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Buying a portable generator: what to look for

Whether you are preparing for emergency power, looking to run a job site, or have a recreational use in mind, there is a lot to consider when purchasing a portable generator. To help you sort it out from the plethora of options available, we’ve put together a list of things our team of professionals look for when they’re in the market for a new one.


Buying a portable generator? Here’s what you’re looking for!

Power and Ports

When choosing the best generator for your needs, the first thing you need to know is the size of the generator you want to buy. This means that you need to understand how much energy you need. Your refrigerator may only need 700 watts to run, but what happens when you need 2,100 watts of starting power? Pay attention to the starting watts required to operate the equipment you intend to connect to the generator as well as the “running watts” you need once everything has started.

The flip side of the conversation is what kind of ports you need. Smaller inverter generators usually have two 120-volt AC outlets and possibly two USB ports. Once you get up to 4,000 watts, you’ll start to see a 240 volt plug appear along with more 120 volt outlets. If you are considering getting your alternator electrical wire directly into your panel, you will need a 240v plug. Since you are using your alternator outside, look for an alternator that has GFCI-protected outlets.

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Total Harmonic Distortion (THD and Clean Energy)

If you expect to operate electronic equipment such as laptop computers or lab equipment, the waveform is important. Generally, you need a total harmonic distortion of less than 6% to avoid damaging electrical circuits. Often referred to as “clean power” or “pure sine wave”, it is a more stable and predictable voltage level. Pure sine wave generators tend to be more expensive and are found in units of lower wattage.

By the way, not all battery adapters are low THD models. Some put square waves. Check the specs if you know you need clean power.

Occasional or continuous use?

Most generators include a consumer warranty that will cover you for several years. For emergency power or recreational use, any reputable brand will work. However, if you run a crew that needs a generator nearly every day, you’ll be better off looking for a model with a legitimate commercial engine. Not only will it fit better, but you will also get a warranty that will last more than a year instead of just 90 days or 6 months. The obvious downside is that they are usually more expensive.

fuel type

Gas generators are the most common. It is easy to get fuel except during the panic period leading up to major hurricane preparations and the days after.

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Pro tip: Whether you store fuel in the tank or in fuel containers, be sure to use a fuel stabilizer to neutralize the effects of ethanol.

Diesel generators give you better fuel efficiency if you are willing to pay for the upgrade. You can also lose the carburetor that always seems to be clogged at the least opportune time. If you are considering a whole house generator, you are looking at diesel. Just keep in mind that finding diesel may not be as easy as gasoline.

Best Portable Generator Buying Guide

Another option is to look for a propane generator or gas generator that can be converted to using propane. If you want to look for a more environmentally friendly fuel source and don’t mind that it’s a bit more complicated, this is another way.

Battery-powered inverters such as the EGO Nexus power station and the Ryobi power station have the advantage of being able to recharge via solar panels, and operate silently, with zero emissions. The downside is that they are expensive, can be recharged very slowly, and won’t usually give you more than 2,000 watts or so. Outside of camps and backgrounds, it’s not a very practical option at the moment.


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fuel tank

The larger your tank, the longer you can go between refueling. This is given. Most generators have a fuel tank that gives you 7 – 9 hours of running time at 50% load. You will run longer if you use less available energy and shorter if you use more. Given the choice between a smaller and a larger tank, I would be the largest. Just keep in mind that it will be heavier with a full fuel tank.

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There are also plastic and gas fuel tanks. There are pros and cons to both and we have both types. In general, I like plastic because I have no corrosion issues with it (thanks again, ethanol). However, it is not a great feature for me.

start

If you really like pulling the recoil wire on the motor, by all means skip the electric start. Seriously, though, electric starter motors are great if you can swing the extra cost. When you buy a portable generator, you will find that most of them still use lead-acid batteries like cars. However, there is some lithium ion.

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Make sure to charge the battery before use. Most alternators will be fine with the charger left plugged in to maintain a charge between uses.

noise level

Smaller generators have the option of a quiet design. Some are quieter than normal conversation levels. If you are camping or camping in an area that allows generators, your neighbors will appreciate this consideration.

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By the time you move up to the 4,000-watt category and higher, there isn’t much available in the “quiet” category. One consideration boils down to the fuel source. Diesel usually makes more noise than a similar gas model.

EFI

The electronic fuel injection (EFI) system is a great feature to have. Eliminates the need for a carburetor. Clogged carburetors are one of the biggest headaches for those who keep maintenance as it should be. There are still plenty of things that can go wrong without maintenance, of course, but a clogged carburetor isn’t one of them. In addition, it will be easier to start the generator in cold weather.

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Carbon monoxide detection

Many manufacturers include carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in their generators. Honda has announced an initiative to bring it to its entire lineup. These simply measure the level of carbon monoxide near the engine and shut it down if the levels get too high. They usually work faster than the ones you can install in your home and do a better job of preventing illness or death from carbon dioxide. Some consider these components “annoying,” however, and the industry appears to have indicated a shift toward including this with most of the latest models.

Realize that carbon monoxide detectors can be tricked. Make sure that the generator exhaust is directed downwind from the sensor and not at an angle to avoid false readings.

wheel kit

Alternators are heavy, but not all come with several wheels. Some require you to buy it separately, so make sure you know before swiping your credit card at registration! You can find generators with double wheels or even four wheels. You can also purchase aftermarket generator dolly kits to add wheels to a model that doesn’t have them.

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We found it very easy to install wheel assemblies with basic tools. You can put a set of wheels on the alternator in just a few minutes. You may want a friend to help you, or you can set the alternator on the edge of your truck’s tailgate to give you access to the mounting area.

lift hook bar

If you are buying a portable generator for a commercial or industrial business, there is a good chance that you will need to raise it to a higher floor at some point. A generator that includes a lift hitch bar gives you a huge advantage that can save you time and hassle.

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Connecting a generator to your home

Having a direct connection from your generator to your home is a very convenient way to get emergency power. The best way to go is with a whole house backup generator built specifically for this purpose. These all-home generators turn on or off automatically with power. They are more expensive than portable generators, of course, but have recently become more affordable.

You can also connect several portable generators to your home. However, neither it nor whole house generators are a DIY job. You will need to install a transfer switch and have the work done by a qualified electrician.

There are other considerations as well. Number one is to make sure the generator you choose has enough power. If you don’t have enough power to power the whole house in addition to the extra startup, you may need to flip some breakers to set priorities. If you are using a portable generator, you need to make sure that you know where it is while it is running and that you have a cable long enough to reach your switch.

Need more specific suggestions on purchasing a portable generator? Check out some of our favorite generators!

Now that it is possible to select a portable generator purchase from your list, make sure you also know how to maintain your generator so that it is up and running when you need it!

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