What Is an Electric Generator (And Do I Need One?)

An electric generator is a machine you use when the power you usually get to run gadgets large and small in your house (or business) from the utility company stops flowing. Electric generators produce the power (hopefully for a short period of time) in place of the electricity that had been coming down the wires from the power grid.

You can use this table to skip to the section you’re most interested in or just keep on reading.

Why Should I Get a Portable Generator?

There are perhaps only three major reasons that you can’t do without electricity for an extended period of time in today’s world.

  1. You don’t want perishable food to spoil.
  2. You don’t want to freeze in cold weather.
  3. If you have essential medical equipment that needs power, you don’t want it to fail.

These aren’t the only reasons you might want an electric generator, but if any or all of the above apply to you, you should have a generator – either a portable generator or a whole house (aka standby) generator.

The PowerPro 56101 gives you 1000W.
The PowerPro 56101 gives you 1000W.

You might live in an area that frequently has electrical power interruptions. These may be due to major storms such as blizzards or hurricanes. Maybe the part of the grid that you’re connected to just isn’t all that reliable, even though power companies are constantly trying to improve their services.

If those kinds of things bother you significantly, check into getting a generator.

If you are just the type of person who doesn’t want to be without electricity even for a little while (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and battery backups can’t handle everything you need, then you should get a generator – probably a full standby generator.

What Types of Generators Are There?

As hinted at above, there are two main classes of generators – portable and standby. Each type is a backup generator that you’ll use when your main power from the utility company fails for whatever reason.

Portable generators are relatively small machines, though they can weigh 100 pounds or more. They are normally used to power a few major appliances – a refrigerator, for example. They also find a purpose among those who like camping, especially if you have an RV.

Standby, or home, generators are larger, permanent affairs that can not only run appliances but also machines like furnaces that you don’t simply plug into a socket. Their purpose is to totally replace all the power you had been getting from the utility grid.

What Fuel Do I Need to Power the Generator?

It should go without saying that your generator itself needs some sort of fuel to run, and obviously that power is not going to come from electricity. The fuel that you use will vary depending on the type of generator that you own.

Many portable generators use gasoline (petrol) as their fuel source. You can also get a model that runs on diesel fuel. A diesel generator can be a whole house power supply.

More often the larger standby generators use natural gas or propane. If you already use either of these fuels to supply your house or business, then your backup generator can run almost indefinitely; that is, until your supply of fuel, which is probably quite large, runs out.

Portable vs Inverter vs Standby Generator – Which Is Best?

You probably already know the answer to that “best” question. It depends. It depends on your needs, your situation, and your available funds. That said, let’s look at the benefits of each type.

A conventional portable generator is a sturdy machine that should be pretty straightforward to use. It hums along, sometimes a little noisily, producing the electricity you need for several items at the ongoing cost of the fuel it takes.

The newer inverter generators do basically the same thing in the end, but follow a different path to get there. They use internal electronics to first create AC power, change it to DC, and then invert it back to “clean” AC power that you subsequently use in your home (or elsewhere).

Compared to conventional portables, the inverter generator is usually smaller and lighter weight, making them even more portable. They also tend to be quieter overall because they don’t have to run at a constant speed. They can throttle down when less power is needed. Related to that and because they use more efficient engines, inverters use less fuel over time. The “cleaner” output it produces is often needed by today’s more advanced electronic devices. In addition, you can run two or more identical inverter generators in parallel, producing more power with all the advantages previously mentioned.

The only down sides to inverter generators are that they can only produce lower amounts of power (generally 1000 to 4000 watts today), and they cost more. You can overcome that first negative by running them in parallel, as mentioned above. Of course, that adds to your initial cost and a little to your fueling costs.

It’s probably not fair to try to compare the two generators type above to a whole house, standby generator. Just looking at the two should make that fairly obvious. The portable (and inverter) is a relatively little gadget that you might be able to walk around with using one hand.

That’s why it’s called portable. The standby generator is normally a large, metal box that sits permanently near you house (or business), remains connected to your electrical system, and was installed by a trained professional. If you need all that a standby gives you, then it’s the best generator for you.

What About a Solar Generator? Can I Make My Own?

You could make your own solar generator, and there are several places online that will help you to do so. The problem will be that, unless you build several of them or one very large one, it’s not going to be able to power what you want to power, like a refrigerator.

You could light a bulb for several hours, play games on a console for a while, watch some TV, or use your laptop for most of the day, but that’s probably about it.

This also assumes that there’s enough sunlight in your area to charge the battery that would run these gadgets.

Which Generator Would You Choose?

If I had to pick one of the three main types – conventional portable, inverter, or standby – right this minute, I would take the inverter generator. Even though it costs a little more than the conventional portable, the noise reduction and the parallel option outweigh that negative for me. An inverter generator seems more like the wave of the future than any of the others to me.

Then there’s also the possibility of renting a generator (portable or inverter), especially if I know I only want one for a one-time use. But this is really a topic for a whole other article.