Almost everything that you do today needs electricity. If the weather knocks your power out or you are somewhere without an electricity supply, a generator can help. The key is picking the generator that fits your needs. There is a lot of information to learn about these devices before you start shopping.
Start by looking at the different types of generators because they all have their own pros and cons. There are several types of generators each one ideal for various environments. From here, explore the details about generators to narrow down your options until you are down to the one that will supply you with sufficient power when you need it.
This Generator Buying Guide Includes:
- Why Having a Generator is Beneficial
- Types of Generators
- Running Watts vs. Starting Watts
- Total Harmonic Distortion
- Automatic Voltage Regulation
- Generator Transfer Switch
- Starter Types
- Low Oil Shutoff
- Fuel Gauge
- Engines and Alternators
- Generator Fuel Types
- Noise Levels
- Popular Generator Features
- Accessories to Consider
- Popular Generator Brands
- Generator Maintenance
Why Having a Generator is Beneficial
In most cases, the power goes out without warning. This gives you little to no time to prepare for how to prevent your food from spoiling or to find ways to cool or heat your home. When you have a generator, this is something that you do not have to worry about because you can quickly get your electricity back up and running.
The following are benefits of having a generator for your home:
- They can get your power back up quickly when an outage occurs
- You can keep your home heated or cooled, depending on the temperature, for safety and comfort
- Generators are safe to run as long as you follow all of the instructions in the user’s manual
- You can keep your appliances going so that you do not lose food or the ability to prepare it during an outage
- Generators have mechanisms to protect against surges and dangerous voltage fluctuations
- When you have a generator, your home will be safer since you will have the power to keep alarms functioning and lights on to deter intruders
If you camp often or travel in an RV, the right generator ensures that you have the power necessary for lighting, small appliances and other tools. These generators are usually portable, and you can use them with diesel, gasoline or propane, so it is easy to keep them going.
Those who build homes and do other construction work can also benefit from having a generator. You can use it to ensure that all of your power tools have a source of electricity.
Types of Generators
There are multiple types of generators. It can be overwhelming at first when you start shopping. Learning a little bit about each type will help you to narrow down to the best choices.
Whole House Standby Generators
This type of generator will keep your entire home in power when the electricity fails. With proper installation, this generator can kick in as soon as your power goes out so that you are not left without electricity for more than a minute.
In general, this generator uses liquid propane or natural gas. They usually go up to 22kW. To get the right kilowatt size, you will have to add up the wattage necessary to power your home. The best standby generator is one that can handle all of your electrical devices at the same time.
There are whole house standby generators for homes of a variety of sizes. Just remember that a professional needs to install this type of generator to prevent hazards.
Inverter generators have an efficient alternator that the engine is connected to. The electricity produced is the same as a conventional generator. This generator type tends to be more fuel efficient compared to a traditional generator.
These types of generators tend to be smaller. For example, there are types that you can plug into the cigarette lighter port in your vehicle to power the generator. It is common for truck drivers to have this type of generator because they can use it to charge their small electronics and provide power to small refrigerators and similar appliances in their rig.
However, there are larger options that you can use for your home too. In most cases, you can use these for running things like computer, some lamps and small appliances.
Due to the design of this type of generator, they tend to be quieter than conventional generators. This makes them ideal when your neighbors are close because it will not disturb them. You also do not have to worry as much about fumes as you do when you are operating a gas-powered generator.
Portable Propane Generators
These portable propane generators vary in size. Some are ideal for worksites because they let you operate your tools that require electricity. Others allow you to power smaller items in your home. You will need to have a propane tank to provide the fuel source for this type of generator.
These generators will also work for keeping some electrical items running in your home when the power goes out. They can be the best home generator choice for those who need a little power for things like small appliances and entertainment devices. Just make sure to choose the proper wattage for what you need to run.
Portable Diesel Generators
Diesel fuel tends to be more efficient than other fuel types, so you get more runtime on a full tank compared to propane and unleaded gasoline. There is also a lower risk of fire with diesel, so this type of generator is safer in areas where there is a high risk of fire, such as wooded areas.
Diesel engines also tend to last longer than other generator engine types. This means that you can run your generator often with a lower risk of it failing prematurely. If you are using your generator regularly, diesel may be the best choice.
The best diesel generator is one that can handle all of the workload. Look at the wattage and the runtime. It should be able to handle everything that you connect to it and power it for as long as you need to use the items without interruptions.
Portable Gas Generators
This is one of the most common types of portable generators. They use unleaded gas which is easy and inexpensive to obtain at any gas station. There are multiple sizes, depending on your power needs.
Make sure that you do not overfill the tank on this type of generator. This could cause a dangerous situation. You also need to keep an eye on the oil level. Many modern portable gas generators have an automatic shutoff when the oil level gets too low to protect the engine.
These generators usually have wheel kits that make them easier to move around. You can use them on worksites to power your tools, as well as for your home when bad weather knocks out the power. Just make sure that you protect this type of generator from rain and other moisture, especially during operation.
Portable Electric Generators
You can use this type of portable generator for residential or commercial purposes. They are ideal for worksites where you need to operate power tools. This type of generator can also power some items during a power outage at your home.
They usually come with wheels so that you can move them around easily. There are multiple sizes, some of which can even power a window air conditioning unit should you have a power outage during the hot summer months.
It is important to protect them from moisture. There are often waterproof covers that you can buy for this purpose.
Portable Inverter Generators
These generators are small, and you can carry them in your hand. They typically only weigh a few pounds, so you can use them just about anywhere. These can operate on your vehicle’s battery, so it is not difficult to find a viable power source. This is often the best portable generator for people who only need to power a few key items.
In most cases, they have two to four outlets that you can plug electrical items into. For the most part, they are designed for small items, such as small power tools, charging your cell phone or operating a computer or internet box. Make sure that you do not exceed the maximum wattage.
These generators are small and portable. Look for those that have wheels so that you can easily move them around as necessary. You can use one to power basic camping supplies and small lights. This helps to provide you with the tools you need while camping.
There are also some camping generators that are specifically for running power to an RV. These are a little larger and can handle more wattage. Look at the power needs of your RV to ensure that you choose one that is the right size. This type of generator typically runs on gasoline or diesel so that you can refill it when you are on the road at any gas station.
Dual Fuel Generators
These generators have either a push-button start or a pull string. They can operate with different fuel types, such as propane with either gasoline or diesel. This gives you some flexibility regarding how you want to power your generator.
With a dual fuel generator, you can choose the fuel type that is the easiest to obtain. This is ideal for times of emergency when some types of fuel are more difficult to find than others. Just remember that the runtime is typically different based on the type of fuel that you use.
Running Watts vs. Starting Watts
The wattage is one of the most important specifications to consider when you are buying a generator. Running watts describes how much power the generator continuously produces. Starting watts describes the extra power the generator supplies to start items that take more watts to start than to continuously run.
When you are shopping for a generator, the starting watts is what you want to pay attention to when you are looking for the inverter type. With the traditional type, the most important wattage is the running watts.
Look at the items that you want to use your generator to power and add up the wattage. For example, if all items add up to 2,000 watts, you need a generator that can handle this level of wattage. Ideally, the wattage your generator is capable of will be higher than the total wattage of the items you want to send electricity too.
You can find the wattage information for electric items on stickers or plates on the back of the item. Then, use this information to compare to the running or starting watts that your generator is capable of producing. You can learn more about generator sizing in our extensive guide.
Total Harmonic Distortion
Also referred to as THD, this element measures the electricity quality that the generator produces. When the level of THD is high, there is the potential for damage to your appliances and electronic devices. It is important that your THD level is as sensitive as the electronics that you are powering with your generator.
If you plan to run sensitive items, such as televisions, cellphones or laptops, your THD level should be under 10 percent. This will give them adequate power, but it is sensitive enough to protect them against damage.
Automatic Voltage Regulators
Most modern generators have automatic voltage regulators built into them. This component ensures that the voltage output under load is delivered consistently. It also protects against voltage spikes when you are using your generator.
This regulator further protects your electric item against too much power. Having this regulator is especially important if you are using your generator to power devices that are sensitive. Just make sure to know that all generators use regulators of varying quality levels. You should look at the hardware to determine how solid the components are before deciding on a generator.
Generator Transfer Switch
A generator transfer switch will turn on your generator automatically once your grid power goes off. Think of it as a light switch that flips to turn your generator on. These switches have sensors that tell them when the power is off so that they know to switch the generator on.
The switch will simultaneously disconnect any power coming from the grid lines and start the engine of your generator. This ensures that you are not getting power from two different sources to protect your home or worksite’s electrical work.
Not all switches are created equal or the same. It is imperative that the switch that you choose works with the specifications of your generator. Start by looking at the electrical service panel in your home or business and making a note of the amperage. This information is usually by the main breaker. Any person who installs your generator and switch should also verify this information.
For an average-sized home with a 200-amp breaker, it can consume a maximum of 200 amps. The amp switch should match the amps in your panel.
There are four primary types of automatic transfer switches:
- Open transition: This type will kick your generator on within seconds of detecting that your grid power has failed. It does not cause any power surges so that it makes the transition between grid and generator power safe. When you set up a home generator, this is the most common type of automatic transfer switch.
- Closed transition: This type is for places where a brief power interruption is not tolerable, such as a safety or a home where someone is relying on electric medical devices to sustain life.
- Soft loading: This type is similar to the closed switch. However, it works on a situational basis, adjusting the load it handles based on what is necessary.
- Bypass isolation: This is the most complicated type and usually only used in commercial buildings with a lot of sensitive electric equipment, such as for air traffic control or telecommunications.
These switches should only be installed by a professional to ensure safety. It is important to know that not all generators can use a transfer switch. If this is something that you want to use, make sure that the generator that you choose is compatible.
The most common generator starters include a pull-start and a push button-start. Many modern generators have a push button because it is more convenient. You just push the button and the engine starts up. With a pull-start, this is similar to a lawn mower. Pull the string upward to engage the engine. In some cases, you may have to pull the string more than once.
Low Oil Shutoff
Just like a car engine, the engine in a generator needs oil for lubrication. The owner’s manual will tell you the exact type of oil that is compatible with your generator. It is important that you use this or else you risk engine damage.
The low oil shutoff feature will turn the generator off automatically once the oil gets to a certain level. This will protect your generator’s engine against overheating and damage. Most modern generators have this feature to make it more convenient for you.
Once the oil levels get low, follow the instructions in the owner’s manual to add more oil to the reservoir. It is a good idea to get into the habit of checking the oil levels regularly so that you do not have to worry about your generator shutting down when you are trying to power electronics.
When you are operating a portable generator, you have to ensure that there is adequate fuel in the tank to keep the engine going. Having a fuel gauge makes this easier because it will tell you exactly where your fuel level stands.
It is a good idea to check the fuel level before you start your generator. If the tank is starting to run low, add some fuel so that it does not run out when you are using the electricity.
Since you want to get the most runtime out of your generator every time that you use it, it is best to refill the fuel tank before each use. Just make sure that you do not overfill the tank. The owner’s manual will give you the exact capacity of the fuel tank. Use this as a guide when you are adding fuel and do not exceed this number.
Engines and Alternators
The engine is the most important part of your generator. There are several parts that you need to look at to make sure that the generator that you choose fully works with your needs. Consider the following:
- Overhead valve engine: This type tends to run quieter, produces fewer emissions, start easer and last longer compared to side-valve engines.
- Full power switch: This feature makes it possible to turn off the 240-volt output so that you can get more 120-volt power.
- Hour meter: Use this feature to know how long the generator engine has been running.
- Cast iron sleeve: This component will cost you more initially, but it increases the life of the engine.
- Idle control: When there is no power being taken from the alternator, this feature will throttle down the engine automatically. This will help to decrease engine noise and wear.
- All-metal alternator: Over time, plastic alternator components can warp as a result of the heat that the part generates. When everything is made from metal, the risk of wear and tear is lower so that the alternator lasts longer and needs fewer repairs with regular use.
Generator Fuel Types
There are four primary fuel types that you can use to power your generator. Looking at the benefits of each one can help to ensure that you pick a generator that uses a fuel that works the best for you. The fuel types include:
- For generators, this is the most common type of fuel
- It has the shortest shelf-life compared to the other three fuel types
- For smaller generators, it helps to increase their portability
- You do not need to refill it as it is an unlimited fuel source
- It is readily available when the power it out
- It burns clean
- It has a long shelf-life and it burns clean
- You can find it easily during power outages or have it delivered to your home
- You can store it in small tanks or large cylinders
- Compared to all fuel types, this one is the least flammable
- You can have it delivered
- It is easy to obtain at most gas stations
The level of noise that a generator puts out is a major deciding factor when you are shopping for a generator. You want to ensure that your generator is not so loud that it disturbs other people around you. Ideally, you want to stay below 90 decibels as anything over this level can damage hearing if someone is not using any protective equipment.
Decibel levels increase in units of 10. This means that a generator at 60 decibels is 10 times as loud as one that is functioning at 50 decibels. Check the noise ordinances where you plan to run your generator to make sure that yours is not too loud.
Popular Generator Features
Modern generators often come with a variety of features that make them easier to use and maintain. Learning more about these features will make it simpler to determine which generator best meets your needs.
Explore the following features:
- Wheels: A portable generator needs to be something that you can move around easily. Since these can weight 30 pounds and more, having some wheels to pull or push it makes it far more convenient. If your generator does not automatically come with wheels, you can usually buy a separate wheel kit. These are typically easy to install.
- Multiple outlets: For portable generators, having multiple outlets lets you plug more items into your generator. Just ensure that you do not overload it by plugging in items with too much wattage.
- Removable console: This feature lets you plug appliances into your portable generator directly without the need for extension cords. Having this console makes using your generator safer.
- Alternative fuel capabilities: If your generator can function on more than one type of fuel, this gives you some flexibility. This feature can be especially ideal during emergencies when certain fuel types are easier to find than others. For example, gasoline is often easier to find compared to propane during periods of inclement weather.
Generator Accessories to Consider
When you have a portable generator, there are several accessories that can make running it easier and more comfortable.
The following are popular accessory options:
- Waterproof cover: It is imperative that your generator does not get wet. A waterproof cover can keep the different parts safe when your generator is outside during inclement weather.
- Muffler: Some generators give you the option of adding a muffler. This can further reduce the noise coming from your generator so that it is easier to running it without disturbing yourself or your neighbors.
- Fuel stabilizer: There are times when you will store your generator because you are not using it. This accessory will prevent gum buildup and keep the fuel fresh. Using this accessory prevents you from having to drain and replace the fuel for each use.
- Cold weather kit: If you plan to use your generator in the winter months, a cold weather kit can help to protect it during operation. This kit usually comes with a battery warmer and an oil heater to prevent the generator from getting too cold.
- Generator cords: These are extension cords designed specifically for use with a generator. Just make sure that the cords that you choose will fit into the outlet types on your generator.
Popular Generator Brands
There are numerous brands for generators on the market. Knowing some of the most popular brands can help you to narrow down your choices.
The popular brands include:
- Briggs and Stratton
- John Deere
- Goal Zero
- Smarter Tools
- All Power America
It is important that you perform the proper maintenance in a timely manner so that your generator is always ready for use.
Consider the following maintenance tips that you can use to create your maintenance schedule:
- Before adding fuel to your generator, give it time to cool down
- Never let any water get onto or into your generator as this could lead to damage or electrocution
- Change your oil on a regular schedule so that it is always fresh
- Never use your generator in a space that is enclosed due to carbon monoxide
- Your generator should never be installed onto the national grid as this poses a danger to line workers