For those of you who always want to be prepared and ready for whatever that can be thrown at you, or for those of you who are hunkering down in advance of a large storm heading your way a portable generator is a must to ensure that you have an alternative source of power. You never know what’s going to happen when riding out a storm and having a generator on hand as a back up can give you that rest of mind if your power begins to flicker.
Even if you aren’t expecting a large storm a lot of folks like to just have a generator on hand for those just in case scenarios. But, the question is what should you be looking for in a generator? What size do you need? What features do you need to look for? What other factors need to be considered before purchasing? In this article we’re going to do a deep dive on generators and some of the best features that they have to offer to consumers. This will be a long read, but I assure you folks that it’ll be worth your time if you are seriously considering purchasing a portable generator.
Wattage & Size of the Generator
First and foremost, 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.
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.
Number/Type of Outlets
Alright, so we have got the size of the generator that we need hammered down. Something else that needs to be taken into consideration though 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.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt (GFCI)
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.
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.
I have this weed whacker that takes forever to start up. I pull the damn rip cord over and over again while pumping gas into the engine. It usually takes a good ten to fifteen times for it to finally kick on. This stuff drives me crazy and it kills my arm. Now imagine going through that stress of pulling the rip cord over and over again but this time with your generator. This time your family is waiting inside for the power to come back on and you are out in the cold and rain trying to get the darned thing to even start.
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.
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.
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.
Well ladies and gentlemen that about covers it for ToughAssTool’s must have features on your portable generators. I hope that this guide was helpful and that it was able to provide some insight on what to look for when you are purchasing generators. I would also like to take this time to inform you of our Generator Safety Guide article which can be found by clicking here. This article goes into all of the Do’s and Do Not’s of running a generator.
If you find that you are interested in purchasing a portable generator then I would recommend you pay a visit to our Amazon.com partner and take a look at all of the generators they have to offer. Their sizes range from one-thousand watts to over ten-thousand watts. Their review system also makes things very easy to understand how each product is rated by everyday consumers like yourself.
Lastly, please note that this article was a guide and meant as advice. We at ToughAssTools are not liable for any damage, injuries, or other scenarios resulting in the installation, running, or setup of portable generators.
Thanks for reading,