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
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.
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.
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
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
Finding The Best Portable Generators
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 (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
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 (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
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 (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.