Generator Buying Guide
If you’re here, there’s a good chance you know the importance of a generator. In the world we live today, you cannot afford even an hour without electricity. A power outage in the modern world not only means a temporary absence of lighting; it also means a loss of connectivity to the outside world. Additionally, it could also lead to huge losses as if your business gets disrupted.
A suitable generator can save the day in such times. There are countless generator models and brands, each model designed for a specific purpose but many are general purpose generators.
Since there’s a lot of variety, there’s a lot that goes into buying a generator.
The amount of power you need (wattage), installation space, and how / when you’re going to use it are all factors to consider.
You also have to consider your budget. Generators are typically graded by wattage (size), which directly affects price; the higher the wattage rating, the higher the price. Also, some brands are more expensive and in the case of portable generators the old adage ‘You get what you pay for” is not always correct. For this reason, we have reviewed all types of generators for your convenience.
A generator’s wattage not only determines the number of appliances it can power but also how much ‘surge’ or ‘start’ current of electrical appliance a generator can handle.
Stationary Vs Portable Generators
When buying a generator, there are two ways to go: portable or stationary.
Stationary units are used in situations with high power requirements. Despite the many benefits associated with portable units, they tend to fall short in the power department. Stationary generators, however, are designed to produce high power continuously, a situation typical to business applications, whole house backup supply, medical facilities, and many other high-power situations.
In a typical setting, a stationary generator is installed permanently. It is hard wired into the building’s power panel to start automatically. When there’s a power outage, the building’s electrical supply is separated from the utility grid and the generator ‘takes over.’ a reverse action takes place once utility power is restored.
Stationary generator summary:
Start automatically when power is out
Require qualified technician to install and service
Generate high power (over 20000 Watts)
Can run on diesel, propane or natural gas
Tend to be pricier
As the name implies, portable generators are designed to be used anywhere. You can use it on or off your property. You can transport it in your vehicle and use it anywhere you want so long as you maintain a minimum distance of 15 feet from a habitable place.
Since they’re designed to be used anywhere, portable generators are typically lightweight to allow for easy mobility.
A typical portable generator has a run time of 12 hours or less depending on make and model. They’re designed to power standalone applications for a short time. Extension cords are used to connect the applications to the generator and most units use a manual start, although many newer models have alternative electric start buttons.
While they’re limited in output, portable generators have many benefits. They are usually compact to allow for easy mobility; they can run on a variety of fuel types if required.
Portable generator summary:
Tend to be compact
They're relatively cheap – they range from $300-$2000
They are limited in output – range from 1000 to 10000 watts
Designed to provide temporary power
Designed to run for a limited time (6-12 hours typically)
Can use a variety of fuels – gasoline, diesel, propane or natural gas
Key portable generator features
Generators are not made the same, which means some models have features that you’ll not find on others. However, when buying a generator with specific use requirements, there are certain features that count.
Here are a couple of mentions:
For portable generators, noise level is very important. Chances are you’ll be using the portable generator
Electric start button
Many portable generators use the tried and true recoil start method but the hassle of pulling a cord is something many buyers would think twice about.
As such, many models now offer electric push start buttons for added convenience. This is a feature of convenience that counts when you’re making a new purchase. It also adds weight and additional maintenance requirements.
Stationary generators are built with automatic start systems that require no external intervention. If you’re purchasing a standby generator for critical applications, it definitely ought to have an automatic start system.
Dual fuel (or multi fuel) capability
Traditional single-fuel generators make up the largest portion of portable generators in the market but multi-fuel models (especially dual fuel generators type) are increasingly becoming popular.
With more fuel types to choose from, you’re guaranteed never to be stuck when the primary fuel type is in short supply.
If a generator is somewhat bulky then it must have wheels for easier maneuverability. However, on some models, wheels are offered as an add-on and thus priced separately. They can cost more than $100 extra depending on many factors.
If you’re buying a generator that weighs over 150 pounds, be sure that it has wheels. It’s easier to move a wheeled generator without help than one without wheels.
Build (compact or big)
When you’re buying a portable generator, its build is another factor that influences maneuverability. You want a generator that’s not too bulky and buggy to move around.
Luckily, portable generators are getting more compact as newer models are released onto the market. Some units come with built-in handles that make it easier to carry it one hand.
Ease of maintenance
Never ignore ease of access to maintenance for a generator before purchasing. Popular brands usually have easy access to parts and servicing but a generator from some obscure maker may be a nightmare to fix when it breaks down or just service.
Many high end generators now use inverter generator technology as it offers a plethora of benefits. Inverter technology offers cleaner power that’s safe for sensitive electronics and appliances. What’s more, inverter generators run quieter than conventional units and since many campsites have noise restrictions, a portable inverter generator makes perfect sense for recreational activities.
Here are more benefits of inverter technology:
High quality output
Better fuel efficiency
Parallel capability allows you to increase available power
Generator control panels are increasingly becoming more complex but the underlying purpose should remain as simple as possible.
A control panel comprises a series of buttons and displays that make it easy to operate the power unit. The displays on the panel show measurements for various parameters for current, voltage, and frequency.
For most portable generators, the control panel is set up on the body of the unit itself but for larger generators, the panel is usually mounted separately.
A control panel on your typical portable generator is pretty straightforward and easy to operate. What you need to pay attention to is the number of outlets – the more, the better for utilizing the available wattage. Four outlets on a small portable generator are good enough.
Built-in safety features
Some gauges and meters allow for proper usage of the generator through monitoring. However, some gauges are included for safety purposes, both to protect the engine from damage as well as to safeguard users from potential injury.
For instance the low-oil sensor on many portable generators allows the engine to automatically shut-off when oil goes below the minimum levels.
Others such as the temperature and pressure sensors also help the engine to regulate itself and prevent damage.
How to Pick the Perfect Generator?
There are countless varieties when it comes to portable generators so it’s easy to get caught up in watts and specs.
If you take a moment to decide on how you’re going to be using the generator, you’ll find that choosing the perfect fit for your power needs becomes a lot easier.
Portable generators are classified into four main categories based on how they are intended to be used:
Emergency portable generators come with bigger and more powerful engines than other types of portable generators. They’re designed to provide backup or emergency power to vital appliances during an outage – such as refrigerators, lights, and sump pumps.
In addition to bigger engines, emergency generators feature bigger gas tanks to allow for an extended running period without interruption.
Overall, emergency generators are durable and pocket-friendly, perfect for use as home standby generators.
Professional grade generators are built for serious performance such as you’d expect for professional use. They’re typically made with premium quality materials (more durable and with better heat dissipation properties) and are also equipped with commercial duty engines that can run uninterrupted for a long time.
Features such as GFCI outlets and hour meters are standard on professional grade generators and not just accessories as with other types of portable generators.
Typical uses of professional grade generators include field (or remote) military operations and contractor job sites, among others.
Yamaha, Honda, Generac, and Briggs & Stratton are among the top maker of professional generator engines.
Semi-Professional Portable Generators
Semi-professional generators are not as heavy duty equipped as professional generators but they can meet the high power demands of the environments in which they are used. For instance a semi-professional generator perfectly suits homeowners with typically high power demands, as well as busy contractors.
Like professional grade generators, semi-professional units are made with high quality materials that can withstand overheating from prolonged running.
If you’re looking for the perfect standby generator that will promptly restore power to your home during a blackout, go for a semi-professional unit.
Many manufacturers now make portable generators specially designed for recreation or RV use. Generators for RV use usually feature inverter technology – hence the name inverter generators – and they run quieter than conventional types.
Initially, inverter technology was pricey when it was first launched onto the generator market but recently, that has changed as almost every maker has their own version of inverter generator.
These are perfect for campsites, powering single appliances for a short time, and charging sensitive electronics.
Yamaha and Honda generators dominate the inverter generator space if you’re willing to dig deep into your pocket. If you are cash strapped but want a decent inverter generator, check out Duramax, Wen, or Champion generators.