Buying a portable generator is confusing. What kind of generator do you need for a tailgate party or a power outage? Is it worth getting a portable generator that can run on propane? What are the sockets for, and what is a “pure sine wave” inverter? This guide will help you pick which features you need and make sure you have enough capacity to power what you want. We even picked and reviewed some of our favorite portable generators, so you can save time comparison shopping.
Great Generators for Every Use
Confused by the wide range of portable generators on the market? After looking at units from a wide range of generator brands and pouring over both professional and owner generator reviews and ratings, we’ve paired down current offerings to 10 great options for gas and dual fuel portable generators for every use. Trying to decide between internal combustion and solar? We also included one battery-powered alternative you should consider. If you want more information of what to look for in a portable generator for check out our buying guide below.
1. WEN 56105 1000-Watt Portable Generator
1,000 watts peak, 900 watts sustained
If weight and size are your top priorities, and you only need to power one or two devices, you should consider the WEN 56105. This compact generator is built to be as light and simple as possible.
The 56105 is powered by a 63 cc overhead valve two-stroke engine. Why does a two-stroke have valves? It’s actually a four-stroke that uses a two-stroke style oiling system. By sealing the combustion chamber, this engine is able to keep emissions low enough to meet EPA and CARB standards. Using a 50:1 fuel/oil mix for lubrication keeps the engine light. It also means you never have to worry about a lack of oil damaging the engine. WEN equips the engine with a spark arrester.
Output for this generator is 1,000 watts of peak power and 900 watts of sustained power. This generator has a single 120 volt household outlet that can handle up to 7 amps. That won’t power an electric leaf blower, but it should have no problem with most small tools and appliances.
WEN promotes this portable generator for tailgating, but with an estimated loudness of 95 dB at 13 feet, the noise from this unit will blend in better at a construction site than your bar-b-que. Still, it may be worth considering thanks to its low cost and low weight. At 39 lbs, its one of the lightest portable gas generators on the market.
WEN guarantees the 56105 for two years of residential use or 90 days of commercial use.
2. Pulsar PG2000iSN 2,000W Portable Gas-Powered Quiet Inverter Generator
2,000 watts peak, 1,600 watts sustained
Tailgating and Camping
By itself, a PG2000iSN can produce up to 1,600 watts of sustained power, reaching up to 2,000 watts temporarily for reactive loads. If you need more power for your tailgate party, two of these portable generators can be connected using a link cable. Unlike the other generators on this list, the Pulsar’s engine has a manual choke. That means you’ll need to let the engine warm up for a couple minutes before you can use its full power capacity.
The enclosed design keeps the noise down, averaging 59 dB from 10 feet away. With the economy mode switch on, the generator controls the throttle automatically, keeping noise and fuel consumption low. This makes it about as quiet as you can get in a portable generator. Expect to get 8 hours of runtime from the 1.18 gallon tank while the generator is at 50% load.
The Pulsar 2,000 watt has a pure sine wave inverter, so it’s safe to use with electronics. It has four power outlets:
This generator also has a grounding connection if you need one for workplace power. A voltage regulator keeps power steady through every outlet.
The engine has an automatic shutoff to prevent damage if the oil level is too low. This turns on an indicator light on the front panel. There are also lights for current overload and operation mode. Weighing just 47 lbs, this portable generator is easy for one person to carry around.
Pulsar guarantees this portable generator for one year of residential use.
3. DuroStar DS1050 1050-Watt 2-Hp Air Cooled Gas Powered Portable Generator
1,050 watts peak, 950 watts sustained
Work site power
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake the DS1050 for WEN’s 56105. For the most part, these two portable generators share the same design. However, there are a couple differences that give this DuroMax-built unit an advantage over the WEN, especially if you need a small work generator.
Like the WEN, the DS1050’s engine is a four stroke with a two stroke oiling system. However, output is slightly higher at 1,050 watts of peak power and 950 watts of sustained power. This engine is CARB certified, and it comes with a spark arrester. This portable generator is sometimes mislabeled as having a low oil shutoff: since oil is mixed with gasoline, you never need to worry about lubrication. Noise is quoted as 94 dB at 10 feet. This high noise level is due to a fixed throttle that keeps the engine running at top speed.
Power is accessed by a single 120 volt outlet. It does not have a pure sine wave inverter, so you won’t want to power electronics from this generator. However, its output is perfect for small tools. At just 39 lbs, it’s easy to carry to any work site. You can expect to get 6 hours of runtime at 50% load.
The biggest difference between the DS1050 and the 56105 is the warranty. DuroMax guarantees this portable generator for three years of residential use, or one year of commercial use. That alone may be worth the added price, especially if you want something for work.
4. Champion #76533 3800-Watt Dual Fuel RV Ready Portable Generator
Gasoline output: 4,750 watts peak, 3,800 watts sustained
RV shore power
Champion promotes this generator as a portable power source for RVs, and it’s easy to see why. With two options for shore power connection, you should have no problem using this generator with most recreational vehicles.
On gasoline, output is 4,750 watts of peak power and 3,800 watts of sustained power. Switch to propane, and output drops to 4,275 watts of peak power and 3,420 watts of sustained power. With a 50% load, you can expect to get 9 hours of runtime from a full tank of gas (3.4 gallons), or 10.5 hours from a 20 lb. propane tank. The engine is EPA and CARB compliant, so you can use it anywhere. It comes with an electric starter.
This generator has four sockets:
Both the TT-30R and L14 sockets share the same circuit protector, so you can only use one socket at a time at full power. However, if you’re using this for shore power, you will probably use the plug that is compatible with your RV. A ground connection is included. The three mode “Intelligauge” meter displays the current output voltage, current frequency and hours of operation.
At 119 lbs, this portable generator is about average in size for this segment. Built-in wheels and folding handle make it easy to roll around. Noise is also average, coming in at 68 dBA from 23 feet away.
Champion guarantees this generator for three years of residential use, or 270 days (about 9 months) of commercial use.
5. Firman H03652 4550/3650 Watt Recoil Start Gas or Propane Dual Fuel Portable Generator
Gasoline output: 4,550 watts peak, 3,650 watts sustained
RV shore power
Work site power
This simple generator is a perfect solution if you need to portable power for tools or your RV, and you want the option of using propane.
While running on gasoline, this portable generator delivers 4,550 watts of peak power and 3,650 watts of sustained power. The 5 gallon fuel tank gives the H03652 a total runtime of up to 14 hours at 50% load. If you run the engine on propane, output drops to 4,100 starting watts and 3,300 running watts. A 20 lb. Tank will keep the engine running for up to 10.5 hours. Firman includes a 5.5 foot LPG regulator hose, letting you connect a larger tank. The engine used in the H03652 is EPA and CARB certified, and it comes fitted with a spark arrester. Firman has not released information on noise levels.
This portable generator has an automatic voltage regulator, but it does not have a pure sine wave inverter. Power can be accessed from four sockets:
These plugs come with outlet covers to protect them from water and dirt. Above these, there’s a Data Minder digital display to monitor output voltage, current frequency and total operating hours. This lets you check for electric problems and keep track of maintenance.
At 112 lbs, this portable generator is a little lighter than other models in this segment. It comes with wheels and a folding handle for transport.
Firman guarantees this generator for three years of residential use, or 90 days of commercial use.
6. Westinghouse iGen4500 Super Quiet Portable Inverter Generator
Output: 4,500 watts peak, 3,700 watts sustained
RV shore power
Tailgating and outdoors
The engine is EPA and CARB compliant, and it comes with a spark arrester. It has an electric starter and can be started remotely up to 300 feet away using the included key fob. Westinghouse claims up to 18 hours of runtime from the 3.4 gallon gas tank in efficiency mode, but that’s only at 25% load.
The iGen4500 delivers 4,500 watts of peak power and 3,700 watts of sustained power.
Sound is claimed to be “as little as 52 dB,” but the company doesn’t state the distance for this measurement. However, as one of the few enclosed portable generators in this segment, you can be sure that it will be far quieter than its open frame competitors.
A pure sine wave inverter makes it safe to use this generator to power electronics. AC power can be accessed from three sockets:
This generator also comes equipped with 5 USB ports for charging and powering small portable devices. A digital display shows fuel level, power output, estimated remaining run time, voltage and hours of operation.
At 98 lbs, this generator isn’t something you’d want to carry, but it’s far more portable than similar models thanks to an extending handle and rear-mounted wheels. This lets you pull this generator around like a piece of carry-on luggage, making it easier to roll up steep ramps than a regular open frame generator.
Westinghouse guarantees this portable generator for either three years or 1,000 hours of residential use, or one year or up to 1,000 hours of commercial use.
6. Champion #100296 7500-Watt Dual Fuel Portable Generator
Gasoline output: 9,375 watts peak, 7,500 watts sustained
Work site power
This portable generator is a great solution if you’re looking for a combination of RV shore power and outdoor power. By combining high capacity sockets and GFCI household outlets, you can keep your rig powered and use appliances while you relax outdoors. That added protection also makes it a good choice if you need power for your work site equipment.
Running on gasoline, this generator has a maximum output of 9,375 watts of peak power and 7,500 watts of sustained power. Switch to propane, and output drops to 8,400 watts of peak power and 6,750 watts of sustained power. An electric starter comes standard, but the battery isn’t directly charged by the engine. Instead, flipping a switch connects it to the generator for fast recharging. This portable generator is not CARB certified.
With a full gas tank, the #100296 has a runtime of 8 hours at 50% load. When connected to a 20 lb. propane tank, it can run up to 5.5 hours at 50% load. It makes 74 dB of noise at at 20 feet.
This generator has 6 sockets:
If you need to power a TV or computer, look elsewhere. While this generator has a voltage regulator, it does not have a pure sine wave inverter. Champion’s “Intelligauge” digital display lets you see the current output voltage, current frequency and hours of operation.
This generator weighs just over 200 lbs. It comes with a folding handle and flat-free wheels, making it easy to move short distances.
Champion guarantees this portable generator for three years of residential use and 270 days (about 9 months) of commercial use.
7. Westinghouse WGen12000 Ultra Duty Portable Generator
Output: 15,000 watts peak, 12,000 watts sustained
RV shore power
Packing a massive 713cc OHV V-Twin, the WGen12000 can crank out up to 15,000 watts of peak power and 12,000 watts of sustained power. This engine is both EPA and CARB compliant, and it comes with a spark arrester.
Westinghouse advertises a maximum runtime of 16 hours, but this is at 25% load. As measured using the industry standard 50% load, the 10.5 gallon tank can keep the engine running up to 11 hours.
Smart idle control matches engine speed to the electric load, conserving fuel and reducing noise. Westinghouse claims noise levels as low as 74 dB, but doesn’t give a distance for this measurement.
The VFT display on the front panel lets you keep track of the fuel level, power output, estimated remaining run time, voltage and hours of operation. The WGen12000 also comes with a low oil shutoff and overload protection. The electric starter can be used by pushing a single button on the front panel, or the generator can be switched on remotely using a key fob that works at a distance up to 300 feet.
A pure sine wave inverter delivers power to a variety of outlets for home backup and RV power:
There are also three DC ports:
Since this generator is built for home power, it comes with a ground connector.
At 352 lbs, you aren’t going to be lifting this generator into a truck bed without a lot of help. However, it comes with a folding handle and flat-free wheels, making it easy to roll out of your garage when you need home backup power.
Westinghouse guarantees this portable generator for three years or 1,000 hours of residential use. The warranty covers commercial users for one year or up to 1,000 hours of commercial use.
8. WEN DF1100T 11,000-Watt 120V/240V Dual Fuel Portable Generator with Wheel Kit and Electric Start
11,000 watts peak, 8,300 watts sustained
RV shore power
Work site power
The DF1100T is on the opposite spectrum from the 56105. This is one of the most powerful portable generators on the market, and its protected outlets and dual fuel design make it a practical solution for high demand uses including construction site power, home backup or RV power.
This dual fuel generator produces up to 11,000 watts of surge power and 8,300 watts of running power on gasoline. A 6.6 gallon fuel tank keeps the engine running at 50% load for up to 8.5 hours. Switch to propane, and power drops to 9,500 watts of peak power and 7,500 watts of running power. Runtime varies depending on the size of tank you use. A 47 inch hose is included, so you should have no trouble hooking up either a 20 or 40 lb. tank. This portable generator is CARB approved, and it comes with an electric starter.
The inverter doesn’t have a pure sine wave output, so you should avoid using electronics with this generator. That said, it offers a range of options for connection to appliances, homes and RVs:
A ground connector is included for compliance with OSHA regulations.
The “Multi-Meter” digital display shows current voltage, current frequency in Hz, total operating time, and operating time since the engine was started. This makes it easy to keep track of maintenance, find output problems, and estimate how long the generator will run before being refueled.
WEN includes a “wheel kit” with the DF1100T. This just means you’ll have to bolt on the handle and wheels yourself after you pull the generator out of the box.
WEN guarantees this portable generator for two years of residential use, or 90 days of commercial use.
9. A-iPower SUA12000E 12,000-Watt Gasoline Powered Generator with Electric Start
12,000 watts peak, 9,000 watts sustained
RV shore power
Work site power
Are you looking for something powerful enough for home backup or serious work and don’t want to break the bank? The SUA12000E has loads of power, but goes light on features to keep costs down.
The 16 HP engine and generator combo delivers 12,000 watts of peak power and up to 9,000 watts of running power. It comes with a 7 gallon tank that can keep the generator running up to 9 hours at 50% load. The engine is not CARB approved, nor will it run on propane. However, it does come with an electric starter.
The SUA12000E has a large selection of shielded ports to connect your equipment:
This portable generator also has one 12 volt cigarette outlet. A-iPower includes an adapter to use this outlet with USB devices and a connector for charging batteries. The SUA12000E also has a ground connector if you need it for your workplace or plan on using this generator for off-grid power. A digital hour meter makes it easy to keep track of maintenance, while an automatic oil shutoff prevents engine damage.
This portable generator is a little louder than its competitors. By A-iPower’s own estimates, you can expect noise to be around 78 dB at 23 feet. That’s not a problem at job sites, but you may garner the ire of your neighbors when using this generator for shore power.
The SUA12000E weighs 216 lbs. It has a built-in folding handle and wheels.
A-iPower guarantees this portable generator for two years of residential use or one year of commercial use.
10. Goal Zero Yeti 1400
Output: 3,000 watts peak, 1,500 watts sustained
RV shore power
Home backup when equipped with accessories
Yes (no emissions)
Are you considering a solar power station, and need something that can produce the same power as a gas generator? The Goal Zero Yeti 1400 has a massive battery and high output, making it a practical replacement for small gas generators, RV shore power and even home backup. It can also be used with a gas generator, charging from an AC outlet, providing power when you can’t run an engine.
Maximum output for this station is 1,500 watts of sustained power and a whopping 3,000 watts surge power. At just under 44 lbs, it’s comparable to enclosed portable gas generators like the Pulsar 2,000 Watt.
AC power is provided by a pure sine wave inverter. However, there is just one 120 volt duplex outlet for a total of two sockets.
There are no high amperage plugs on this station, but it is compatible with Goal Zero’s Yeti Link. This lets you connect the battery to your home or RV electrical system, and link together several batteries and solar panels to create a backup power solution.
Need 12 volt DC power? This station has you covered:
That last connector is used for high demand 12 volt power, including RV lighting and portable refrigerators.
There are more ports for powering phones and other portable devices:
The Yeti comes with a 1,425 Wh battery, which is enough power to run a 12 volt refrigerator all day or keep a 32 inch LCD TV on for 14 hours. It can’t power high draw devices, like RV air conditioners and large power tools, for any reasonable length of time without additional batteries.
Using the Anderson Power Pole outlet and a 360 watt solar array, this battery can be charged in as little as 4.5 hours. If you go for a more reasonably sized solar panel, like Goal Zero’s own Boulder 200 watt unit, charging will take between 14 and 28 hours. You can also plug the station into a household AC outlet, reaching peak charge in about 25 hours.
Goal Zero guarantees the Yeti 1400’s batteries for 180 days (about 6 months). The rest of the power station is warrantied for one year.
Generator Buying Guide
If you’re new to generators, their features can be confusing. Is peak power important? What are the sockets for? Do you need a separate ground? Here’s a breakdown of these features and what they’ll mean to you.
Generators have two ratings: peak power and continuous power.
Continuous power is the amount of power the generator can make the entire time it’s while running. You should choose a portable generator that has a continuous rating that is higher than the total power draw of all the devices you plan on powering. Choosing a model with extra capacity also lets the engine run at lower speeds, making it quieter.
Peak power is the maximum power the generator can produce in a short period of time. This lets it handle spikes from reactive loads. These loads come from electric motors and some types of electronics that require more power to turn on than they use while running. Power tools usually need an extra 70% of their sustained power to start, while compressors in refrigerators and freezers may need as much as three times their sustained power to start. Generators are almost always named after their peak power output.
When calculating the peak power you need, a good rule of thumb is to add together the sustained power needed by all of your appliances, plus the reactive load for your highest demand device. It’s unlikely that you’ll have two reactive loads simultaneously, overloading the generator.
Electric vs. Recoil Start
A recoil starter is a ratcheting mechanism connected to the engine’s crankshaft. As you pull the starter cord, the mechanism spins the engine, then releases. This is the same type of starter used on lawn mowers. Improvements including automatic chokes and decompression cams make these easier to start than older motors. Unless you’re using the generator in extreme cold, most engines will fire up with one or two pulls.
Large generators have an electric starter powered by a small 12 volt battery, just like the engines used in riding lawn mowers. This makes starting easy, but it isn't foolproof. It can take several hours for the engine to recharge the starter battery after use, and the battery will lose charge while in storage. For this reason, these batteries should be kept on a trickle charger when not in use. All electric starter generators come with a backup recoil starter, so you can still get the engine running when the battery is bad.
Generators are powered by the same engines used in walk-behind and riding mowers, and that means they can be loud. To manage noise, manufactures add larger mufflers, and some models cover the engine in a plastic enclosure.
The decibel scale is logarithmic: every 10 dB represents a doubling in loudness. Here are some examples of common sounds and their dB rating:
60-65 dB: A normal conversation
70 dB: Dishwasher
75 dB: Flushing toilet
80 dB: Alarm clock
85 dB: Inside a car at highway speeds
90 dB: Lawn mower
95 dB: Belt sander
Noise levels vary widely depending on design. You can expect the quietest enclosed generators to 60 dB of noise at 20 feet, while the largest open frame generators can reach 95 dB. Repeated exposure to sounds over 85 dB can cause hearing damage.
When comparing generators, be sure to look at how noise is measured: noise ratings using readings from 10 or 20 feet away will be much lower than measurements at the generator. It makes sense to measure noise this way since you’ll be using the generator at a distance, connecting appliances and wiring systems to the sockets with extension cables.
When you shop for portable generators, you’ll see outlets labeled using their National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) names. Here’s what each of these outlets looks like, and how they are used.
An L14 or 14-50R outlet has 4 wire connections arranged in a circle: one ground, one neutral and two hot. This outlet is common for RV shore power. The two hot wires can be used together for 240 volt power, or separately as two 120 volt sources. 240 volt output from portable generators is single phase. That means the current alternates at the same rate and time, which can cause problems with 240 volt appliances that need two separate power phases. These outlets have a 50 amp limit.
A TT-30R plug has three prongs: two flat prongs set at an angle, and one D-shaped prong. This outlet has a 30 amp limit. Like the L14, it’s mostly used for RV power. However, it only supports 120 volt current.
An L5 outlet is a “locking” three prong socket used to deliver large amounts of 120 volt power. Each L5 prong is curved, and one prong is L-shaped. This socket is mostly used to connect to home wiring. This type of outlet has a 30 amp limit.
5-15 and 5-20 outlets are the same three prong outlets used in your home. Paired 120 volt household sockets are usually wired together as “duplex” outlets. That means two outlets share the same circuit and amperage limit. 5-15 outlets have a 15 amp limit, while 5-20 outlets have a 20 amp limit. A small portable generator may have 15 or 20 amp-rated outlets, but the actual limit will be lower due to the unit’s limited available power.
GFCI protection prevents shorts due to ground faults, typically caused by an appliance or cable making contact with wire. This is a useful feature for outlets powering outdoor appliances. You will only see GFCI circuits used with household outlets. This is the same type of outlet found in modern bathrooms.
There are two non-NEMA outlets included with gas generators for DC power:
12 volt cigarette lighter outlets can power small devices using an adapter, but they’re mainly included as a way to charge 12 volt batteries.
Some new generators also have 5 volt USB-A ports. These can be used to recharge smartphones, tablets, drones and other small electronics.
All generators use their metal frames as a ground. In some cases, such as workplace use and grid backup, you may need to add a second ground. Large generators include a point for this connection.
The California Air Resource Board (CARB) has their own emissions regulations that surpass the EPA regulations required nationwide. CARB’s regulations are applied immediately in California, but many other states phase in these regulations shortly afterward. States that have adopted CARB emissions regulations include almost every state in the Northeast, every state on the West Coast, and the states of New Mexico, Maryland and Florida. The Canadian province of Quebec also follows CARB emissions regulations. If you live in one of these states, or you’ll be visiting one of them, your portable generator needs to be CARB compliant to be used legally. While you may only get into a little trouble if you use a non-compliant portable generator for your own needs, operating a polluting commercial generator can incur heavy fines. National parks and federal lands are under federal jurisdiction, so CARB regulations do not apply, even if you’re in a CARB-compliant state.
Most generators include a spark arrester. This device stops flammable debris from exiting the exhaust. Most wilderness areas and parks require spark arresters on internal combustion engines year-round. An arrester may be required temporarily in areas when fire risk is high.
In North America, household appliances are designed to run on 120 volt alternating current. This current switches polarity at a rate of 60 times per second (60 Hz). If you connected an oscilloscope to an outlet in your home, you would see a smooth line going up and down on the screen.
Portable generators produce direct current (DC) power, then use an inverter to convert this electricity into AC power. The power output from the generator fluctuates as the engine goes up and down in speed. If you hooked up an oscilloscope to one of the generator’s outlets, you’d see a fuzzy line. This “dirty” power is fine for basic electric appliances like coffee makers and power tools. However, these power fluctuations will burn out electronics. To remedy this, some portable generators come with a “pure sine wave” inverter. These inverters have added circuitry that smooths out current, creating electricity that is nearly identical to household power. This makes it safe for powering computers, TVs and other sensitive devices.
The larger the fuel tank and the more efficient the generator runs, the longer you can power appliances off of a single tank. Manufacturers provide runtime estimates based on using only part of a generator’s capacity. Westinghouse quotes runtime based on a 25% load, but the industry standard uses a 50% load as the basis for runtime estimates.
Some portable generators have an “Eco mode” or an automatic throttle that varies engine speed depending on load. This reduces noise and fuel consumption while saving wear and tear on the engine.
Dual fuel generators have a built-in gas tank, but they can also run off of an external propane tank that connects to the engine using a hose. Most generators are set up to use a 20 lb. tank, but it’s possible to use a 40 lb. tank with a longer hose, extending runtime. The engine has to shut down before the fuel source can be switched.
Generators come in a wide range of sizes from 40 lb. units that can power one or two devices to 350 lb. behemoths that can power an entire house. Smaller units have a built-in handle, making them easy to carry short distances. Large portable generators have built-in wheels and handles. This makes it easy to roll them around on flat surfaces, but it can be difficult to load them into a truck bed, even with a ramp. These portable generators can be lifted by the frame, but it requires at least two people.
High Altitude Use
Air density decreases by around 3% for every 1,000 feet of elevation. Unlike the EFI system that fuels your car, the carburetors on a generator motor can’t adjust the fuel mixture to compensate for this decrease in air. As a result, the engine will run rich at higher altitudes, decreasing power and fouling plugs. At extreme altitudes, it may refuse to start.
If you plan on using your portable generator in high altitude areas like the Rocky Mountains, you’ll need to install a high altitude kit. This is a set of small carburetor jets that bring the fuel mixture in line with the available air. Manufacturers generally recommend installing one of these kits for use at altitudes above 7,000 feet. Unless you’re familiar with working on small engines, you will need to have this kit installed by a professional mechanic.
Using a generator with one of these kits at low altitudes causes a different set of problems. The air/fuel mix becomes too lean, decreasing power and increasing combustion temperatures. This can damage the engine. Manufacturers usually recommend switching back to standard carburetor jets at around 5,000 feet of elevation.
Keep in mind that even with the right fuel mixture, power will still decrease. For example, Denver, the “Mile High City,” has an elevation a little over 5,000 feet. As a result, the air is 15% less dense than it is at sea level, so you can expect your generator’s maximum output to be 15% lower.
How Do I Find a Portable Generator that Fits My Needs?
What’s the best portable generator for your needs? There’s more to choosing a generator than output: the features you need will vary depending on how and where you need power. Here’s what you should look for when buying a portable generator for the most common use cases: camping, tailgating, RV backup power, home power and remote power tool use.
Camping and Tailgating
Whether you plan on using your portable generator for outdoor activities or outside of a stadium, your main priorities are going to be portability and noise.
Enclosed generators surround the engine in a plastic case, taming noise while maintaining to keep the engine cool. These are the quietest generators on the market, making them a great choice for use in nature areas and crowded parking lots. Power output for these generators is usually limited, but some models have the option of linking together with a second generator, doubling available power without resorting to a noisy open frame generator.
When you use your portable generator, you’ll want to keep it a few feet from awnings, tents, and other enclosures to prevent the buildup of carbon monoxide. Be sure to get some heavy-duty, outdoor-rated extension cords to get power from your generator to your appliances.
Want to have a TV or radio on while you cook? Get a portable generator with a pure sine wave inverter to provide clean electricity that is safe for electronics. The amount of power you will need depends on the appliances you want to use. A 32-inch LCD TV only draws about 50 watts, but if you want to use a coffee maker, you’ll need anywhere from 600 watts for a four cup model to 1,500 watts to start a Keurig. As for cooking, a slow cooker draws up to 350 watts, while a hot plate can draw 1,500 watts.
A good RV generator has a couple household outlets for outside power along with high current outlets that can connect directly to your RV’s shore power system. Here’s the maximum load you can expect from each type of connection:
Of course, actual output will vary depending on the maximum power your portable generator can produce.
RV clothing dryers usually use 240 volt power. If you don’t need to power a dryer, a 120 volt source should be able to power your other appliances.
The biggest current draw on an RV is the air conditioner. A 5,000 BTU air conditioner needs 1,100-1,300 watts to start and 300-450 watts to run. This is a typical unit size for a Class B RV. A 15,000 BTU air conditioner needs 3,200 to 3,500 watts to start and 1,200 to 1,700 watts to run. This is a typical size for Class A motor homes. Other appliances will need a fraction of this power.
Most RVs built today come with an Electrical Management System (EMS) that automatically shuts off some power circuits to manage electricity demands. These systems work well with most power connections except L14 receptacles used in 120 volt mode. In this mode, each hot line provides 120 volt current. The EMS may only check current from one of these lines, making it think there is only half the actual power available.
For your safety, you need to plan on getting more than just a generator if you want home backup power. Between 2004 and 2013, 526 people died due to carbon monoxide poisoning related to generator use. These deaths are caused by owners running their generator somewhere inside or near their house, whether it was running in the garage, the basement, an unused room, or next to an open window or awning. Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas that can collect in contained areas, even if the engine is just running near a building. This gas bonds to red blood cells, preventing them from carrying oxygen through the blood stream. Early signs of poisoning include headaches and dizziness, but it can quickly escalate to asphyxiation and death.
To prevent this, you need to get extension cords that will let you power appliances while keeping the generator outside. For your safety, the exhaust needs to be at least 20 feet from your home. Locking plugs offer a convenient way to get power from your generator to a central location in your house. Extension cables are available that have an L5 or L14 plug on one end and several 120 volt household sockets on the other end.
If you want to use your generator to send power through your home wiring system, you are legally required to use a transfer switch installed by a licensed electrician. This switch cuts the connection between your home and the power grid when the generator is in use. Without it, your generator might send power through electric lines, potentially electrocuting a line worker. To meed OSHA standard 29 CFR 1926.404, the generator must be grounded separately from the frame. Larger generators have a ground connection that can connect the unit’s electrical system to a ground rod.
While portable generators are great for emergency power, they aren’t going to be powerful enough to run central heat or air conditioning. Even if you have a natural gas-powered heater, the current draw from the fan is too high for all but the largest generators. If you want to power more than just appliances and fans, get a generator with a pure sine wave inverter. Microwaves, hair dryers and toasters are the largest home energy consumers, drawing 1,500 to 2,000 watts, while a TV will only need 100-200 watts.
Small portable generators are a great alternative to vehicle-powered inverters. Generators consume less fuel, and you don’t have to worry about draining your truck’s battery. Larger generators can power a wide range of tools at a construction site before grid electricity is available, and it can deliver power to sheds in remote areas.
If you’re shopping for a portable generator that will be primarily used for electric power tools, the most important specification is peak load. Electric motors are a reactive load: starting them requires a lot more power than keeping them running. To calculate how much power you will need, check the information plate on each tool, or the specifications in the owner’s manuals. This should state both peak and sustained power requirements. If you’re only using power tools, you don’t need to worry about the added expense of a pure sine wave inverter.
All power coming from the generator will be single phase. That means 240 volt power is not suitable for welding equipment.
GFCI outlets are a great feature to have for any workplace generator. These prevent shorts when the tool or cable comes in contact with water, which is far more likely while working outdoors than it is with other generator applications. Depending on where you work, you may need to use an external ground to meet OSHA standards.
The amount of power you need will vary widely depending on your choice of tools. Most electric hand drills draw between 300 and 500 watts, while a circular saw can draw 1,500 to 1,800 watts. Sump pumps have the highest reactive load. A ½ hp pump will run on 750 watts, but will need as much as 3,000 watts to start.
The Types of Generators
Gas generators are powered by a small engine like you’ll find in lawn care equipment. This engine spins a DC generator or alternator to make electricity. An inverter converts this electricity into alternating current that can be used by household appliances. Larger generators have heavy-duty sockets that can handle enough power to run an RV or a house.
The term “solar power generator” is a misnomer: there is no stand-alone solar generation system. Instead, solar panels connect to a power station, which combines a battery with power sockets. These usually include an inverter for AC power. Solar power stations can also charge from household and car power outlets.
Unlike gas generators, these stations have no emissions and make no noise, so they can be used anywhere, even inside the home. Output can be the same or less than small gas generators at a similar weight. However, while a gas generator can be kept running by adding more fuel, it takes hours to recharge a power station’s battery.
Propane and Dual Fuel Generators
The same propane you use for your BBQ grill can power an internal combustion engine. While large, purpose-built propane generators are common for commercial use, most consumer and small commercial units go the dual fuel route. These engines have a carburetor with both fuel jets and gas nozzles, letting the engine run on either gasoline or LPG. Portable generators have lines and adapters designed for use with standard 20 lb. propane tanks. 40 lb. tanks can be used with longer hoses.
Propane is less energy dense than gasoline. As a result, dual fuel generators make about 10% less power when running on propane than they do when using gas.
This is simply a type of generator with an inverter for AC power. Some small solar power stations are focused mostly on recharging small electronics and powering low voltage lighting, so they may forego the inverter to minimize weight. Otherwise, you can expect an inverter to be part of any power generation system.