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Portable Generator Reviews

By: Amy Livingston on December 16, 2016

Editor's Note:
Live through a hurricane like Sandy -- or any other emergency that knocks out power for days or weeks at a time -- and you'll quickly come to understand just how important a reliable back-up generator like one of these can be. Whether your preference is gas or propane, or if you need a portable generator to run delicate electronics, these are the models that experts -- and most importantly, users -- say will see you through to safety.

Generac GP5500
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Fuel source -- gasoline Continuous wattage – 5,500 watts Run time – 10 hours (50% load)

Best home portable generator

With 5,500 watts of continuous power and 6,875 watts of peak power, the Generac GP5500 is capable of starting and running almost anything you're likely to need when the power goes out, including sump pumps, multiple appliances and household lighting. The user-friendly design includes conveniences like a fuel gauge, low-oil shutdown, and fuel shutoff, and reviews say it reliably starts with one or two pulls. It's covered by a two-year warranty.

Champion 46596 Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Fuel source -- gasoline Continuous wattage – 3,500 watts Run time – 12 hours (50% load)

Best cheap portable generator

With 3,500 running watts and 4,000 peak watts, the Champion 46596 can power essential items – such as a fridge, sump pump, and lights – at a fraction of the price of larger portable generators. Features include a fuel gauge, low-oil shutdown, four standard outlets, one twist-lock outlet, and a TT30R outlet for powering an RV. Owners describe it as easy to use and not too loud. Champion's three-year limited warranty is particularly impressive for a generator in this price range.

Buy for $592.42
Sportsman GEN7000LP Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Fuel source -- propane Continuous wattage – 6,500 watts Run time – 12 hours (50% load)

Best propane portable generator

Owners say the Sportsman GEN7000LP portable generator can power nearly everything in the house. Instead of gasoline, it runs on propane, which can be stored indefinitely and produces less foul-smelling exhaust. Maintenance is also easier than with gas generators, since there's no gasoline to gum up the carburetor during storage. The generator produces 6,000 watts of continuous power and 7,000 watts of startup power, and users find it easy to start and run.

Honda EU2000i Review
Best Reviewed
Specs that Matter Fuel source -- gasoline Continuous wattage – 1,600 watts Run time – 8 hours (at 25% load)

Best inverter portable generator

The 1,600-watt (continuous) Honda EU2000i can't power an entire house full of appliances, but its surge-free power is safe for sensitive electronics like computers and TVs. It's also small, easy to carry and quieter than a normal conversation, making it perfect for tailgating and camping. One of these generators can run a computer setup, fridge/freezer and a couple of lights, and you can connect two together for situations where more power is needed.

Buy for $979.00
Honda EU7000iS Review
Runners Up
Specs that Matter Fuel source -- gasoline Continuous wattage – 5,500 watts Run time – 18 hours (at 25% load)

Whole-house inverter portable generator

The Honda EU7000iS combines 5,500 watts of continuous power – enough to run a whole houseful of appliances – with an inverter that enables it to power the most delicate electronics safely. It's a top performer in professional tests and a huge hit with users, who say it's efficient, easy to use, and extremely quiet. Useful features include a fuel gauge, low-oil shutoff, and electric starter. It's pricey relative to other portable generators of the same output, but owners say it's worth it.

Portable generators provide electricity when you're off the grid – or when the grid goes offline. When a storm takes out the power grid all along your street, a portable generator can mean the difference between shivering in the dark or sitting in a toasty house with working lights and a running fridge. You can also use one to power your cabin or RV while camping or run your cooking and stereo equipment during a tailgate party. Some owners even use one to run their corded electric power tools on remote job sites.

Types of Portable Generators

Gas Generators

Most portable generators use gas as a fuel. You can find more details about sizing one properly below, but a basic, portable generator should be able to provide enough power to cover your home electrical necessities -- such as a refrigerator, gas furnace fan, microwave, and some lights -- in an emergency.

Propane Generators

Some portable generators run on liquid propane instead of gas. Propane is less readily available than gasoline, but it's easier to store. Also, propane generators require less regular maintenance than gas generators.

Inverter Generators

One problem with standard generators is that they can produce occasional power surges, which could damage electronics. That's why some portable generators have built-in inverters, which convert direct current to alternating current. This allows them to deliver a consistent, surge-free supply of electricity. The power from an inverter generator is "clean" enough to power delicate, expensive electronics like your computer or flat-screen TV.

Running a sump pump or just turning on a lamp -- there's a generator for that!

When it comes to generators, bigger isn't always better. A bigger generator can run more devices at once, but it also costs more and uses more fuel. Portable generators more or less fall into three size groups:

750 to 3,500 watts. These generators are small enough to carry onto a boat or to a campsite. At the top end, they can keep a few appliances running simultaneously during a power outage, including a refrigerator, several lights and a TV.

4,000 to 8,000 watts. Generators of this size provide emergency power for a 1,200- to 3,000-square-foot house. The exact size you need depends on how many appliances you think are essential to run simultaneously. For example, at 4,000 watts you could probably run a window air conditioner or the fan for a gas furnace (but not an entire electric furnace), at the same time as a refrigerator and other appliances. At 8,000 watts, you could add an electric water heater.

10,000 to 17,500 watts. These portable generators are large enough to provide essential power to larger homes, even for extended power outages. At the top end, you can even run an electric furnace, heat pump or central air conditioning.

Manufacturers list two wattage levels for each portable generator. Running or continuous wattage, sometimes called rated wattage, is how much power the generator continually produces. Peak wattage, also called maximum or starting wattage, is a measure of how much peak electricity your generator can provide to get large appliances and other power-hungry devices started while still running everything else that's plugged in. In this report, we cite the continuous wattage unless otherwise specified.

If you live in California, you'll need a generator that complies with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations. You don't have to purchase CARB-compliant generators if you live in other states, but they do produce lower emissions.

Starting and using a portable generator

Unlike standby generators that are permanently wired to your house, portable generators don't switch on automatically. With portable generators, you must wheel or carry them out of storage, make sure they're fueled, and start them manually. All portable models have a recoil or pull-cord starter, just like on most lawn mowers. Some also have a push-button electronic starter that's powered by a small, internal battery. An electric ignition won't work if the battery goes dead, but you always have the pull cord as backup.

Portable generators typically have two or more electrical outlets, and the better ones will have different types for different uses. Most electronics and kitchen appliances plug into standard 120-volt outlets, the kind you'd see in any house. These are rated either 5-20R or 5-15R. Larger appliances, such as clothes dryers, kitchen ranges and big window air conditioner units, require a 240-volt outlet. These are sometimes called twist-lock outlets.

Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets, available on some high-end generators, offer an extra layer of protection against electrocution by continuously monitoring power flow through the outlet. In the event of a ground fault -- basically, you getting electrocuted -- they're designed to cut power to that outlet in a fraction of a second.

A few of the generators we evaluate can produce DC current in addition to their AC output. The most common household use for DC current is charging automobile or RV batteries.

The portable generators we evaluate range from a 44-pound model that's small enough to carry by hand to wheeled models that weigh over 250 pounds. While a portable generator's mechanical components come fully assembled, you typically must attach the wheels and handles yourself. For the largest generators this may require a floor jack, although some owners use levers or recruit strong friends to help them move the parts into position.

Portable generators typically come with one to three years of warranty coverage. However, owners warn that a warranty won't do you any good if the manufacturer never responds to your concerns, an issue that crops up in some user reviews. In addition, you may need to transport your generator to a designated service center for warranty service. If there isn't one nearby, or if you purchase a large generator, transporting it to and from the service center can pose a major logistical challenge.

Finding The Best Portable Generators
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ConsumerSearch editors evaluated dozens of expert and owner reviews for every type of portable generator sold. From there, we narrowed it down to the models with the top ratings for features, performance and ease of use. Price was a consideration as well, and we found one highly rated generator that costs less than $200. One of these generators will be sure to keep your power on as long as you need it.

Best gas generators

Reviews point to the Generac GP5500 (Est. $650) as the best overall portable generator, with an ideal combination of mid-grade power, convenience and value. Its 5,500 watts of continuous power -- and 6,875 watts of start-up power -- provide sufficient backup electricity to get you through an emergency. It also includes such useful features as a fuel gauge, low-oil shutdown, and a fuel shutoff, which helps prevent leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the lines. It comes with a set of wheels and a starter bottle of engine oil.

In expert tests, the GP5500 performs beautifully. It's named a "best buy" by ConsumerReports.org. Testers say it's easy to use and delivers strong, smooth, consistent power, just as well as -- or better than -- generators costing hundreds or even thousands more. At ElectricGeneratorsDirect.com, the GP5500 receives a recommendation from product expert Jared Grifo, who says it's "Very solidly built at an affordable cost."

Owner reviews are generally positive as well. Most owners say the GP5500 is reliable, usually starts with just a couple of pulls, and delivers enough power to get them tough power outages. The main complaint we saw about the Generac GP5500 is that it's loud – a finding backed up by professional test results. Complaints about durability are fairly rare, but those who did run into problems often say it's very difficult to get repairs under Generac's two-year warranty. Some had to wait weeks for repairs to be completed, and others complain that the cost of parts (which aren't covered after the first year) comes to hundreds of dollars.

Stepping up to a generator with a higher wattage output gives users the ability to run more appliances and/or larger appliances, such as an air conditioner. The downside is that larger generators tend to be both heavier and noisier. 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. $810) produces 7,500 continuous watts and 9,000 watts of starting power. Pluses compared to the Generac include a one-touch electric start, a Pulse-Flo muffler for quieter operation, and a longer three-year warranty. Just like the GP5500, the Westinghouse has a fuel gauge, fuel shutoff, and low-oil shutoff. It also has the same five outlets, including a twist-lock style to run 220-volt appliances like air conditioners and clothes dryers. However, unlike the Generac, it lacks outlet covers for extra protection during storms. It also costs nearly $200 more.

The Westinghouse WH7500E performs excellently in an expert test, where it's judged a bit quieter than the less powerful Generac GP5500. User feedback is also good. Owners say this generator is sturdy and delivers plenty of power without a lot of noise. It also runs a long time on a tank of gas. The main complaint we saw was about generators that were damaged during shipping. Reports on Westinghouse's customer service are mixed, with some owners praising the knowledgeable reps and others complaining that they got the brush-off.

The Generac GP7500E (Est. $1,000) is also worth noting, It gets very strong feedback from owners at HomeDepot.com, ElectricGeneratorsDirect.com and elsewhere. It has the same features and warranty as the smaller GP5500, plus a one-touch electric starter, and it delivers 7,500 watts of running power and 9,375 watts of startup power. Owners on sites we checked award this portable generator at least 4.5 stars out of 5 overall, and typically 95 percent or more recommend it. They say it's reliable and very easy to use, with ample power to run a whole house. However, like the smaller Generac, the GP7500E is loud, and getting warranty service can be a hassle.

Cheap portable generators provide power on a budget

If all you need a portable generator to do is run a few essential appliances during a power outage, there are light-duty models available for less than $300. These smaller generators provide up to 3,500 watts of continuous power – not enough to run a whole house, but enough to keep some lights and essential appliances going until the power comes back on. They're also suitable for camping.

Experts generally don't test generators this size, so we had to reply on user reviews to find the best picks. Overall, we found the strongest feedback for the Champion 46596 (Est. $280). With 3,500 continuous watts and 4,000 watts of starting power, it's big enough to run essential items – such as a refrigerator, a sump pump, a TV, a fan, and some lights – during a power outage. In addition to a standard outlet, it has a twist-lock outlet and a TT30R outlet that's compatible with RVs and travel trailers. Owners say this generator is easy to set up and start, and it doesn't use too much fuel. Users disagree about the noise level; some say it's nice and quiet, while others find it too loud. We also saw a couple of complaints about that it wavers and cuts out when running at full capacity.

If your power needs are even more modest, the 1,200-watt Champion 42436 (Est. $180) is a good alternative. It's a bit quieter than the 46596, and quite a bit lighter, at only 53 pounds empty. Also, unlike the larger Champion generator, the 42436 is CARB-compliant and can be sold in all 50 states. Owners say this little generator is user-friendly, and it draws compliments for its build quality as well. Still, with its low wattage output (and only 1,500 watts of starting power) and just one 120-volt receptacle, the 42436 has limited powering abilities. According to the Champion website, it can only handle a few small appliances and household items, such as a microwave, TV, fan, and lights.

Both the 42436 and the 46596 include a fuel gauge and a low-oil shutdown sensor, two features not always found on cheaper generators. Likewise, the brand's three-year limited warranty is excellent coverage for generators in this price range.

Propane generators are easy to maintain

Gasoline is an inexpensive fuel for powering tools, but not necessarily the most convenient one. Maintenance for a gasoline-powered generator includes always having fresh fuel on-hand, using a fuel stabilizer, and either running the engine once a month or draining the fuel tank and lines. "Propane-powered portable generators solve these problems and more," say editors at The Family Handyman. "You can store and use liquid propane indefinitely (it doesn't go bad). Refueling is simple and safe; just replace the propane tank with a full one. And you don't have to worry about the carburetor on your generator getting gummed up with old gasoline."

Unfortunately, the generator tests at ConsumerReports.org don't include very many propane-powered models. The few that are covered don't fare very well in the ratings, partly because they can only run for a few hours on a single tank of fuel. So to find the best propane-powered generators, we turned to user-written reviews on retail sites.

The top pick among owners is the Sportsman GEN7000LP (Est. $800). It provides 6,000 watts of running power and 7,000 watts of startup power – enough to run all the essentials during a power outage. It has four standard outlets, one 120/240-volt twist-lock outlet, and a 12-volt DC outlet. Working at half its capacity, it can run for about 8 hours on a 20-pound tank of propane. It's backed by a one-year warranty, which is adequate, but not very impressive.

We found more the most reviews for this portable generator at HomeDepot.com, nearly 290 of them, and it earns a 4.3 star score. What owners love most about it is the convenience of propane fuel, which is easier to buy and store in quantity and produces less unpleasant exhaust than gasoline. They also say this propane-powered generator is easy to start and has enough power to handle all their basic needs. Their most common complaints are that it's noisy and the instructions on assembling and using it are unclear. Not that many owners ran into mechanical problems with the generator, but those who did say that the manufacturer, Buffalo Tools, is hard to reach and not particularly helpful.

If you can manage with just a few essential appliances, the 3,250-watt Generac LP3250 (Est. $560) offers a reasonable balance of power, performance, and genuine portability. It's powerful enough to run a sump pump, but not quite beefy enough to power a clothes dryer. However, most reviewers agree it can run such basics as a fridge, sump pump, and lights. The LP3250 has four 5-20R outlets and a single 20-amp 120/240-volt twist-lock outlet. It accepts 20- or 30-pound tanks of propane, and they mount directly onto the generator. Generac estimates nine hours of run time at half load on a 20-pound propane tank.

Owners, particularly those posting at Amazon.com, say customer support for this model isn't great – among other things, not all Generac-authorized service centers will work on propane models – but they love not having to wait in long lines for gasoline during a shortage. They also find that the LP3250 is quieter than a gas-powered generator. With its included wheel kit, the 137-pound generator is highly maneuverable, and assembly is quick and easy. However, we saw several complaints about durability. Also, some owners say the generator is tricky to start, and the unclear instruction manual doesn't make it any easier.

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