Choosing a Portable Generator
Looking for a backup power source during storm season, or maybe a generator for camping that can do double duty at home? A good generator is handy for a variety of purposes, from emergency home use to powering up a backyard tool shed, backing up a basement sump pump, or running RV appliances or tailgating essentials. For consumers who want some extra power on hand but are mindful of their budgets, we've read expert and user reviews and found plenty of compact portable generators for less than $600 that will keep important appliances and electronics running in a pinch. Our recommendations are dependable top performers from well-respected brands that should be able to weather a storm and stand the test of time.
For emergency home use, experts recommend a generator with a minimum of 3,000 watts of running power (not to be confused with surge power, which is explained below). That should be enough for most critical needs (lights, refrigerator/freezer) plus a few extras, such as a radio, TV, and mobile-phone charger. Generally, the more powerful a generator is, the more it costs. Beefier models in 7,000- to 10,000-watt territory cost well over $1,000. Extra features, such as an electric starter, may also boost the price. Portable generators in the 3,000-to-4,000-watt range are fairly compact, but a standard model typically weighs between 100 and 125 pounds. While many come with wheel kits and some have RV-ready outlets, they're not incredibly easy to move around. Then again, many buyers will keep them parked near their houses most of the time anyway.
Inverter GeneratorsFor those who need easily portable power, perhaps for camping, tailgating, or using power tools at a job site, an inverter generator may make more sense. These devices are much smaller and lighter — they often weigh 50 pounds or less — and, thanks to advanced technology, they provide greater fuel efficiency and clean power for sensitive electronics like cellphones, computers, and tablets. Many inverter generators also have parallel kits available that allow two generators to be connected at once, doubling the power at your disposal.
Inverter models are pricier than conventional portable generators. They are hard to find under the $300 mark, and those at the bottom end of the price range typically don't have enough wattage to serve any but the most basic power needs. Still, there are affordable options with lower wattages that can help around the house and keep one or two essentials running alongside a smartphone during a power outage. The inverter generators we recommend average between 1,700 and 1,800 running watts. Consumers can easily find units with the same wattage that sell for closer to $900.
Portable Generator BrandsA number of brands make portable generators, with Honda and Yamaha standing as two of the top names in the market. While these two brands sit on the high end, there are several well-known companies that produce inexpensive portable generators. These include Champion Power Equipment, Briggs & Stratton, Westinghouse, Generac, and Ryobi. WEN and Buffalo Tools, manufacturer of the Sportsman line of generators, are lesser known to some, but they also make top sellers.
Generators from all these manufacturers can be bought at retailers such as Home Depot, Sears, Tractor Supply Co., and Lowe's, as well as online and at smaller shops that specialize in power tools and equipment. Our favorite portable generators all are sold online, but buyers may be better off purchasing from a bricks-and-mortar store or arranging for store pickup instead of shipping. We read several generator reviews claiming that models arrived damaged. Returning a damaged generator can be quite inconvenient, and sometimes costly.
While many generators come boxed with oil, and often a funnel or other required tools, make sure you have the necessary lubricant and fuel on hand, along with several heavy-duty extension cords and a power strip to connect essential appliances and electronic devices. (Note: Running a whole-house system, including overhead lights, off of a generator requires a manual transfer switch that's located near and connected to the house's main electrical panel.) And finally, always be sure to run the generator outdoors; the burning fuel releases harmful carbon monoxide.
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Portable Generator Reviews: What We Considered
To identify the best cheap portable generators, we consulted expert commentary from sources that conduct product testing, such as Consumer Reports and Wirecutter, as well as buying guides and reviews from online sites and retailers specializing in generators and other outdoor power equipment. We also waded through reviews from hundreds of consumers on retail sites such as Home Depot, Lowe's, Amazon, Walmart, and specialty vendors to get hands-on assessments of the inexpensive portable generators we landed on. Generally speaking, and barring the occasional defective unit, buyers really like the generators on our list, with only a handful of nitpicks, such as a generator being louder than expected, or lacking built-in wheels.
Any generator you buy should meet three important criteria: sufficient power to run desired appliances and electronics, easy starting, and reliability. Obviously, a generator that doesn't start or breaks down during a hurricane is no help at all. Apart from a few dissenting reports here and there, portable generator reviews indicate that our picks handily meet these standards. Shoppers are impressed with the ability of even small generators to keep essential electronics running for hours at a time with hardly a hiccup. While all our choices pass the basic test of dependability and ease of use, there are several specifications and features to take into account when determining the particular model that will best serve the needs of your individual household or lifestyle.
PowerThe most important criterion when choosing a portable generator is how much power it produces, measured in watts. Manufacturers specify starting watts and running watts. The starting wattage is always a higher number, because many appliances require more watts to initially power them up than to keep them running.
To keep your home functioning during a blackout, you want a generator with enough juice to run critical appliances as well as multiple must-have electronics — otherwise you'll be forced to choose which items to shut off so the generator can power the rest. Maybe you can get by without a 1,000-watt microwave, or even an air conditioner, for a day or two, but you certainly don't want to have to decide between the refrigerator and the heater.
Generally, this means looking for a generator that provides at least 3,000 watts of running power. Fewer watts can keep some essentials running in an emergency, but the amount of power that a refrigerator, heating and cooling system, house lights, radio, TV, and laptop require adds up quickly. Factor in a space heater, and even a simple coffee maker or iron, and your total household wattage will likely sail well past 3,000. (An online wattage calculator, such as these from Honda and Northern Tool, can help determine how much power you need.)
Although the inverter generators we recommend aren't necessarily intended to serve as emergency power sources, many consumers who initially bought them for use on the go say they've proved handy at home, as well. Users don't have to fear that sensitive electronics like computers, cellphones, and tablets will get fried due to power bursts. All the inverter models we recommend can also be paired with another unit to increase their power output, if desired. (Parallel cable kits are sold separately.)
Gasoline is the fuel of choice for small engines and common due to its easy availability. Most of the portable generators on our list use unleaded gasoline. You may occasionally see a portable generator that runs on diesel fuel, but these tend to be more expensive and none made our list of picks. However, there are some drawbacks to gas generators. A severe natural disaster can deplete or disrupt a region's gas supply. Moreover, storing large quantities of gasoline isn't exactly safe, and its shelf life is limited. (The fuel starts to break down after a few months, and if you use old fuel in a gas generator, you run the risk of gumming up the engine, which creates a real mess. Bottom line: It's best to purchase the gas shortly before you need it, if possible.)
Propane generators are a good alternative to gas models but are less common, and a good one may cost a bit more than a comparable gas generator. One advantage of a propane generator is that propane can be stored almost indefinitely. Additionally, propane tanks are safer to store than full gas cans. The propane tanks used by generators also serve propane-powered outdoor grills, so they're not hard to find, and prices are pretty low. Propane generators use 20- or 30-pound tanks. Listed run times usually assume a 20-pound tank.
For consumers who want the flexibility to choose between fuel sources, dual-fuel portable generators can run on either gas or liquid propane. There are even tri-fuel generators that add natural gas to the mix of options.
StartupPortable generators have simple startup mechanisms — usually a recoil starter: a simple pull-cord, like the type used on most gas lawn mowers. Some models feature an electric starter but also include a recoil starter as backup. According to reviews posted by users, the models we researched pose few startup challenges. Most of them consistently start with just one or two pulls.
Run TimeThe amount of time a generator can run on a single tank of gasoline or propane varies considerably. Generally, the more appliances and electronics connected to a generator, the more quickly it needs to be refueled. A generator's run time is measured in hours and assumes it is running at "half load," meaning it's using only 50 percent of the available running watts (i.e., a half load for a 3,000-watt generator would be 1,500 watts). The 3- to 4-gallon tanks on the conventional gas generators we picked should keep them running for about 10 to 12 hours.
Inverter generators have much smaller tanks, usually only a gallon or two, so run times are generally shorter. That said, they're much more fuel efficient, particularly those with energy-saving modes that automatically adjust the engine speed to expend less power when running lighter loads. All our recommendations can run more than six hours on a full tank at 50 percent load.
OutletsPortable generators typically have three or four outlets, but they're not all standard, household-type plugs. Aside from regular 120-volt outlets for lamps, refrigerators, heaters, and the like, generators often include a 120-volt outlet designed for RVs in addition to a twist-lock outlet that keeps a plug securely in place. A generator with more than one standard 120-volt outlet is the best option, because more than one extension cord can be attached to serve more household needs.
Inverter generators, which are designed to power sensitive electronics such as smartphones and tablets, typically include at least one USB port and sometimes two, and perhaps a 12-volt DC outlet as well. None of our recommended generators includes a 120/240-volt outlet (good for appliances that need a more powerful connection, like certain power tools, furnaces, and pumps); that feature is only found on more expensive models.
WheelsGenerators are heavy, often weighing well over 100 pounds (and that's without fuel). Many portable generators include a wheel kit as part of the package, and kits can usually be bought separately for models that don't come with one. The absence of a wheel kit may not be an issue for homeowners who plan to park the generator in one spot and leave it there, but it will take some heavy lifting to get it into position in the first place. Smaller inverter generators are light enough that they don't really need wheels. Still, wheels can make a big difference in terms of convenience for generators weighing 50 pounds or less.
NoisePortable generators can be fairly loud, even though many have mufflers. Most of our picks come in under 68 decibels — which would be less strident than the sound of a home vacuum cleaner — but even that can seem a bit much for some ears, particularly for hours at a time. Inverter generators generally produce less noise than conventional generators, usually 50 dB or less, which is another reason they are often preferred for camping trips or RV parks. For consumers willing to pay a premium for less noise, Honda is known for its line of whisper-quiet generators.
Warranty and LongevityThe warranty periods on most of the cheap portable generators we looked at tend to span two to three years. Champion Power Equipment makes a point of offering lifetime technical support for its generators; both our Champion picks carry three-year warranties. Experts list the average life expectancy of a portable generator at about 10,000 to 12,000 hours.
There's a lot that can, and should, be done to ensure that a generator continues to run as smoothly as possible during its lifespan, which can last decades. All the models listed here have low-oil auto-shutoff features to protect their engines from damage that could be caused by running without proper lubrication, but users should also make sure to change the oil at manufacturer-recommended intervals. Spark plugs and air filters should also be replaced regularly to keep the engine functioning properly, and the gas tank should be emptied completely when packing up the unit for extended storage — although manufacturers recommend filling and starting the engine back up every 30 days as a best practice for maintenance. Also, make sure that the battery on a generator that requires one for an electric starter is fully charged before operation, or you could find yourself in trouble during an emergency.