Having the power needed to produce light and prepare food, maintain refrigeration, and to provide for heating/cooling of your home may not be essential for life, but it is nevertheless important in any emergency situation.
Though the loss of grid electrical power is not part of every emergency, many incidents do include at least a temporary loss of utilities such as electrical power. To provide a hedge of protection against potential power loss, many people buy either a gasoline, diesel or natural gas fueled generator. This can provide an easy, albeit temporary solution.
Despite the popularity of these generators, there is still a lot of confusion in regard to what to buy. This article is provided to help you evaluate your needs and consider your various options for a fossil-fuel powered generator.
It must be understood that long-term failure of the electrical grid will require a different solution. This information on generators is only to help you solve the problem of short-term outages. The equipment mentioned in this article is not adequate for an electric grid failure lasting more than two weeks.
Long-term power generation must come from an alternative power source such as solar, wind, or some other renewable energy source. It usually also involves the use of deep-cycle batteries to store the electricity as it is generated, so that the power can be used later. This particular article will only address the easy-to-solve short-term electrical needs using fossil-fuel powered generators to produce electrical energy on demand.
For as little as $700, a small portable gasoline generator can be purchased to power the essential electricity needs of the average American household. However, important components and features which some feel are important, will cost extra.
Yet, even a low-cost generator will make it possible for you to use your existing electrical equipment, appliances and power tools. Conversely, long-term solutions involving the use of batteries, are not only much more expensive, but also often include the acquisition of specialty appliances which operate on 12-volt DC power.
Generators and Security Considerations
The noise of a generator and the use of lights during an emergency situation can have negative consequences. If there is a concern for safety from violence during an emergency, the use of a generator may focus unwanted attention on your home. Further, the noise of a operating generator can mask important warning sounds of approaching trespassers and impending violence.
It is important to be judicious in the use of a generator during a serious emergency. At the very least, it may be prudent to run your generator only during daylight hours, or for a short period of time to satisfy specific needs rather than creature comforts.
If the danger is minimal but it does exist, consider using your generator during the day for a few hours, just to charge batteries and to operate essential appliances such as a freezer. This way you can plan to have your generator turned-off before dusk. This will help reduce the likelihood of drawing unwanted attention to your home and family at night, and it will also stretch use by consuming less fuel.
The following information was supplied by Consumer Reports, a good source for reliable information on various home-related products.
They focused on moderately priced portable and stationary models that deliver 5,000 to 7,000 watts, enough for most needs. Portables cost the least and can be stored in a garage or shed when you don’t need them. A lower-priced model powered refrigerators, well pumps, and other home gear almost as well as a more expensive top-scorer.
Stationary models install permanently outside your home and start automatically when needed. And because they run on propane or natural gas instead of gasoline, they offer extended or unlimited run time.
Buying a generator is just the beginning. Many models don’t come with parts that you’d think would be part of the price. And some could let you down when you need them most or put an added load on appliances. Here are the details.
Generators are typically sold by wattage. How much they put out determines not only how many lights and appliances you can run at once but how well they run. For example, a refrigerator often requires about 600 watts, a portable heater 1,500 watts, a window air conditioner 1,000 watts, and lights 60 to 200 watts. Our wattage calculator provides an average wattage rating for most appliances and devices to help you to tally your needs.
“Batteries not included” applies. Several portables offer electric starting. But the battery required for that feature usually costs an extra $50. And if you think all portables have wheels, think again: They’re a $150 option on one model we tested.
Some slipped when demand surged. All of the tested generators met their basic wattage claims. Manufacturers also make higher surge-wattage claims for the extra power needed when fridges, air conditioners, and pumps cycle on. Subpar surge wattage lowered the power-delivery scores of some models in our tests.
Some can overheat appliances. Our power-quality test judges the ability to deliver the 120 volts that home circuits usually need. Most met that challenge although one model was more than 10 volts shy under a heavy load and voltage from another was also low–and slightly uneven. Both conditions make motorized appliances and some electronics run hotter.
How to Choose
Decide what you really need to power. If that includes a central air conditioner or an electric dryer or oven, you’ll need a larger generator than the ones we tested. Here’s what else to keep in mind:
Count on a transfer switch. It costs about $500 to $900 installed and connects a portable generator to your home’s circuit box as with a stationary model. In addition to eliminating the risk and hassle of extension cords, the switch protects the generator and appliances from damage when grid power returns and keeps the generator from endangering technicians working on the power lines.
Think about the fuel. Most portables use roughly 8 to 22 gallons of gasoline a day, compared with four to eight 20-pound tanks of propane for portable models. (A 250-gallon tank for stationary units can run 8 to 15 days.) Buying and storing lots of fuel before a storm can be unwieldy, although you can pour unused gasoline into your car’s gas tank.
[If you are thinking of using gas cans for fuel storage, be sure to read the 36ReadyBlog.com article on Specter fuel cans, the gas cans used by the U.S. military.]
Look for smart features in your generator. All but two of the portable generators in our tests turn themselves off when engine oil is low. And the fuel shutoff on all tested gasoline models lets you run the engine dry to draw gas out of the fuel system to keep it from fouling parts if it degrades during storage.
Play it Safe
Powering too many appliances will trip the generator’s circuit breakers, causing power loss. Be sure what you’re powering is within the generator’s rated wattage; most transfer switches make that easier by showing wattage levels.
And protect against carbon monoxide, which kills about 86 people each year–and sends thousands more to the emergency room. Run any generator outdoors and away from the house, far from doors, windows, and anywhere else air enters the house. Never run it in a basement or garage; even with the garage door open, it endangers people inside the house.
Types of Generators
Knowing what you’re powering is the first step to choosing the right generator. Here are the types of generators and their pros and cons.
These small and mid-sized models typically put out anywhere from 3,000 to 8,500 watts. They cost from $400 to $1,000 and are adequate for many homes, which is why they’re the biggest sellers. Most portables run only on gasoline, but some can also use liquid propane or connect to a natural gas line.
They cost the least and are relatively easy to move and store. And they’re adequate for powering common plug-in appliances and lights.
Portables don’t provide nearly enough power for heavy drains like central air conditioning. And for most, you’ll have to store large quantities of gasoline, a hazardous fuel.
These large models mount permanently outside the house and are growing in popularity. Their roughly 5,000 to 15,000 watts let the largest power an entire house, including central heat and air conditioning.
Besides providing plenty of watts, stationary generators can power a bevy of hardwired items, eliminating the hassle and risk of running power cords. Most run on either propane or natural gas, eliminating the risks of pouring and storing gasoline.
All of that power and convenience comes at a price ($5,000 to $10,000 for the largest models). Stationary generators also require professional installation.
Features to Consider
Wheeled, portable generators are the biggest sellers. But whatever you buy, make sure its features help make it safe and easy to use. Here are the generator features to consider.
Stationary generators often run on either propane or natural gas. Most portable models run only on gasoline, though come equipped to run on a propane tank or natural-gas line or can be converted with kits.
A single person can move a portable generator with wheels, but you’ll still need two people to lift it. Models with pneumatic tires are easier to roll.
This feature protects the engine from damage by shutting down the generator if the oil level falls below the minimum. It’s typically on stationary generators and on some portables.
The gauge lets you check a portable’s fuel tank at a glance. It’s especially useful during a prolonged power failure.
Portable generators with a battery-powered, pushbutton starter save you the hassle of pull-starting the engine. But we’ve found pull-start models relatively easy to start. All stationary models have this feature.
A feature on higher-end portables, it makes wattage output smoother and more consistent via a microprocessor-controlled circuit.
Four or more outlets let you best use a generator’s wattage by spreading the load through more outlets–important if you’re using extension cords instead of a transfer switch.
Wattage ranges: How much machine do you need?
How much generator should you buy? Here’s what different sizes can power. Pick a model with a wattage at least equal to the total for what you’re powering. Manufacturers also suggest totaling the higher surge watts some appliances draw when they cycle on. Models that scored well for power delivery were up to that surge; for untested models, we suggest simply focusing on running watts.
To Estimate Your Wattage Requirements:
Inspect the label on your tools and appliances to determine your specific power needs. These estimates are provided to help you estimate the size of generator that you will need. Keep in mind that it is best to operate a generator at 75% of its rated capacity.
Refrigerator (600 watts)
Microwave (1,500 watts)
Sump pump (600 watts)
Several lights (400 watts)
TV (200 watts)
Price range. $400 to $800 for most; more for inverter models.
Midsized portable and small stationary, 5,000 to 8,500 watts
What it powers. Same as small models, plus:
Portable heater (1,300 watts)
Computer (250 watts)
Heating system (500 watts)
Second pump (600 watts)
More lights (400 watts)
Price range. $500 to $1,000 for portables; twice that for stationary.
Large portable, 10,000 watts
What it powers. Adds choice of:
Small water heater (3,000 watts)
Central air conditioner (5,000 watts)
Electric range (5,000 watts)
Price range. $2,000 to $3,000.
Large stationary, 10,000 to 15,000 watts
What it powers. Same as large portable models, plus:
Clothes washer (1,200 watts)
Electric dryer (5,000 watts)
Price range. $5,000 to $10,000 or more, plus installation.
Recommended models are standout choices with high scores. They include CR Best Buys, which offer exceptional value. (Occasionally, high-scoring models are not recommended due to their Brand Repair History or other issues.) When narrowing your choices among models, weigh performance, features, price, and attributes that matter to you, such as color, size, or style.
Generators that made our winners list produce smooth, steady power for refrigerators, well pumps, and other home items without losing voltage under load. Most also shut off automatically if engine oil is low.
|Portable Generator Recommendations|
|Portable generators cost less than stationary models and can be stowed away in a garage or shed when you don’t need them. To use a portable, you wheel it outdoors and start it manually, replenishing fuel and adding oil when necessary.|
Price as tested: $900
Overall score: 100
This 7,000-watt, gasoline-powered portable generator from Troy-Bilt was tops among portables. Helpful features include electric start, fuel shutoff (which prevents leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage), low-oil shutdown, a power meter (needed only with a low-end transfer switch that lacks one), a 9-gallon tank for an average 15 hours of run time, and a fuel gauge. And unlike some, it comes with the battery for the electric-start feature. It also includes the starter bottle of engine oil you’ll find with many portable models.
Price as tested: $670
Overall score: 100
This gasoline-powered portable is rated at 5,500 watts and performed almost as well as the top-scoring Troy-Bilt for hundreds less.Features include fuel shutoff (which prevents leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage), low-oil shutdown, and a fuel gauge. It also comes with the wheels and the starter bottle of engine oil you’ll find with many portable models. One feature you give up is electric starting (you’ll need to pull a cord, as you would with many lawn mowers), though the Generac is still a great value.
Price as tested: $700
Overall score: 100
Ample power delivery is a top attraction of this 6,000-watt, gasoline-powered Troy-Bilt portable, though you might miss a couple of important features. Included in the package is fuel shutoff, which prevents leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage, a fuel gauge, and a starter bottle of engine oil. Three features you give up: electric starting–you’ll need to pull a cord, as you would with many lawn mowers–a low-oil shut-off (protects the engine from overheating if the oil level dips too low), and an hour meter (tells you how long since the last oil change). But the Troy-Bilt remains a great value.
Price as tested: $2800
Overall score: 100
Providing ample power, cleanly and consistently, are top strengths of this 5,500-watt, gasoline-powered Honda portable–though you might balk at its price. You get a number of helpful features for the price, including electric start, low-oil shutoff (protects the engine from overheating if the oil level dips too low), and fuel shutoff, which prevents leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage. There’s also a fuel gauge and a starter bottle of engine oil. But what isn’t included considering the price is surprising: a battery for the electric start (about $50 separately). There’s also no hour meter, which tells you how long since the last oil change.
|Stationary Generator Recommendations
Stationary models are the most expensive but start automatically when needed. They’re permanently installed outside the home, connected to a transfer switch, and run on natural gas or propane for extended or unlimited run time.
Price as tested: $3,200
Overall score: 100
Stationary generators turn themselves on and off when needed and run on propane or natural gas for longer run time and safer fueling. The Kohler delivered smooth, steady power and offers 7,000 watts with natural gas and 8,500 using propane. It was also quietest of the models we tested, and it shuts down automatically if the engine-oil level gets low. On the downside, it is pricey and requires costly professional installation.
Price as tested: $1,800
Overall score: 100
This Generac stationary generator offers capable performance for roughly half the cost of the top-rated Kohler. It offers 6,000 watts using natural gas and 1,000 more if using propane, saving you the risks and hassle of storing gasoline. An added benefit: This generator was the only one we tested that comes with a transfer switch–usually an extra $400. Automatic low-oil shutoff is part of the package as well and a starter bottle of engine oil. It requires professional installation, but it’s still a great value.
Comparisons and Ratings
|Ratings||Troy-Bilt XP …||Generac GP550…||Troy-Bilt 600…|
|Overall score (Out of 100)||72 Very Good||67 Very Good||65 Very Good|
|Ease of use|
|Run time range (hrs.)||12 – 18||8 – 14||9 – 16|
|Features & Specs||Troy-Bilt XP …||Generac GP550…||Troy-Bilt 600…|
|Claimed output (watts)||7000||5500||6000|
|View Full Features & Specs||View Full Features & Specs||View Full Features & Specs|
|User Reviews||Troy-Bilt XP …||Generac GP550…||Troy-Bilt 600…|
|Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7||Generac CorePower 5837|
|Price & Shop||$3,200.00No sellers available||$1,800.00No sellers available|
|Ratings||Kohler 8.5 RE…||Generac CoreP…|
|Overall score (Out of 100)||92 Excellent||77 Very Good|
|Ease of use|
|Run time range (hrs.)||196 – 252||226 – 366|
|Features & Specs||Kohler 8.5 RE…||Generac CoreP…|
|Claimed output (watts)||NG 7000 LPG 8500||NG 6000 LPG 7000|
|View Full Features & Specs||View Full Features & Specs|
|User Reviews||Kohler 8.5 RE…||Generac CoreP…|
|Brand & Model||Price||Ratings and Test Results|
|Portable||Approximate retail price|
|Troy-Bilt XP 7000 30477||$900||72||12 – 18|
|Generac GP5500 5939||$670||67||8 – 14|
|Troy-Bilt 6000 30475||$700||65||9 – 16|
|Honda EM6500SX 4||$2800||64||7 – 12|
|Yamaha EF6600DE 3 4||$2450||62||7 – 14|
|Champion 41535||$1000||57||7 – 11|
|All Power APG3560 1 4||$850||51||4 – 6|
|Gentron GG3203 2||$1250||50||7 – 11|
|Generac XG7000E 5798||$1200||49||11 – 19|
|ETQ PG60B12 1 4||$900||47||3 – 4|
|Briggs & Stratton 30468||$700||45||7 – 12|
|Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7||$3200||92||196 – 252|
|Generac CorePower 5837||$1800||77||226 – 366|
|Briggs & Stratton EmPower 040301||$1800||69||200 – 353|
|Brand & Model||Price||Features & Specs|
|Portable||Approximate retail price|
|Troy-Bilt XP 7000 30477||$900||7000||Gasoline||270|
|Generac GP5500 5939||$670||5500||Gasoline||212|
|Troy-Bilt 6000 30475||$700||6000||Gasoline||204|
|Honda EM6500SX 4||$2800||5500||Gasoline||298|
|Yamaha EF6600DE 3 4||$2450||6000||Gasoline||291|
|All Power APG3560 1 4||$850||5000||LPG||218|
|Gentron GG3203 2||$1250||5000||Diesel||358|
|Generac XG7000E 5798||$1200||7000||Gasoline||262|
|ETQ PG60B12 1 4||$900||6000||LPG||194|
|Briggs & Stratton 30468||$700||5500||Gasoline||199|
|Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7||$3200||NG 7000 LPG 8500||LPG/NG||NA|
|Generac CorePower 5837||$1800||NG 6000 LPG 7000||LPG/NG||NA|
|Briggs & Stratton EmPower 040301||$1800||NG 6000 LPG 7000||LPG/NG||NA|