How To Select a Portable Generator (In More Than One Step)

What to Look for in a Portable Generator

Scenario #1 – It’s summertime. You and your family are getting ready to go on vacation for a week or two in the RV. This is the first time you’re planning on heading to a remote area in which you’re almost totally “roughing it”. There won’t be any place to plug in any of the electrical gadgets – cell phones, tablets, game consoles, etc. – that everyone wants to take along, and their batteries certainly won’t last a week.

You decide you want a portable generator to handle the absence of power lines and power poles in your camping area.

Scenario #2 – Your daughter is getting married. She and her husband-to-be want to have the service in the park. They plan a relatively large wedding. Everyone in attendance will want to hear what’s happening, so you’re going to need an amplification system for the officiant, the bride and groom, the singers, and several members of the band. There is some electricity available but not nearly enough to handle all your power generation needs.

You elect to rent a portable generator with enough outlets to satisfy everyone in attendance.

Scenario #3 – The weatherman says the storm could last for a week. Power lines will very likely be down for at least that long. You really don’t want to move in with the relatives three states away for all that time. You also realize this probably won’t be the last time a storm like this is going to hit.

You have a couple of days to choose which portable generator will work best for your situation.

How Do I Decide Which Portable Generator to Buy?

Even if none of the above scenarios fit your circumstances exactly, you may be able to relate to one or more of them. Each scenario could require a different power generator, and you need to know what factors to consider when buying or renting one.

There is one overriding requirement that you need to calculate when looking for a generator. What exactly is it that you want to power?

It doesn’t matter how much the machine costs, who makes it, what color it is, or how much it weighs, if it can’t supply all the power you need.

Consider all the items in your home, in your RV, at your outdoor gathering, or wherever you’d use your generator that need electricity (sooner or later) to function.

Garbage Disposal
Electric Frying Pan
Clothes Washer
Clothes Dryer
Air Conditioner
Ceiling Lights
Ceiling Fans
Portable Fans
Cell Phones
Video Game Systems
Sewing Machines
Electric Razors
Curling Iron
Electric Musical Instruments

Obviously a number of the gadgets in this list aren’t truly necessities and don’t need to be powered by your portable generator, but just look at all the things that you may own that use electricity – or batteries at first and then electricity when those die. And this is far from an exhaustive list. You may have real necessities (medical equipment, for example) that aren’t listed above that need power from your generator.

Steps in Generator Selection

So, how do you actually decide which generator(s) to get?

Step #1 is make a list of everything that you consider important enough to power, find out how much power (watts) it take to start and to run continuously, and then add them all together. Once you have the total wattage, it’s a good idea to add a little more to that total just to be safe. That new number should give you a good idea of which generators you can look at buying.

Some electrical appliances take more power to start than to keep running. That starting wattage is also known as maximum output. The running wattage is often called rated wattage or simply output.

When looking at a gadget to see its wattage, sometimes you may not be able to find it. If instead you see amps (amperage) and volts (voltage), you’re still in luck. Multiplying amps by volts gives you watts.

Amps x Volts = Watts

Step #2 and more in your selection process are below. Though wattage is the main feature you need to look at, there are other considerations you need to think about before making a generator purchase.

  • What fuel does the generator need to keep it running?
  • How do you start the machine?
  • How much does it weigh, and does it come with wheels?
  • Is the manufacturer reputable?
  • Does the color matter?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How good is the warranty?
  • If it breaks, how do you get it fixed?

The vast majority of generators use gasoline (aka petrol) to keep running. Others use natural gas, and still others use liquid propane. Then there are generators that can use two or all three of these fuels. You’ll usually see them referred to as dual fuel or tri-fuel machines.

There are some that use solar power for charging. They can also be charged using standard electricity (when it’s available) or a battery. If you choose one of these, you have to be careful that your source of power for keeping the generator running outlasts the time you need to use the generator itself. For example, if you need to run your solar generator during an extended storm that knocked out your normal power, you may not have the sun for charging. You’d have to have enough battery backup to keep things going.

Many portable generators have a pull cord that you tug to get them started. Others, especially the larger models, additionally have a battery and electric start button or switch. If you rely on the electric start, just make sure the battery has enough juice to do the job. There are some you can start remotely, just like your TV or perhaps your car.

Many companies manufacture generators. Some of the more popular are Generac, Yamaha, Champion, Cummins, Honda, and Kipor. Whether you choose one of these makers or another not listed here, be sure to examine the warranty to see if it satisfies your needs. Also check into what you need to do if the generator breaks down. Is there somewhere you can take in locally to have it fixed? In most cases, that will be preferable over having to ship the machine somewhere.

Generators come in a variety of colors. Most likely you don’t care what color(s) your generator is, but there could be instances when you do. You may want it to blend in with the background. On the other hand, there may be cases when you want it to stick out like a sore thumb to make it easy to find.

In general, the cost of your generator is going to correspond to how much power it can produce. The more power, the higher the cost. As of this writing, the smallest portable generators (1000-4000W) cost (roughly) from $300 to $800. Medium sized portable machines (5000-8500W) cost $500 to $1000. The largest portable generators (10,000W) cost $2000 to $3000.

You’ll probably find that their weight increases as the watts and dollars increase too. Portable implies that you can move the generator around fairly easily. The smaller generators are likely to weigh at least 30 pounds and perhaps as much as 100 pounds. Those at the low end have a handle for carrying from place to place. The heavier ones have a frame to which wheels are attached. Be forewarned that some generator packages do not include the wheels but consider them an extra accessory.

Other smaller but important considerations are whether the generator has an oil guard and a fuel gauge. Both are good things to have. You’ll also likely want one that has several outlets of different types to handle all the gadgets you want to power.

What Accessories Should I Consider Getting for My Portable Generator?

Besides the wheels mentioned above, one other main accessory you’re likely to want is a power transfer switch. The purpose of a transfer switch is to control the flow, or direction, of electricity between your generator and standard utilities.

The switch shuts off access to the utility power line and opens the line to the generator. When the electric company restores power, the switch reverses the process. The transfer switch connector to your house’s electrical system. If you need your generator to run your furnace or something else that doesn’t have a power cord, a transfer switch is the only way you can get power to it.

Making the Final Decision

These days there are more options than those listed here to consider before making your final decision on a portable generator, but these should be enough to get you headed in the right direction. At the very least, you should be able to eliminate most of what’s available, leaving you with significantly fewer from which you will choose.