Types of Portable Generators
Most portable generators are broadly similar and either use a gasoline or propane motor to change mechanical energy into electricity.
Portable inverters use the same basic principle but, thanks to special mufflers, fuel injection and other clever tricks, they are smaller, lighter and a lot quieter. This makes them ideal for recreational use: outside parties, camping, tailgating, and RVing. They often feature automatic power fluctuation controls, making them especially good with sensitive electronic devices.
There are two drawbacks to inverters. First, power output is lower-- generally between 1,000 and 3,000 Watts. Second, they are relatively expensive.
Portable Generator Efficiency
OK, you know how much power you need, but how long will your portable generator run? Can you leave it all day, or will you have to refill the gas tank every few hours?
Portable generator manufacturers are happy to quote run times, but you have to be careful. Seldom, if ever, will the advertised figures align with the generator running at full capacity. You'll see things like "12 hours at 1/4 load," or "8 hours at 50% capacity."
To be fair, portable generators hardly ever run at peak performance for very long, so it's not that the manufacturers are being deceptive, though they are showing things in the best possible light!
You also have to consider the wattage you're consuming. When the power you're using is 7,000 watts, ten hours at 50% from a portable generator delivering 3500 watts is not the same as 10 hours at 50%.
Gasoline or Liquid Propane
Each of the portable generators we've chosen runs on gasoline. Liquid propane is an alternative, and there are plenty of models that use it. The main reason none of these made our final selection is simply fuel storage.
The biggest tank among the gas-powered units we've selected is 7.5 gallons. A similar propane model requires several 20 lb. tanks to run for the same period.
Not only do you have to have the space to store them, you need to change them over more regularly.
Portable Generator Features
Deciding how much power you need will focus your choices, but there are still many portable generators vying for your money. Here are some of the features you will want to look for.
The generator should offer decompression for easy starting if it has a ripcord. The best portable generators do away with a cord completely-- you just turn a key or push a button.
It's nice to be able to check levels without taking the filler cap off.
Oil Level Warning
Running low on oil can seriously damage your equipment.
Units equipped with throttle sensors can adjust performance depending on load, thus increasing fuel efficiency and run time.
Wheels are a separate accessory with some portable generators. Portable inverters aren't designed to have wheels, and it's not a problem when the unit only weighs 45 pounds or so. However, when a model weighs 90 pounds plus, wheels are something of a necessity.
Multiple Power Outlets
Depending on the model, you'll get one or more 120V AC outlets. You might also get a DC outlet (useful for charging batteries), a specific RV outlet that you can plug directly into your RV's electrical circuit, or a 120/240V 30A (also called twist lock) that may be compatible with transfer switches.
Transfer switches, which should be installed by a suitably qualified professional, allow you to plug your portable generator directly into your household electrical supply, so you only run a single cable, rather than trying to run a number of extension cords through windows or doors.
Portable generator gauges show either actual fuel remaining or estimated hours remaining. Combination gauges are very
helpful, as they help you account for consumption rate based on the power demand.
Portable Generator Safety
You've probably heard it a thousand times, but in this case it's particularly important: always read the manufacturer's instructions! Fumes from generators are dangerous. Second, if you fail to look after your portable generator and maintain it properly, it might let you down when you most need it.
The following might be covered within those instructions, but are worth underlining:
Manufacturers recommend a minimum of five feet of clear space on all sides of your generator when it's running.
It should always be run outdoors. A garage or shed with the door and windows open is NOT outdoors. Carbon monoxide can build up in enclosed spaces. It's colorless, odorless, and lethal.
When the portable generator is hot, never fill the gas tank. Spilled gas can ignite on a hot exhaust or casing. It's almost invisible, so it can burn you, or things around you, before you realize.
Never completely fill the gas tank-- always allow room for expansion.
After use, never put your generator away until it is completely cool.
Never attempt to wire your generator into a household socket. "Back feed" can cause electrocution or fires not just in your home, but anywhere in the local network. If you want the option of a fixed connection, ask a properly qualified professional to install a transfer switch.
Beware of overloading your portable generator. If in doubt, consult an electrician.
Check that your generator is properly grounded. Follow all applicable federal, state and local regulations related to grounding. You risk being electrocuted if you don't.
What Should A Portable Generator Cost?
During our research we found cheap portable generators for as little as $100. We don't recommend generators at that level, but they do exist.
Our five finalists are all highly-rated models that receive lots of positive feedback from owners. They're also representative of what we would consider 'best in class', in terms of price and performance.
With portable generators, you pretty much get what you pay for.
A robust, reliable entry-level machine can be yours for under $300. That's a great deal, but we recommend spending another hundred bucks or so for a model with similar power output, but a more exhaustive feature set.
Need to go big? Our more expensive selections get you significantly higher power output, along with excellent reliability.
Inverter generators are a slightly different story because they generally cost more than their "standard" counterparts. The model we recommend is close to a thousand dollars but, in our view, unbeatable in its class.
A portable generator gives you back-up power until the normal supply is restored. That's why you see portable generators rated at, for example, 3,300 running watts and 4,000 starting watts. Portable generator manufacturers are happy to quote run times, but you have to be careful. Each of the portable generators we've chosen runs on gasoline. Second, if you fail to look after your portable generator and maintain it properly, it might let you down when you most need it.