shut itself down before it runs out of oil. This protects the engine from irreversible damage as well as power surges that could occur if the engine were to fully run out of oil. Nearly all generators also have a low oil warning light so that you know ahead of time to turn the generator off.
The other important safety feature that generators have is overload prevention. Generators will automatically shut themselves down if you exceed their surge power at all, or if you exceed their continuous rated power for more than a few seconds. This prevents the engine from overheating, which can essentially melt important components of your generator and poses a dangerous fire hazard.
Ease of use
Another important thing to consider when choosing a generator is whether it has features to make it easier to use. Many inverter generators offer electric starters in addition to the standard recoil starter, and some, like the model from Pulsar, offer remote starters so you don’t even need to leave the house to start your generator. Other generators, like the DuroMax model, offer voltage meters so you can keep an eye on how much power you’re drawing and whether you are close to overloading the generator.
Another important ease of use feature to consider is whether your generator has a drain on the carburetor. This feature makes it significantly easier to drain fuel out of the generator ahead of a long storage period, which is important so that you don’t end up with stale fuel in your engine.
If you don’t have a drain, you’ll need to run your generator dry – which isn’t good for the engine over the lifespan of the generator.
The amount of noise that a generator makes can be a big factor in where and when you can use it. For example, a noisy generator might not be a problem at a construction site, but if you’re camping or trying to run your generator outside your house at night you’re likely to draw complaints from your neighbors.
In general, inverter generators are quieter than their conventional counterparts and smaller generators make less noise than larger generators. Keep in mind also that generators typically produce more noise as you push them closer to their rated wattages.
When choosing a generator based on noise, it’s important to think about whether your application requires an ultra-quiet generator. Generators like those from WEN and Honda are priced at a significant premium specifically because they are among the quietest generators on the market in their respective power classes – so you’ll need to consider whether that added price is worth it for you.
Not all portable generators are equally portable, so it’s important to think about the size and weight of your generator and whether it is mounted on wheels. Lightweight generators like the portable model from Generac may not have wheels, but this isn’t a problem since a single person can easily carry it. On the other hand, a massive generator like the model from DuroMax may require two or three people to lift it in and out of a vehicle – even though it is mounted on wheels to make transporting it the rest of the way easier. Consider where you’re likely to use your generator, how you plan to get it there, and whether you can lift the weight of your generator by yourself.
Warranty and customer service
All of the generators we reviewed are built to last, but having a warranty from the manufacturer can provide significant peace of mind. Manufacturers’ warranties range from just one year to up to three years, as for the Pulsar generator. Warranties for standby generators are often five years or longer. Keep in mind that many manufacturers limit the warranty for commercial users since the generator is assumed to see more frequent use.
Customer service is also an important component of having peace of mind after your generator purchase. Companies like Generac and Champion are beloved by customers for their support – Champion offers lifetime technical support for many of its generators – which makes it much simpler to file a warranty claim in the event that anything goes wrong with your equipment.
Generators cover a huge range of prices depending on whether you are looking at a portable or standby generator, an inverter or conventional generator, or a small or large generator. On the inexpensive end of the spectrum, a generator like the DuroStar model costs under $300. WEN and Honda generators typically cost the most because of their premium engines – the Honda generator costs over $2000. Standby generators also tend to be large investments, costing in the several thousands of dollars depending on the exact model.
Maintenance is the most important thing you can do to ensure you get a long life of work out of your generator. There are two critical things you should always do to make sure your generator runs smoothly.
The first is to change the oil relatively frequently. You should change the oil in your generator after the first 20 hours of use, and then every 50–100 hours of use after that. Keep an eye out for the low oil light – if you see this come on, you should power down the generator immediately to prevent engine damage. It’s always a good idea to keep fuel and filters on hand with your generator when you’re using it or travelling with it.
The second thing you need to do to protect your generator’s engine is to prevent fuel from going stale inside your generator. Before you put the generator away for a long storage period, be sure to fully empty the gas tank and drain the carburetor of any remaining fuel. If your generator does not have a carburetor drain, you’ll need to run it dry to remove the leftover fuel. Be sure to always fill your generator with fresh fuel after the storage period, as well.
Beyond that, there are some important safety tips to keep in mind when using your generator. Always allow it to cool down before adding more fuel to the tank – adding fuel to a hot generator is a dangerous fire hazard. In addition, never backfeed your generator. If you plan to connect your generator to your home, you need to invest in a transfer switch and take the time to safely hook up your generator to your house’s electrical grid.