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Portable Generators Shopping Guide
Even though generators seem complicated, choosing the right one for your home shouldn’t have to be an exact science. As with most products, your choice will come down to what purpose your generator will serve, especially with what you’ll be powering in your home. We’ll help you narrow down your search with a brief overview of what things to look for in a new generator. When you’re ready for your new purchase, check out and compare our top 10 picks, all of which are rated based on performance, user reviews, specifications, and overall quality.
Generator Size and Wattage
First thing’s first: You need to know how many watts your generator requires. Each generator will give you its wattage specs, which helps you determine the right model to purchase. You’ll need to figure out some calculations to understand the wattage needed for your generator, and this comes in the form of understanding which appliances you’ll be powering with your generator. Luckily, hardware stores and generator manufacturers have come up with wattage calculation charts that lay out the wattage needs for your basic power sources.
To understand these wattage charts, you should know the distinction between surge watts and running watts. This will help you dissect the total wattage numbers and help you feel less overwhelmed.
Surge Watts: This is the max power required by an appliance, mainly when the unit is initially powered up. Since the generator will be used to power up an appliance, you’ll need to include the surge watts in your total wattage calculations.
Running Watts: Put simply, this is the number of wattages your appliance requires to run steadily. You can consider this as the average wattage that the appliance or unit needs, rather than the lowest or highest power requirement.
So, think about all the things that you’ll be connecting to your portable generator — this can range from a small lamp all the way to an RV. Once you have a list of the things you’ll be powering with your generator, you can use a wattage guide (also known as a power consumption chart) to add up the running watts of each appliance as well as the highest surge watts. This will give you a total wattage that will guide you towards the right generator.
Amazon provides a handy generator wattage guide with their generators so you don’t have to wander down the rabbit hole of power consumption charts. You can also find this information on the manufacturer’s guide or data plate of each appliance.
Basic household items typically require a range of 5000-7000 watts. You’ll be looking at different wattage for recreational use like camping or worksite tools like table saws or electric drills.
Physical Size and Portability
The wattage capability of your generator is one size specification that you’ll need to narrow down. The other will be the physical weight, size, and movability of the unit itself. Some generators can weigh upwards of 250 pounds, making it difficult to move your generator around for recreational use.
Larger, heavier generators will generally be more powerful and designed for stationary use as a standby backup. Portable generators with wheels can be moved around for tailgate parties or smaller uses.
Powering your Generator
Confused on how to power your generator? You have a few ways to choose from, and it can come down to factors such as where you live, availability, pricing, and more.
If you have the option to choose a solar-powered generator, this will eliminate the worry of fuel storage, noxious fumes, ventilation and more. Because of its low maintenance, lack of emissions, and near-silent operation, solar-powered generators have many advantages over a gas-powered generator. However, with that, you’ll see disadvantages like a higher price tag as well as spotty usage when daylight is limited.
Gas vs. Propane
In terms of a gas-powered generator, you’ll normally see two options: propane and natural gas. The two of these come with a wide range of their own pros and cons, so it’s important to evaluate your needs and what you’re wanting out of your generator.
Some generators, like the DuroMax Portable XP12000EH, actually have dual fuel to allow the user to switch between propane and gas when needed. This convenient option will be at the higher end of your budget and can run from $1,000-$2,000, but might save you a lot of hassle in the long run. When you’re using your portable generator as a backup in case of emergency, you could use as little hassle as possible when it comes to your energy source.
Natural gas is an affordable means of powering your generator, but it also requires more caution and maintenance when running and storing your generator. You should be using your generator in a well-ventilated area at all times, never indoors, and about 20 yards from any building (read and follow your owner’s manual for complete safety instructions that come with your generator).
Gas requires a fuel stabilizer to prevent rust and corrosion, and this usually needs to be mixed in at a healthy ratio.
You can compare the maintenance and connection of a gas generator to that of your backyard lawnmower. It requires very little oversight, but you still need to make sure that it’s stored properly in a well-ventilated area, that the generator has been drained of gas after use, and that the gas has fuel stabilizer in it to keep it clean.
Gas will be more fuel efficient, emitting more British Thermal Units (BTUs) than propane does. On the other hand, propane burns cleaner than gas, lowering overall emissions and improving air quality.
A propane setup will require more mechanics than a gas connection. If your preparing your generator as a standby operation, a handyman can connect a large propane tank to your generator with no problem. In a less-prepared situation, propane might prove to be more difficult to set up, leaving you with more problems than solutions.
Since gas comes with a less technical setup and is available for a fill-up at gas stations, it has been a favorite energy supply, regardless of its drawbacks.
Geography can play a huge factor in your decision, especially as you look for natural disaster preparedness. For those that live in colder temperatures, storing propane can cause issues such as a frozen regulator, rendering your propane generator useless once you need to get it up and running. For homes more prone to wildfires, homeowners might reconsider storing containers of flammable gas on their property.
A huge safety feature that you’ll want to keep an eye out for is a transfer switch. A transfer switch properly distributes electricity, isolating the connection to the generator while breaking the connection to the home’s utility lines. In a power outage, this is an imperative device, as any electricity surge from an uncontrolled electricity transfer can electrocute workers who are working with neighborhood power lines.
Automation and Added Features
As portable generators become more popular, these units start going above and beyond in their capabilities. Some can connect with your smartphone, allowing you to check on its status remotely. Others will kick on as soon as your house experiences a power outage, giving you more time to get your family together and work on your emergency preparedness plan. Once you have the basic understanding of the power, size, and energy source that your generator requires, you’ll be able to add these bonus items to your wish list as you shop for a new portable generator.
Finding a new generator is a big investment — you can’t just buy one and not understand how it works. With a little know-how on operation, as well as some wattage calculation, you’ll feel more confident in picking out your new generator. Once you know what to look out for, take a look at our top 10 portable generator picks and see which one hits all the boxes. Whether you’re just wanting a generator for your new RV or your preparing your home for a potential power outage, you’re sure to find the generator that’s been proven to get the job done.
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