A basic, portable generator should be able to provide enough power to cover your home electrical necessities in an emergency. If you're shopping for a portable generator -- that is, one on wheels that's not permanently connected to your home's electrical system, experts say a generator that supplies 5,500 watts is about the right size, which is enough to power a few critical appliances, such as a refrigerator, furnace, microwave, TV and some lights. Using them to power electronics isn't a good idea, since they lack inverter technology or high-end voltage regulation, which can fry a TV or computer.
Reviews say an ideal combination of mid-grade power, convenience and value makes the Generac GP5500 (Est. $690) the best overall portable generator. Its 5,500 watts of continuous power -- and 6,875 watts of start-up power -- provide sufficient backup electricity. One owner who weathered Hurricane Sandy lists all the conveniences it ran: "heat, sump pump, refrigerator, couple of HE lights, plasma TV, DirectTV receiver and DVD." Another says, "The generator kept our freezer, refrigerator, microwave, cable, phone and TV [running] along with a few lights working throughout three days of power outage."
Owners say the GP5500 usually starts with just a couple of pulls. However, we found a number of complaints about quality-control problems, especially fuel leaks. Several users note poor customer service in their reviews, saying Generac won't honor its two-year warranty on this generator.
Stepping up to a generator with a higher watt output gives users the ability to run larger appliances and the option of powering more appliances at the same time. But the extra size comes at a price: Expect a louder, heavier and less fuel-efficient generator with this size. Larger 7,000- to 8,000-watt models typically burn less than a gallon of gas per hour and are pretty noisy. Still, you might be able to get away with using one of them if there's plenty of room between houses, especially if you share some of your power with your neighbor.
The Westinghouse WH7500E (Est. $950) produces 7,500 continuous watts and up to 9,000 watts in surge power. Bonus features include a one-touch button for hassle-free starting, a Pulse-Flo muffler for quieter operation and a longer three-year warranty. Its low-emission design meets CARB requirements for California users. Just like the GP5500, the Westinghouse has five outlets, one of which is a twist-lock style to run 220-volt appliances like air conditioners and clothes dryers. However, the Westinghouse costs almost $300 more than the Generac and lacks outlet covers for extra protection during storms.
The 7,000-watt Briggs & Stratton 30470 (Est. $900) offers more than enough juice to power wells, sewage and sump pumps; hot water heaters; refrigerators and freezers; and many air conditioning units. One Sears.com reviewer says his 30470, which surges up to 8,750 watts, powered five homes during a five-day blackout. With automatic voltage regulation, it's safe for use with electronics. Reviews say the Briggs & Stratton is louder compared to other generators in its class. However, though it weighs 250 pounds, it's surprisingly well-balanced and maneuverable.
"Portable" becomes a formality of sorts when you're talking about monsters like the 390-pound Generac GP17500E (Est. $2,700) . Even with its wheels and handles, you'll want a floor jack to assemble it, and moving it any distance requires a trailer or a lot of muscle. The trade-off for that massive weight is massive power. Offering 17,500 continuous watts and surges of up to 26,250, the GP17500E can easily power an entire house, running central air conditioners and geothermal heat pumps. The downside is they come with the noise levels to match and burn more than a gallon of gas per hour, so they're reasonable options only if you actually need and use their full power capability.