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Portable Generator Buying Guide

A generator is one of those things that you just don’t think about until you really need it. They are amazing tools and can help you out of a sticky situation like a prolonged power loss. They can also provide some needed light during a camping trip, or they can give you that extra power you need for your camper. Whatever your reason is for needing a generator you should know that they come in all different types, sizes, and features. Because of all of these options a consumer can easily be overwhelmed with what to choose.

In this article we’re going to build the ultimate buying guide when it comes to portable generators. Our goal here is to inform you, the customer, with as much knowledge as you would ever need to know. So, when it comes to time to make that all important purchase decision you are armed with the best data and facts. I am a big analytical guy and I always like to have the facts on my side before I make a decision. Without further delay, let’s take a look at what you need to know before purchasing a generator:

Determining The Application

First and foremost before we even get into the sizing of your generator I want to ask you a question as to what your goal is with your generator. By answering this question to yourself you will be able to get a fairly firm idea of what type of generator you are looking for, what size you need, and what appliances you can expect to run off of it.

What is your primary goal for purchasing a generator?

  • Camping, Outdoors, & RV Usage?
    • If so, then you are going to want some of the lower power models between two-thousand and three-thousand watts. In some cases you may even look at power inverters. Power inverters have less power then your standard generators but they are much quieter and are also usually quite a bit cheaper. You can check out a few power inverters on Amazon by clicking here, or if you want to get that extra power from a portable generator then continue on reading.
  • Alternative Power for Some Appliances In Your Home?
    • These are our medium grade portable generators. These are the type of units that you would purchase during a power loss event at your home rather it be due to a blizzard, ice storm, hurricane, tornado, or whatever. Depending on your needs these units can go from two-thousand watts all the way up to nine-thousand watts. It all depends on what you need for your home. I’ll get more into sizing and watts in the next section.
  • Alternative Power for Your Whole Home?
    • This is where we get into the big dogs of generators. Notice how I didn’t say portable generators, but instead just generators. That’s because as we get into these large wattage needs of maintaining your whole home there are two solutions. You have your portable generators like we’ve discussed but you also have what’s known as your standby generators. Standby generators are your larger immobile professional generators. These units restore power automatically within only a few seconds of a power loss. They are the best of the best, and because of that they come with a hefty price tag. One of the best standby generator brands in the industry is Generac. They provide top quality products, an example can be found by clicking here. Be aware that if you purchase one of these that you will need to pay for a professional installation service as well. This can be an additional thousand dollars or so depending on your situation and installer.
    • Please note, that portable generators will work in these whole home power situations as well, up to a certain amount. Most portables only go up to around nine or ten-thousand watts. So, if you’re needing more power then that you may consider a standby system.

What Size Generator Do I Need?

One of the most important factor that you need to consider when purchasing a generator is what size of unit that you need. A generator’s power is measured in watts. The higher the watts the more power your unit will have. These portable generators can be as low as five-hundred watts or as high as forty-thousand watts. It all depends on what you need your generator for. Whatever your case is for getting a generator you should always take the time and care to acquire the right sized unit for your needs.

Now, the best way to determine the right wattage requirements is to simply add the watts of each appliance/product that you want to use during your power outage and then add them all up for your total amount. (This guide from Amazon helps give you watt estimates on certain appliances). Most small and regular sized appliances will have stickers or labels on them telling you exactly how many watts they take. If you notice that your appliance doesn’t have a wattage rating on it but instead has a volts and amperage don’t worry. We can still find the amount of watts that are needed. All you have to do is take the number of volts times the number of amperage. As an example, let’s say you have an appliance that takes one-hundred and ten volts and and five amps. Let’s do the math:

110 volts * 5 amps = 550 watts.

If you go this route, please be aware that some products have a cycle on process when being turned on. During this cycle on they may need additional wattage and then cycle back down to their normal watt usage. There are whats called starting watts and running watts. Starting watts, also known as surge watts, are how much power it will take to turn your system on whereas a running watt is how much continuous power it will take to maintain your system rather it be an air conditioner, oven, or whatever. Just like before when looking at watts of your appliance you can find starting and running watts either on a label on your appliance, on the instruction manual, or online at the manufacturer’s website. Some example appliances that have different starting and running watts are your refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and well pumps.

Wen 56200i Portable Generator
Wen 56200i Portable Generator

If you run the mistake of not accounting for starting watts and just add up your running watts you can easily short out your generator and damage your system. If you are lucky your generator has a automatic shut-off switch to prevent damage. Even though this starting cycle process only takes a few seconds you will still need that extra power to get the unit running. If you find that you cannot find the exact starting watts on your system, you can usually make an estimate by taking two to three times the running watts number.

Along with calculating all of the watts that are required it is also recommended to take that number of watts and add an additional ten or twenty percent. This increase in watts gives you some leeway when using your generator and also allows for a margin of error if you ended up missing something or pulled the wrong wattage on a unit.

To make things simpler we’re going to give a quick estimate of watts and what can be used. Please note that this is an estimate and it is best to add your wattage like we mentioned above.

  • 2,000-3,000 Watts – This is enough for a refrigerator, a computer or two, some lights, and a few phone chargers. This is also what most people use when going on camping trips and for their campers or RVs. Please note that while this size works for most campers and RVs, if you plan to power your air conditioner as well then you will need to go quite a bit higher in watts to ensure you have the proper capacity.
  • 4,000-5,000 Watts – Along with what we mentioned above you can also add a clothes washer and dryer.
  • 6,000-8,000 Watts – Along with what we mentioned above you would have enough power to turn on your furnace.
  • 9,000 Watts & Up – Here is where we move out of the portable generator territory and head over to the standby units. Most people won’t need a size this high, especially if they are just getting through a couple of days while their power comes back on. However, if you are looking to power your whole home then you may want to look at a full standby generator and having it wired directly to your home.

Lastly, please note that when looking at generators there are two numbers that you’ll notice. The first is known as the ‘Maximum Power.’ The maximum power is the very max power output that the generator can produce. This maximum level can usually only maintain for about a half-hour. The second measurement is known as ‘Rated Power.’ The rated power is around ninety percent of the generator’s full power. This power level can be maintained for much longer periods of time. When looking for the perfect sized portable generator then you definitely want to review the rated power rather than the maximum power.

Generator Product Features

Ok folks, after the last two sections I am sure that you have a pretty good idea of what sized generator you are looking for. The question now though is what features are you looking for on your generator? Are you wanting the best of the best? Or, do you want a lower end model that will get the job done? The section below is going to go through each of the top features that can be found on generators and what our thoughts are on them.

It is very important to remember that these features aren’t mandatory. It is completely up to you. If you want to get a generator with no wheels, a ripcord pull, and no fuel gauge then by all means you do just that! On the other hand, if you’re looking to spend a bit more money then you may spend some time and consider these extra features.


Number/Type of Outlets

One of the first features that we need to take into consideration is how many outlets and what type of outlets that comes with your generator. The first thing to ask yourself is do you need any two-hundred and forty volt outlets? Machines or appliances that take volts this large are usually your ovens, dryers, furnaces, and air conditioners. If you are just looking to keep your refrigerator, some lights, and maybe your phones charged during an outage then you don’t need to worry about the two-hundred and forty volt outlets. In this example you can stick with the basic appliances that take your one-hundred and twenty volt outlets.

However, if you do want to end up powering these appliances as well as other areas of your home then the two-hundred and forty volt outlet is a necessity. Most of the time portable generators, especially the lower wattage ones, will just come with one-hundred and twenty volts. Be sure to pay attention when purchasing if you need that extra power. Speaking of the extra power, come to find out larger generators generate two-hundred and forty volts constantly but divide it up as necessary to get to that one-hundred and twenty volt.

Depending on what your goal is for your generator you may want to have a thirty or fifty amp outlet as well. These can be used for connection with a manual transfer switch. A manual transfer switch will connect your generator directly to your main circuit breaker. Once it is connected you are then able to power hard-wired appliances like your furnace, sump pump, and even an air conditioner. Please note that it is best to leave installing a manual transfer switch to a professional electrician to ensure that the install is done correctly and safely. Lastly, if you are going to be purchasing a manual transfer switch for your generator you will need to make sure that your generator has the power for two-hundred and forty volts.


Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI)

GFCI Outlet
GFCI Outlets

This relates back to the outlets, but I wanted to give it it’s own section. Ground Fault Circuit Interrupts, or GFCIs, are very common in most households nowadays. If you are not familiar with them, you should be able to find an example in your kitchen. These devices help to protect users from receiving electric shocks due to faults either in the electrical devices or the outlet itself. Along with that, they also aid in preventing fire by arcing faults in damaged electrical wires. I remember my GCFI kept going off for an old coffee maker that I had. I’d start the coffee and within a few seconds the coffee maker would shut off and the GFCI would pop out. At the time I was getting frustrated, but there was something obviously wrong with the coffee maker and the GFCI was trying to tell me. I currently don’t have these installed in my kitchen right now. It’s on my to do list, but frankly I just haven’t had the time to get to it yet.

GFCIs provide the same protections on generators. While these protections are nice in your home, I consider them crucial for generators. The reason for that is that if you have your generator running outside next to some snow and that snow somehow melts and gets into your generator and the outlets of your generator there is a major problem. We all know what happens when water and electricity meet. Think about if it starts to rain or snow while your generator is running. Having a GFCI switch installed on your generator will automatically shut the power and system off the moment it detects electrical currents outside the normal path which in this case would be the moisture from the snow and rain.

Having these installed on your portable generator can literally be a lifesaver. Without these there is risk of electrocution to you and others. With a GFCI installed your unit will trip and then it will be up to you to diagnose the problem. At least in that scenario the system is off and you can make the proper safety determination.


Electric Starter

There is nothing worse then having a tool with a rip cord that just won’t start. I have this old weed whacker in my shed that I’m too cheap to replace. I have the hardest damn time trying to get the thing started. I’ll pump the gas into the engine and then I will start ripping away on that rip cord. Each time I’m hoping and hoping that the thing will start. After who knows how many tries my arm starts to get tired and I’m starting to get frustrated. Most of the time it starts and if it doesn’t I just decide that I’m not going to be weed whacking that day. (That may be after I throw the thing across the shed.)

Now imagine that above scenario but with your generator. This time instead of whacking the weeds you have your family inside an ever increasing cold home. They are expecting you to get the generator started so that the furnace can come back on. Would you like to be out there in the cold pulling the rip cord again and again just to get the thing to start? Or, would you prefer to have an electric starter installed and have the system kick on with just the press of a button? I know what I would choose.

Having an electric starter on your generator will absolve you of this problem, or at least make it easier. It is a hell of a lot easier to just press a button then to pull that rip cord over and over again. I’m all for making things easier. What was that old Staples commercial? You know, the one with the Easy button? That’s what you’ll get with the electric starter.

Now, electric starters aren’t perfect either. Everything has a downside. In this case the electric motors are powered by batteries and if your battery is dead then you are out of luck. That is why it’s best to routinely check the batteries on your generator, but if you do run into that situation where your batteries are dead and you need to get your engine going you will find that some generator models come with both an electric start and a rip cord start. This allows you to bypass the electric start if you need to. Having both options is the ideal, but if you have to settle with one or the other I would choose the electric starter.


Fuel Type, Tank Size, & Fuel Gauge

You may not even be thinking about the fuel type for your generator. In fact, you may be thinking what most everyone does and assume that the generator that you are looking at takes gasoline. Well, you would be correct in most accounts. The majority of the time your standard portable generators will take the standard eighty-seven unleaded gasoline that you can find at any gas station. While that’s true, there are always exceptions to the rule. The first one that I can think of is a standard portable generator that takes propane tanks. Yes, that’s right. The very same propane tanks that you use for your grill can be used for your generator. This is a bit less common then gasoline so if this is what you are looking for be sure that you are purchasing the right type of generator.

As you get into the larger portable generators and into the standby generators you will find that your choice of options increases. Instead of being limited to standard vehicle gasoline you will also have access to natural gas and to propane. I mention propane and natural gas again because with these larger systems you can actually hook them directly up to your existing propane eight-hundred gallon tanks or to your natural gas line. (In both cases please have trained professionals do these hook ups for you. We at ToughAssTools are not liable for any mistakes or injuries.)

If you find that you have a standard gasoline generator but you want it to take propane or natural gas there are conversion kits out there as well. I won’t get too far into this here, but just be aware that there are ways to convert your generator over to a different fuel source. Again, be sure to follow all documented instructions and consul with a professional if needed.

Something else to consider here when it comes to fuel is the size of the fuel tank. If you are using a standard gasoline model generator what size fuel tank do you want? If you get one that’s too small then you are going to be out there every hour or so adding fuel to the generator. However, if you get one that’s too large then the size and weight of the generator goes up exponentially. There is a fine line when it comes to fuel tank sizes. When purchasing a generator be sure to pay careful attention to the size of the tank and also how long that tank is rated to last.

Speaking of fuel, the last thing I want to mention in this category is the necessity of a fuel gauge. It is something so simple that a lot of folks don’t even think about it. But without this, how are you going to know where you stand on your fuel? Let’s say your system has been running for a few hours and you want to check how much fuel or time you have left. With the gauge this is  quick glance of the eye. Without the gauge, it’s nearly impossible to gauge how much fuel is left in the system.


Wheels, or Lack Thereof

This is another thing that a lot of people tend to look over. They see the name portable and just assume that the system is easily portable. The problem here though is that not all of these portable generators come with a set of wheels and as you go up in wattage size and fuel tank size you will find that some of these units can easily weigh over two-hundred pounds. Now picture yourself lugging around a two-hundred pound machine without wheels. For a lot of folks, that’s just not even possible. If you get suckered into purchasing one of these systems without wheels you will find that you have to pay separately for the wheels and those wheels may end up costing you an additional one-hundred dollars. Make sure that the unit you buy has wheels and is also easily portable and movable from location to location.


Low Oil Engine Shut-Off

In an earlier section we talked about the GFCI switch automatically shutting your generator off due to electrical currents moving outside the designated path. Well in this section we’re going to cover another emergency shut-off. This time instead of looking at the electricity section of the generator we will be focusing on the engine. What do all engines need? Yes, you guessed it. Oil. Without oil an engine will fail to lubricate and will eventually seize up entirely.

With generators you want a unit that comes with an emergency engine oil shut-off mechanism. This addition actively checks the oil on your machine and determines if the oil is too low. If it falls below the designated level then your generator will automatically shut-off and will give you a warning sign on the generator stating that you need to add oil. This switch and notification are designed to prevent your generator from seizing up and causing catastrophic failure to your system.

DuroMax XP12000EH Dual Fuel Portable Generator
DuroMax XP12000EH Dual Fuel Portable Generator

The rule of thumb when it comes to checking the oil levels of your generator is to do it at the very same time you are refueling your system. If you make it a habit and check it during each refuel then you shouldn’t have a problem. But, if you do have a problem and you begin to loose oil it is great to know that you have the shut-off switch as an emergency back up to protect your investment.

ToughAssTools’ Top Generator Picks

Here at ToughAssTool’s we take our product recommendations seriously. We do our research, as you can see with all of the above content. We figured it only suiting that at the tail end of this article we would take the time and give you some of our product recommendations. These are not all the best generators on the market, but instead just a select few that we have chosen from our Amaszon.com partner that really stood out to us for one reason or another.

  • WEN’s Portable Inverter/Generator
    • This unit comes in three different wattage sizes on Amazon.com: Twelve-hundred and fifty watts, two-thousand watts, and thirty-one hundred watts. This is the type of unit that I would recommend for your camping trips, RV excursions, or other rural areas where you just need that power. I would not recommend this for home power back up as the wattage is just too low. Sure, you can power a few things hooked directly to the generator, but there’s not enough power for a manual transfer switch.
  • Champion 7500-Watt Dual Fuel Portable Generator
    • This Champion model is a perfect in between generator for those that need more power then a camping/RV setup but also for those who aren’t looking to power their whole home. This Champion model comes in at seventy-five hundred watts and over nine-thousand starting watts. This gives you enough power to get that important transfer switch installed. Along with that you get your electric starter, dual fuel of propane/gasoline, a low oil shut off sensor, and a three year warranty.
  • DuroMax XP12000EH Dual Fuel Portable Generator
    • This portable generator comes in at over twelve-thousand watts. That is an impressive and rare number, especially for a portable system. Typically, you see portables start to go away once you go over that ten-thousand watt mark and be replaced by standby systems. The system is also dual fuel compatible with both propane and gasoline. The run time is what caught my attention though. At fifty percent power this unit will run for ten hours on gasoline and at twenty hours on propane. (Remember, these numbers are based off of fifty percent power.)
    • At this point in the wattage size you may consider going with a standby generator like we mentioned earlier from Generac. Generac’s official website can be found by clicking here.

Conclusion

Well folks, if you stuck with me throughout this article then I congratulate you. You’ve made it to the end! I realize this may have been a rather long post but I can assure you that every bit of this information was necessary. I mentioned this in the beginning of this article, but I am firm believer of having all of the information and facts on your side before purchasing. I’m hoping that this article has done just that for you.

Lastly, if you are going to be purchasing and running your own generator I highly recommend you check out our generator safety guide. This will go over the best Do’s and Do Not’s when setting up and running your new generator.

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson

ToughAssTools

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