What every best portable generator has

  • An extra cushion of power. Experts say generators last longer if operated at about 75 to 80 percent of their rated wattage, rather than running continuously at peak output.
  • Enough outlets to suit your needs. For household use, look for at least four electrical outlets, preferably lock-on with a GFCI to help protect you in wet conditions.
  • Low emissions. Portable generator engines that meet CARB requirements, sometimes called 50-state compliant models, pollute the least.
  • Economy mode or an electric throttle. These features adjust the engine speed to meet the electrical load, further reducing emissions and fuel use when you don't need the generator's full power.
  • Basic safety features. Low-oil shut-off protects your generator's engine from damage if it runs too low on oil. Outlet covers protect plug-ins from the elements. GFCI outlets protect you from electrocution in wet conditions.
  • A fuel gauge or hour meter. A fuel gauge saves you from guessing how much gas is left in the tank; an hour meter makes it easy to schedule oil changes at the appropriate intervals.
  • Full lubrication with a spin-on oil filter. Reviews say portable generator engines with this feature cost more, but last up to three times longer and require less maintenance overall.

Know before you go

  • Determine your peak-wattage needs. Check the owner's manual to determine an appliance's peak wattage. This is how much power it takes to run at its highest level of power consumption, usually at startup. To determine whether your portable generator has the juice it needs to power up, add the peak wattage of all the appliances you want to run. The sum must be less than your portable generator's listed peak output.
  • Calculate your continuous-wattage requirements. Just because you can start everything doesn't mean your portable generator will be able to provide a steady stream of electricity to keep everything on. You'll need to calculate your continuous wattage. This figure should also be listed in your owner's manual, or you can use an online calculator like the one at ConsumerReports.org.
  • Look for a sufficient number of outlets. You'll also need a heavy-duty extension cord or two.
  • Safety first: Don't run a generator indoors. Portable generators release potentially harmful carbon monoxide emissions. They should not be operated indoors, in garages, basements, attics, crawl spaces or sheds, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
  • Safety first: Keep portable generators high and dry. Like any electrical appliance, portable generators pose a potential electrocution hazard if they're exposed to water. Keep your generator and cords dry, and sheltered from the elements, and never handle them with wet hands. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends protecting your portable generator with "an open, canopy-like structure."

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Most generator companies require you to use approved service centers for warranty repairs, and they won't pay for the cost of transporting a generator to and from the service center. In other words, you'll either have to pay the repairman to come to you, or pay for the service company to pick up your generator and then return it. Keep that in mind when making a budget for a generator.

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