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An emergency portable generator for home use is probably one of the most important investments you can make when it comes to being prepared for the unexpected. While some homes now have whole-house standby generators that are always connected and ready to go when the power goes out, the majority of homes do not have that luxury.
And the time most people think about emergency power is when they don’t have any power at all. Other home owners do think about it; however, oftentimes by the time they consider buying one, the local Home Depots and Lowes are already sold out because a hurricane or other big storm is on the way.Then there is someone like you, who isn’t going to wait until the last minute to check this important emergency preparedness component off the list.
Choosing an Emergency Portable Generator
Let's face it. These days we depend on power to charge our devices, and on our devices to access the world.
Depending on your set-up and your situation, lost power might also mean no hot showers, or no water at all. Heating or cooling your home against extreme temperatures might be a real consideration; or powering medical equipment may be a matter of life and death.
Whether you're considering a portable generator for your home, office, jobsite, or campground, staying in control of the power available to you offers peace of mind.
What about individual generator reviews?
We will review some individual generators in different, separate posts, because there are several different options that you might wish to consider before narrowing your research to a specific type of emergency power supply.
For example, the first machine that typically comes to mind for people tends to be a gasoline powered unit; however, there are also diesel, dual fuel (propane/gasoline), and smaller solar generators that might be right for you.
There are also bio diesel generators but we won’t be talking about those simply because even though they are fairly environmentally friendly, they can be tricky to keep the right ratio of diesel to oil ready and fresh (80:20), and what we are looking for here is something that will be relatively easy for most homeowners to use on demand.
What we'll cover in this article
In this short guide we’ll cover some of the basic information that you’ll need in order to decide the right generator for your needs.
In addition, to make things a little easier, we are going to focus on portable generators for general home use. We won’t go into industrial generators or the larger, whole-house standby models.
Ok, let’s get started!
The following FAQ includes some basic facts that may help you decide what type of portable generator is going to work for you.
Portable Generator FAQS:
What is the difference between a portable power generator and an inverter generator?
An inverter generator is simply a generator with an inbuilt inverter. Inverter generators are smaller, lighter, and quieter than standard generators, according to Rural Living Today. Their innovation lies in the conversion of DC power to AC power with high frequency.
The conversion procedure removes standard power fluctuations. Inverter and standard generators both come in a variety of configurations, power sources, and wattages. Standard generators operate at a steady speed that is consistent but isn't adjustable. This means excessive noise, more exhaust, and greater fuel consumption.
Because inverters very their speed according to the power load that's being drawn, they are quieter, more environmentally sound, and they use less fuel overall.
Why would I choose a portable generator over a whole-house standby generator?
Simply put, a portable generator is power when and where you need it. A standby generator's installation is fixed because it is connected to existing gas lines, while a portable generator can be moved from place to place.
If price is a significant factor, then a portable generator is a straightforward solution. Portable units tend to cost between $500 and $2,000, vs. $3,000 to $6,000 for a standby. This is affordable insurance for never having to go without modern conveniences in the event of a power outage.
Finally, as is the case in my current home, we don't have a stand-alone house where we can easily install a whole-house option. So, we must use a portable model.
What should I look for in a portable generator?
Running watts (rated watts), are a measurement of the constant watts required to keep your load running. Starting watts are additional watts required for a couple of start-up seconds for high demand appliances, and the maximum wattage your generator can produce.
A rule of thumb for runtime is ten hours at half-load. This means you can have some items eating running watts and still get a full night's sleep without having midnight concerns about your generator's fuel level.
Choose a generator with an adequate number of outlets, and the right types of outlets. For example, a high watt items may require a 30amp locking-type outlet.
Consider wheels and handles, which can make a heavy portable generator easier to move.
How much power (wattage) do I need?
Add up all the running watts you'll need to for all of the items you want to power (check data plates or owner's manuals), and that will be the minimum number of running watts you are looking for in a portable generator. If you have a large appliance, e.g. a refrigerator, make sure that you have enough starting watts to get that item operational.
Here are some running watts of common items for ballparking purposes (from Consumer Reports):
- Refrigerator: 600 watts
- Sump pump: 750 to 1,500 watts
- Portable heater: 1,500 watts
- Lights: 60 to 600 watts
- Computers: 60 to 300 watts
According to this helpful Lee County Electric Cooperative, Inc. Wattage Worksheet, refrigerators and furnace fans each typically require approximately 2,300 starting watts; a sump pump requires approximately 1,300; and central AC as much as 18,000.
What are some examples of what I can run on different generators?
Here are a few examples to use as a guideline (according to The Generator Place):
A 2000-WATT GENERATOR
- Toaster – 1200 watts
- Coffee maker – 1000 watts
- Microwave – 1000 watts
- Refrigerator – 750 watts
- Freezer – 600 watts
A 3500-WATT GENERATOR
- Energy saving LED or CFL lights @ 14 watts each
- Freezer, (avg. 700 watts, 2100 starting)
- Refrigerator, (avg. 700 watts, 2100 starting)
- 1/3 hp sump pump (avg 516 watts, 1550 starting)
Then, there is a 5,500 WATT GENERATOR
According to Generatorist, a 5,500 WATT generator can handle an average household-worth of appliances, just not all at once. A 1,200-3,000 square foot home generally consumes between 5,000 watts and 7,000 watts to power common household appliances, so 5,500 will get you back on your feet, if your shrewd.
Power/Fuel Options to Choose From
There are several ways to power a portable generator. Let's explore some of these options and consider some of the pros and cons of each.
The most common portable generators have a gas tank that you simply fill as you would a car or lawnmower's tank. According to Halligan Electric of Bergen County, New Jersey, approximately 70 gallons of gasoline might be required to bridge a five-day power outage at home. Always store gasoline in ANSI-approved containers.
For under a thousand dollars your can get your hands on the A-iPower SUA12000E, which features a 459cc four-stroke engine and delivers up to 9500 running watts-- enough power to run the majority of home appliances (as long as you aren't trying to run them all at once).
With a 7-gallon steel fuel tank, it reportedly offers up to 13 hours at a 50 percent load. The manufacturer isn't well known in the states; that said, it's a quality performer and about as well as you can do for your money.
Diesel generators are the most efficient, which means longer runtimes and you spend less money on fuel overall. However, diesel generators are big polluters, they are not well-suited to wet conditions, and they have a reputation for being loud. In most cases, diesel generators are not inverters.
An example of a decent (although a bit pricey) portable diesel generator is the Generac 6864, which offers 5000 running watts, a 12-gallon fuel tank, and more than 32 hours of runtime at 50 percent load.
Natural gas is efficient, cost-effective, efficient to operate, and a relatively environmentally conscientious choice. Natural gas generators burn cleanly, with fewer toxic emission, and less noise pollution. On the downside, natural gas is highly flammable.
Honda's EU2200i is a gasoline generator, but Hutch Mountain has a conversion kit (to allow the Honda gasoline generator to run on natural gas and propane). Its "whisper quiet" 2,200-watt inverter generators are very popular and can operate a broad variety of appliances. The EU2200i runs at 48 to 57 dBA, making it popular for everything from camping to food truck operation.
If you need more power, you can simply add another generator. Depending on the load, the efficiency of the Honda EU2200i is 4 to 9.6 hours per tank, depending on the load.
I do have to tell you that we have personally used the Honda EU2200i numerous times during storms, and also have used it in remote, helicopter-supporter building sites. We love this one! It's very dependable.
- DUAL FUEL (Propane/Gasoline)
Gas is easy to come by, but propane fuel is less expansive, cleaner burning, and less noisy. Therefore, a dual fuel generator--a generator that runs off either propane or gasoline—offers hard to been versatility and reliability.
A popular dual fuel generator is the Westinghouse WGen9500DF. It's outstandingly reliable and suitable to power an entire home. It will also give you up to 17.5 hours of runtime on a single tank of gas. It's quite heavy, but it's quiet for its size.
Here lies your lowest available carbon footprint, and some can charge in as little as three hours to bring you up to 2,000 watts. It's a gas-free generator that's quiet, low maintenance, and with no toxic fumes. Solar generators are smaller and lower wattage as a rule, so well suited for powering RV appliances, or as back up for specific systems or devices.
An excellent example of a solar generator is the Yeti 1500X Portable Power Station. It weighs 43 pounds and its lithium-ion battery is built to last. It's compatible with devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, tvs, mini fridges, and many power tools.
According to the description on Amazon, the battery will give your laptop 31 recharges, your smart phone 127 recharges, a refrigerator (1400Wh Per Day) for 28 hours, and more. See the screenshot below for more info. Clicking that image will bring you straight to the Yeti 1500X Amazon listing.
Using and Maintaining a Portable Generator
HOW TO CONNECT A PORTABLE GENERATOR TO THE HOUSE
A portable generator turns on and off manually, so you will choose between a manual transfer switch and an interlock kit. Skipping this step could easily lead to personal injury or property damage (your generator or your appliances), so be 100% confident in what you are doing, or better yet, hire a professional.
A transfer switch safely connects a portable generator to your circuit panel by a power cable. A licensed electrician can install this for $500-$1000, including labor. Most transfer switches are designed for a 220-volt input. A portable generator under 5000 watts will require less.
You may opt for an interlock device instead, which will likely save you a couple hundred dollars and takes less time to install. The interlock kit allows you to safely disconnect your existing breaker panel from the utility feed and switch it over to your portable generator. Make sure the generator breaker is compatible with your existing breaker panel.
SERVICING YOUR GENERATOR
A generator is an engine-powered machine that requires servicing, like a car. Your owner's manual will be the authority on model-specific information, and you should read it in order to get the best performance out of your portable generator.
While cars are recommended to receive an oil change every 3,000 miles or every 3 months (whichever comes first), generators need one every 200 use-hours, or every two years (again, whichever comes first). Run the generator for a few minutes and allow to cool to the touch before performing an oil change. After you drain the old oil, make sure the oil drain plug is secured back in place and dispose of the used oil properly. Replace the oil to the fill line, taking care not to overfill. You can choose between regular and synthetic oil. Synthetic, however, is designed to perform better during cold starts or in extreme heat, so consider if you are likely to face either of those in your use environments.
- SPARK PLUGS
Install new spark plugs about every year to keep your generator in peak condition.
- AIR & FUEL FILTERS
To prevent filthy exhaust, change out your air and fuel filters annually. These are simple to pop in and out. Some machines even have washable, reusable filters.
STORING YOUR PORTABLE GENERATOR WHEN NOT IN USE
If you are using your portable generator regularly, store it somewhere with easy access where it is protected from the elements. Long term storage, however, is something to be more thoughtful about.
According to Bell Performance, if you are putting your portable generator away for several months, start by consulting your owner's manual to be sure you know how often your model requires scheduled maintenance. Then make sure that the fuel tank is full and treat that fuel with a stabilizer, which will help your fuel against moisture problems and protect the internal workings of the generator from corrosive interactions with the fuel as it sits there. Finally, run the generator for five minutes or so to distribute the treated fuel throughout generator's fuel system.
GENERAL GENERATOR MAINTENANCE
Generac Inc recommends the following steps for standard generator maintenance:
- Clean the generator by using a damp cloth to remove dust, grime, or spills from the exterior surfaces. Inspect all openings and slots on your generator, to ensure that they are clear and unobstructed.
- Run it monthly--or every three months at an absolute minimum--for approximately 30 minutes, with a motored load (a box fan will do). This is an exercise for both the alternator and the motor.
- If you have an electric start unit, charge the battery at least once a month for 24 hours. However, do not over charge, since overcharging a battery can do more damage to the battery than undercharging it.
PORTABLE GENERATOR SAFETY
According to the American Red Cross, the most common hazards of generator use are carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, fire, electric shock or electrocution.
- A generator should never be placed inside the home due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you feel woozy, strange, or weak while using your generator, go to a place where you can start breathing fresh air immediately and contact a medical professional.
- Let your generator cool down before tinkering with it or refueling. A hot generator and flammable fuel aren't a safe mix, and since exposed engine parts can be very hot, be aware of the potential hazard of burns.
- Wall outlets are not rated for generators, so never plug one in there. Make sure that your generator is properly attached to your home's wiring with a transfer switch or an interlock kit so that it is completely separated from the utility system wiring. Consult a licensed electrician for proper installation.
- Always use your portable generator outdoors and away from any structure. Make sure your generator is disconnected when not in use. If power from the generator flows back into the utility lines, this can pose a danger to utility workers.
Also be aware that you may well be operating your portable generator under stressful pressures or even in a state shock, whether your situation is simply an unexpected outage or a broader emergency. Know your machine and circuit system well so that you are best prepared not to overlook necessary safety precautions under duress.
In conclusion, the first bit of information you're going to need, in order to decide what type of portable generator is right for you, is how wattage you need your model to generate. Wattage must be at least equal to the total for what you're powering. You should also consider the starting watts, or surge watts, that some appliances draw.
Small, 2,000 to 4,000 watt, portable generators are available for under $1,000, and are adequate to power basic household appliances. Midsized, 5,000 to 8,500 watt, portable generators hand handle additional load, such as a computers, more lights, or a portable heater.
A 7,000-watt portable generator will use 12 to 20 gallons of gasoline if run nonstop for 24 hours. The more powerful the generator, the more fuel it will use. Remember that inverter models use an alternative technology that takes the power fluctuation out of wattage output, so that they are more efficient and quieter. Inverter generators also cost a bit more.
Make sure that your portable generator isn't delivering power to your home via a dangerous web of extension cords! Have an interlock kit or a transfer switch in place. These devices can safely link your generator to your circuit panel without overlapping or interfering with the grid power. A transfer switch is for generators rated 5,000-watt and above, and lets you directly power circuits, including those for hardwired appliances.
For best maintenance practices, consult the owner's manual of your portable generator for model-specific information such as what type of oil to use and how often to change it. If your portable generator is gas powered, remember to add a stabilizer to any fuel that will be stored for more than thirty days.
For your safety, never use a portable generator indoors. Deadly levels of carbon monoxide can accumulate quickly. Run your machine at least 15 feet from your house, and never in an enclosed space such as a workshop or garage.
In the end, no matter what type of portable generator you choose, please consult a licensed electrician about safe and proper installation. Also, remember to keep your portable generator protected from inclement weather.
In most cases, your generator will not be powering your entire home's usually load in the case of a power outage, so consider making a priority list for what gets power in a power outage/emergency. Generally, you might consider your refrigerator, sump pump, and heating system for that list.
Create a map of every outlet and switch in your house you know which circuit power which lights and which appliances. This is something you can do yourself, with the help of another person and a circuit finder. You can absolutely hire a professional to map your circuits as well.
Finally, no one wants to be stuck without power, especially in an emergency. Taking your power into your own hands means access to your everyday modern conveniences, even when you find yourself suddenly off the grid. Hopefully this overview has been helpful in pointing you in the right direction for conducting your own, more specific, research.
You'll want to find the best portable generator option for you as soon as possible, so that you can get it set up before that next storm warning comes in!