Question

Portable Generator VS Standby Generator

Generators are a great tool to have around the house in case of emergencies. They can provide you with much needed power during power loss events. I live about sixty miles outside of the Kansas City area near a fairly rural town. We have around twenty acres. It is peaceful, but can also be quite isolated. When we have severe weather rather it be a storm, ice storm, or blizzard we can lose power. When power losses occur out here in the country they can linger for a day, or more. I remember once years back that we lost power for four days straight. Having access to a generator saved our food from spoiling and also allowed us to watch television during this time.

Generators can do more then just power your home though folks. They can also provide you power while camping or RVing across the country. Typically when you’re RVing you stop at designated rest stops found along the highway or at national parks. These rest stops provide shore power via  thirty or fifty amp connection for your RV. However, if you decide to go off-roading or ‘dry-docking’ and there is no power source to be found then you will need a generator to power everything in your recreational vehicle. Your vehicle’s batteries will only get you so far and you will need to recharge them. Generators not only provide you power but also allow you to recharge your batteries.

In most cases there two main types of generators. You have your portable systems that are able to be moved as you require and then you have your permanent standby models that are anchored in place and hooked directly up to your home. There are pros and cons for both the portable and standby units. In this article we are going to take an in-depth look at exactly what those are. Should you purchase a portable system, or should you go with the standby model?

How do You Plan to Use It?

The first question I have to ask you is how exactly do you plan to use your generator. This is an important point to consider as if you wish to have a system that you can take with you for camping or RVing then you obviously need a portable system. On the other hand though if you are looking for a system that can power the entirety of your home during a power loss then a standby system is what you need.

There are also in-betweens here where you want to power your home, but maybe not all of it. Or, it could be that expense is an issue as standby generators are much more expensive. So, if you wish to power basic functions in your home and are worried about cost then a portable system is meant for you. This also allows you to take the portable system wherever you go so it could also be used during camping trips.

Standby systems offer peace of mind. Yes they are significantly more expensive then portable systems but once you purchase one and have it installed you never really have to worry about power loss again. If the power does go out you will only notice a flicker of the lights before your standby system automatically kicks on. This automated process occurs even if you are not at home. As an example, if you are on a business trip in the middle of the summer and a storm rolls through near your house. The power goes out and you will not be home for another day. The standby system has you covered. Your food will not be spoiled. Your air conditioner will still be running. Everything will be as it was.

So, looking at those points, what type of generator is that you wish to purchase? Keep your answer in mind as we move to the next section for more considerations.

Your Sizing Needs

Once you have determined how you wish to use your future generator we next need to figure out what size of generator that you require. Generators can range from one-thousand watts all the way up to forty-thousand watts. The question now is to determine exactly how many watts that you need for your specific application. Now the best way to determine sizing for your generator is to add up the watts of everything that you wish to run on your generator.

Most appliances and electronics will have a wattage amount on their labels/stickers. If you cannot find it on the label then you can check the instruction manual. In today’s world most everything has their instruction manual online as well. If you find that there is no mention of wattage then do not worry. You can still figure it out. Look at the label/sticker of the product and see if there is an ‘Amperage’ rating or ‘Amps.’  You may even see it labeled as ‘A.’ This amperage rating gives you what you need to determine wattage.

Take the amp rating and times it by the volts. The volts a machine requires is just the type of plug-in that it uses. Most everything uses a one-hundred and ten volt outlet. Some of the larger machines out there like an oven or clothes dryer can use two-hundred and twenty volt outlet. As an example let us look at a coffee machine. When we look at the label we see that it says six amps. Now we know that coffee machines plug-in to your standard one-hundred and ten volt outlet. So the math problem is six amps times one-hundred and ten volts equals six-hundred and sixty watts required to operate the coffee machine.

Now that you know how to calculate wattage usage you need to go through everything that you wish to power with your generator and determine the total wattage. Once you have that total wattage number increase it by about twenty or thirty percent to give yourself some leeway. It is always better to overshoot your needs then undershoot.

Starting/Surge Watts

There is another point to consider here folks and that is what is known as starting/surge and running watts. With more complex appliances such as air conditioners or refrigerators you are going to run into what is known as starting watts. These are also known as surge watts. Let’s look at refrigerators as an example. A refrigerator uses the refrigeration cycle to generate a cold environment. A key component of the refrigeration cycle is the compression of refrigerant using a compressor. Compressors require a significant amount of power to start up and running. This is where the term surge/starting watts comes into play.

It may take an extra twenty or thirty percent, sometimes more, watts to actually start your refrigerator. Once the fridge has started and has begun to run the initial peak of watts required will diminish and it will move to a running watts number. This is why it is called starting watts. That large surge of watts is only required when the machine is turned on. Once it has been turned on it will quickly taper back down to a running watts number.

Here is the important part. You MUST include surge/starting watts in your sizing calculations. If you do not then you will not be able to power everything that you wish to. Surge watts are important. That being said, there is a slight work around that can be done if you are tight on wattage. Using the same refrigerator example as above let’s say that you are very limited on wattage. Some folks will ONLY connect the refrigerator to the generator and then turn it on. This allows the fridge to handle the surge watts and then settle down to running watts. Once the fridge has moved to running watts the generator now has more room to handle other machines.

I typically do not recommend going with this strategy though . I find that it is always better to exceed the total wattage that you need by that twenty or thirty percent marker. Going this route allows you some wiggle room in case you ended up forgetting something or miscalculated the wattage of an application you wish to use.

Sizing Guidelines

So now that you understand starting watts and running watts as well as how to size the generator for your needs, I can give you an estimated size of generator that you need for your application. Be aware that this is just an estimate and like we said before the best way to determine the right size is to add up the total wattage of all of your appliances and electronics you wish to power.

Let us start from smallest to largest. First, if you are going on a camping trip and need to power your phone or laptop while you are out in the wilderness then a generator with one-thousand or two-thousand watts will provide you with enough power. If you wish to add a coffee maker or other basic appliance then you will most likely need to increase in size. If you are camping with your RV, camper, or motor home then you are also going to need some additional power. In these examples I like to recommend a generator between four to five-thousand watts. This allows you to power the basic appliances in your RV as well as an air conditioner and other appliances.

Sizing a generator for your home can be a bit tricky. You first need to determine exactly what you want to power within your home. If it is just the lights, refrigerator, electronics, and furnace then you can get away with sizes ranging from six-thousand to ten-thousand watts. If you wish to power everything in your home then you are most likely going to need a standby generator. Standby models typically start at around seven and a half thousand watts and go all the way up to forty-thousand watts. Now a typical twenty-five hundred square foot home will need a twenty-two thousand watt standby system. If you have a significantly smaller home you may able able to get away with a fourteen or fifteen thousand watt system.

To help you in estimating your wattage needs I highly recommend a generator sizing tool from Champion Power Equipment. It walks you through your needs step by step, gives you an estimated starting/running watts of the appliances you choose, and at the end gives a full wattage number. The tool can be found by clicking here. Note that again, this is an estimate. While this tool can be used as a guideline the safest approach is to add up the wattage needs yourself.

Portable Generators Pros & Cons

In the next few sections we are going to take an in-depth look at the various pros and cons of portable generators and standby generators. At the end of these sections you should know exactly what type of generator you need. Firstly, we’ll start with portable generator. These portable systems are just that, portable. This means that they can literally be taken anywhere that you need. If you are on a camping trip or  cruising around the country in your motor home a portable system will provide you with the power that you need. They can provide the same comfort when the power goes out at your home.

You will also find that portable systems are significantly cheaper then standby whole home systems. A low wattage portable system can cost only a couple hundred dollars. The larger sized portable systems can cost as much as twenty-five hundred dollars. While that amount may seem high that is MUCH lower then the cost of purchasing and installing a standby system. These portable systems are highly recommended for those of you on a budget or if you just need some power for camping trips.

Now, there are quite a few downsides when it comes to portable systems as well. The first and most glaring is that they are all manual. What I mean by that is that it is completely manual to set these up when you need power. The unit will have to be rolled out from storage and placed twenty feet away from your home. You then have to get all of your extension cords out and hook everything up that you want to power. This can be a pain.

On the larger portable models there is an option to install a manual transfer switch on your circuit board. If you get this installed then you really only have to worry about one extension cord to your circuit board. After that power will flow normally throughout your home. These transfer switches are required if you wish to power your air conditioner, furnace, water heater, or other appliances that are hooked in directly to your home’s circuit board. These can cost around three-hundred dollars and will need to be installed by a professional. An example transfer switch can be found by clicking here.

In many instances portable systems may not be able to power your entire home. This is due to their size. Portable systems typically stop at around ten to twelve-thousand watts. Anything higher then that and you are going to need a standby system. Remember earlier I said that a twenty-two thousand watt can most likely power a twenty-five hundred square foot home? In this example you have no other choice but to go with a standby generator system. Portable just will not cut it. If you do have a small home you may be able to get away with a portable system providing you full power, but it is going to be close.

The other big downside when it comes to portable systems is the fuel. Generators are comprised of an engine and an alternator. The engine creates mechanical force by burning fuel and the mechanical force is converted into electrical energy by using the alternator. To operate the engine needs a constant supply of fuel. When researching generators it is wise to look at how long a system can run before needing to be refueled. Some can do four to five hours while others can last up to ten hours. This is important to know as every time your generator needs refueled you need to shut the entire thing down and wait for it to cool. Once cooled you can refuel and then start it back up. I can see this being a pain if you have to do this every four or five hours. Remember, NEVER refuel the generator while it is running.  Also keep in mind the actual storage needs of the fuel. A generator can burn between twelve to twenty gallons of fuel per day. Do you have room for that much gasoline or diesel?

I mentioned earlier that you need to have the portable system setup twenty feet away from your home. This is due to the carbon monoxide risk when running a generator. Remember, generators are engines and engines can produce carbon monoxide just like your car does. If left in an enclosed area you could suffocate. Do NOT run a generator in your home, in your closet, in your garage, or anywhere near your home. You MUST be twenty feet away with the exhaust pointing away from your home.

Moving portable generators can be a hassle in itself. As you go up in wattage size you also go up in weight and bulk. Some of the larger systems can weigh over a hundred pounds. Now some come with wheels on one side to make it a little easier to move… but some models do not. Be prepared for this. Look at the generator when buying to see if wheels come with it. If they do not determine how heavy the unit is and if you can easily move it yourself back and forth.

The last con to mention on these portable systems is the noise. Portable systems can range in noise volume between fifty to one-hundred decibels. At the higher end of this range is about the sound of a lawn mower operating nearby. It can be quite loud and intrusive. If you are camping you may find that certain types of generators are banned from being operated due to the noise. On the opposite side of the spectrum at fifty decibels it is about the sound of a dishwasher running nearby. Much quieter. Pay attention to the operating decibel volume when looking at units. Also consider where you will be running the generator. Could noise be an issue?

Standby Whole Home Generators Pros & Cons

Standby generators are a great investment for your home. They provide you with an easy solution to power your entire home during a power loss. Just like with portable generators there are a variety of pros and cons to purchasing and installing a whole home generator system. Let us first look at the pros. Firstly, and the most obvious, is that a standby system can power your entire home. When I say whole home I mean it. This includes your air conditioner, furnace, water heater, refrigerator, oven, lights, electronics, and so on and so on. You will be hard pressed to find a portable system that can do this. Portable systems simply do not have enough wattage to accomplish this.

If you have a standby system during a power loss then you may not even notice that the power has gone out. Standby systems are all automated. What that means is if your power does go out the standby system will automatically sense this and switch your circuit board’s power source away from the electrical grid and over to your standby system. In most cases this will look like just a flash of the lights as your whole home system turns on. You do not have to worry about rolling the generator out, messing with all of the cords, and plugging everything. It is all done automatically for you. Standby systems are the ‘easy’ button when it comes to power generation.

All generators need a fuel source rather they are portable or standby systems. With portable units you have to constantly refuel them as they burn through gallon after gallon. Standby systems though are different. They can either be hooked up to your own natural gas line and be fed a never ending source of gasoline from your city. Or, they can be hooked up to a propane tank. A few years back when I lived out in the country we had an eight-hundred gallon propane tank. It provided fuel for our oven, furnace, water heater, and other things. With standby systems you can either leverage the existing propane tank you have on site or you can purchase another one strictly for your standby system. No matter what fuel source you choose to go with you will not have to worry about constantly refueling your generator with a standby system.

The last pro that I am going to mention also bleeds into a con. A standby generator system is an investment into your home. It can be a very expensive investment. The good news is that you get some of that investment back. A fully installed whole home generator will raise your home’s value equal to about fifty percent of the total cost of the system. So, while you will not recoup all of the money spent you are able to get some of it back if you decide to sell in the future.

Alright folks, so now we are onto the cons of these generators. As you can guess the biggest and most obvious is the cost. A portable system can cost five-hundred dollars up to fifteen-hundred… maybe two-thousand dollars but that is rare. A standby system can cost you four to six-thousand dollars and then you have to have it installed. The install cost is typically the same as the unit itself. If you purchase a four-thousand dollar system then expect to pay another four-thousand in installation for a total cost of eight-thousand dollars. This price range varies depending on the size of standby system you need. If you only need a sixteen-thousand watt system then you are going to pay significantly less then a forty-thousand watt system.

While we touched on install just a second ago it is still worth mentioning that you will need a professional install done by someone at the dealership you bought the generator from. On top of that you will also need a plumber to hook up your new standby unit to either your natural gas line or to you propane line. Lastly, you may even need to have it inspected by the fire department or by your propane supplier. In some cases you will need a permit as well. If you are unsure of your local regulations then check with the dealer that you are purchasing the unit from. This is why these installations can be so expensive.

Besides the overall cost and install there is one other con worth mentioning. This is maintenance. Your standby system will need maintenance performed after ten days of running. This maintenance includes checking the oil level, changing it if necessary, and also checking and or changing the filter. If you are unsure of how to do this then most generator dealerships offer an annual maintenance plan where their technician will come out and maintain your generator. I’ve seen these plans range from three-hundred to six-hundred a year. While on the topic of maintenance you may notice that your generator turns on automatically for about fifteen minutes each week. This is intentional and allows the unit to operate and stay functional. Nothing to worry about.

Conclusion

Alright folks I believe we have covered absolutely everything there is to cover on the matter of portable generators versus standby systems. As you can see there is a whole lot of content here but in the end it basically boils down to two main points. The first is how do you want to use your generator? Is it for camping, recreation, or as an emergency power source for SOME appliances in your home during a power loss? If so, then you need a portable system. However, if you are looking to power your entire home then a standby system is for you.

The second point is cost. Portable systems are significantly cheaper then standby systems. When I say significant I mean that standby systems can be five or ten times more expensive then a portable system. The question you have to ask yourself is do you want to pay more to have the convenience and peace of mind with a standby system? Or, would you prefer to save a heap of money and go through the manual work of rolling out, running cords, and setting up your portable generator when your power goes out? The choice is yours.

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson

ToughAssTools.com

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