A basic portable generator should be able to provide enough power to keep food from spoiling in your refrigerator or freezer, plus run some lights and a couple of other appliances. These models typically lack inverter technology or high-end voltage regulation, making computers, TVs and other electronics vulnerable to power surges.
Reviewers say the propane-powered, 137-pound Generac LP3250 (*Est. $650) provides the best balance of power, performance and genuine portability. Owners say customer support for this model isn't great -- a concern with almost every Generac model -- but they love not having to wait in long lines for gasoline during a shortage. The LP3250 has four 5-20R outlets and a single 20-amp 120/240-volt twist-lock plug-in. Its gas-powered counterpart, the GP3250 (*Est. $450), has two 5-20R outlets and a single 20-amp, 120/240-volt twist-lock outlet.
The gas-powered Generac GP5500 (*Est. $720) offers the same connectivity as the LP3250 -- with the option of ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets -- and its twist-lock plug-in is rated for 30 amps. It provides 5,500 watts of continuous power and surges up to 6,875 watts; the LP3250 and GP3250 offer just 3,250 watts of continuous power and a surge of 3,750 watts. That said, there are so many complaints about fuel leaks in the GP5500 that we can't recommend it.
Everything in this price range will be noisy, but owners say the LP3250 is quieter than the gas-powered models. It accepts 20- or 30-pound tanks of propane and offers comparable fuel efficiency for the dollar; expect nine to 10 hours of power from a 20-pound tank under half load.
As one of the very few generators available for less than $400, the All Power America APG3014 (*Est. $200) is literally in a class of its own. However, you do get what you pay for; with just 1,400 continuous watts and a peak surge of 2,000 watts, this generator won't run much more than a refrigerator or a few work lights.
Owners posting to HomeDepot.com and Amazon.com say the APG3014 doesn't always deliver the full 1,400 watts it promises, and starting it can be a challenge. Still, it's one of the more reliable models in its price range. It shuts itself off if its oil runs low, has two 120-volt outlets and a single DC outlet, and comes with battery charging cords that come in handy if your car battery goes dead.
Reviewers say the APG3014 is pretty loud, with one source measuring it at 68 decibels, about as loud as a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer. It's reasonably fuel-efficient, however, with runtimes of at least seven to nine hours from about 1.3 gallons of gas. At 57 pounds, this generator is also fairly light and easy to move around. It's backed by a one-year warranty, although we found mixed reviews about the company's customer service.
This generator is definitely better than nothing, but if you can expand your budget a little, models like the Generac GP3250 offer significantly more power and reliability.