How to Choose the Best Portable Generator

Post Date: May 6, 2019 Posted by: Eleanor Sadler
Category: Portable Generators

There are only about a million options of portable generators to choose from, but which one is the best?

Truth is there isn’t one ultimate, all-purpose generator, better than any other out there. But there is a generator that will be the perfect fit for your unique needs.

What your portable generator is being used for and how much power is needed to perform that task will determine which one you will need. Portable generators can be a large investment, and it’s always a good idea to be educated about the product before you buy it. You want to be confident that you get the equipment that will suit you and we are here to help!

This guide is a one-stop informational tool for everything you need to know to find the best generator for you.

1. Common Uses for Portable Generators
2. How Does a Portable Generator Work?
3. Inverter Generators vs Classic Generators, What’s the Difference?
4. How to Choose the Best Generator For You
5. Main Takeaways

We have included this nifty little outline so you can click and jump to the portion you’d like to read and skip over the ones you don’t. Happy learning!

Common Uses for Portable Generators

Generators aren’t all doom and gloom, a tool only used for emergencies. There are plenty of fun reasons people purchase portable generators too!

1. Emergency Back Up

Never go without power. Even short power outages are an inconvenience, but with the use of a portable generator you’ll never have to worry about blackouts again.

2. At the Job Site, Work Sheds, and Powering Tools

Often seen on construction sites, generators give tools power when there aren’t any sources easily available. They also work great for unpowered work sheds.

3. For Concerts, Events, Tailgating, and Other Outdoor Parties

Make your outdoor celebration one that people talk about for years to come. Using a generator can make your set-up truly bragging rights worthy.

4. During Natural Disasters and Emergencies

They can keep your house warm during extreme winter weather, keep the lights on during tropical storms and more.

5. For a Perfect Trip

Go glamping in style. Portable generators make it possible to have a home away from home, even in the middle of your campsite.They can power up RV’s and other equipment to make travel a breeze.

 How Does a Portable Generator Work?

So, how do these miracle machines work?

There are a lot of very complex explanations and lots of physics involved, but we won’t dive down that rabbit hole today. You just need to know the basics.

You might be shocked to learn that electricity has a lot to do with magnetic charges. Generators change mechanical energy into electricity through a phenomenon called electromagnetic induction, which was discovered in 1831 by Michael Faraday.

He discovered that if an electric conductor moves through a magnetic field an electric current will flow through the conductor, which can be used to turn on lights, and power up appliances.

Electric generators use copper wire as a conductor, they are spun through a magnetic field that causes an electric current to flow through it.

The short video below shows the most basic form of an electric generator. (Run time 2 minutes, 5 seconds)

So, how do portable electric generators use that principle to create usable energy?

Generators use fuel, like natural gas, gasoline, or propane, to run an internal combustion engine. A generator has a stationary magnetic field (stator), inside the stator is a rotating electromagnet (armature) that spins to produce an electrical current.

The engine rotates the shaft which turns the armature. That electrical current is then routed through the generator where it then becomes available for you to use when you want to plug in and power your appliances.

It is basically a fancier and more complex version of the simple generator shown in the video, and they are capable of producing enough energy to power much more than just a lightbulb.

 Inverter Generators vs Classic Generators, What’s the Difference?

Most inverter generators are built similarly to classic generators, but with one key difference that sets them apart. Both types of generators use fuel to create raw, high voltage multiphase AC power. But that is the end of the similarities.

After inverter generators make the raw AC power, it then converts it to DC power. Then the inverter inside the generator converts the DC power to AC power again.

However this time, thanks to a specially designed microprocessor, the AC power is now smooth, stable, clean and consistent, similar to the electricity that is supplied through the electrical outlets in your home from utility companies.

This is the type of electricity that must be used for sensitive electronics like TVs and computers.

You’re probably thinking… “Um, what is AC and DC power?”

Time for another quick physics lesson, but don’t let the difference between AC and DC charges leave you thunderstruck.

Both AC and DC power describe the direction of electrons.

AC is an abbreviation for alternating current. This means that the electrons move back and forth. If you graphed AC power it would look like waves, these are known as sine waves. As the magnet inside the generator spins, it causes the electrons to change directions as the north and south poles come closer to our conductor, in this case, copper wires.

This is the type of electricity that is used to power our homes. Lightbulbs actually blink about 60 times a second, because of the electrons alternating directions. It is at such a fast pace our eyes see it as constant light.

DC, or direct current, means electrons flow in a single direction. It provides a steady stream of electricity. If you were to put DC on a graph it would look like a straight line. This type of current is used in car engines, flashlights, remote controls, and other battery powered devices.

Want a more complete lesson, one that has visuals? This video does an excellent job of giving a full explanation.

 How to Choose the Best Generator For You

Before you can buy the best, you must know what makes a generator better for you than the rest. Whether you are hosting a rocking tailgating party or using secondary power as a lifeline during an emergency, you want dependable power you can count on.

Making sure you get the best portable generator begins with calculating how many watts you need.

Determining Watts Needed

OK, so before we can continue you gotta know what watts, starting watts and running watts are:

  • Watts: The power produced by portable generators. Generally speaking, the more watts your generator creates the more power you have.
  • Running watts: This is the number of watts it takes to keep your equipment running.
  • Starting watts: Some things need extra juice to get going. Starting watts tell you how many watts it takes to get the equipment up and running. For example, some refrigerators need around 2,220 watts to start up but then only need 700 watts to stay on.

Now that you know the lingo, you can use these four simple steps to calculate how big of a portable generator you’ll need. The more appliances and equipment you need to power the higher the wattage you’ll need.

  1. Choose the devices you’ll be using at the same time.
  2. Jot down and add the running watts listed for each device that you want to power up.
  3. Note the starting watts, if any, for the devices you chose.
  4. Select the device that has the highest starting watts and then add that number to the total running watts to find out how many watts your best portable generator

So let’s do an example, using the table below, which lists approximate wattages for equipment commonly used in different scenarios:

** These are just average wattages. Be sure to find the wattages listed on your equipment to do the calculations for the most accurate estimation.

Man, there was a doozy of a storm and lightning totally fried the power grid. Needless to say, it will be a hot minute until the lines will be up and running, so what do you want to power?

By using that calculation, you will have plenty of energy to run all the items simultaneously and even have some watts to spare.

Special Features to Look For…

Wattage is the biggest deciding factor, but there are some additional features to consider. Let’s paint the picture of some scenarios, and why these features matter.

Size/Weight/ Portability

You previously purchased a large portable generator to use as backup power for an emergency and man, does that beast do its job. Recently, you decided to buy an RV because you’d love to road trip through all 50 states and you need a generator to power it. You think, why buy a new generator? I’ll just use the one I have – until, you try to move it onto the RV. Holy cow is that thing heavy! You totally forgot how much it weighed because it hasn’t needed to be moved in quite some time.

While all portable generators are technically mobile, some large models can weigh 200 pounds or more.  Probably don’t want to try to lug around a 200 pound generator to take camping, but if the generator will not need to be moved around frequently this is no deal breaker.

Inverter generators are pretty small compared to how much power they can produce. They are smaller than traditional portable generators and can fit easily in your car.

Run Times and Fuel Efficiency

You are smack dab in the middle of that blizzard the weatherman has been warning you about for days. Your power has been out for a few hours already and you’re starting to worry about the food in the fridge so you decide to turn on your generator. You get it all set up and then just a short four hours later you’ve got to fight the cold wind and snow flurries again! The darn thing is out of fuel and you have to go refill it.

Some generators are designed to run for 16 hours or more, while others lose juice after only 4 hours. Be sure the model you choose will be able to run as long as you need it to.

Noise

You are ready for a relaxing vacation in a beautiful forest on a mountain. You bought all kinds of new camping gear and are so excited to try out your new generator. You power it up and it sounds like a jackhammer. “Oops.” Kind of ruins the whole mood of the trip doesn’t it?

Inverter generators tend to be quieter than traditional generators but most manufacturers will list how loud the generator is when it’s running in decibels (dB).

To get an idea of how loud things are…  

Here are a few examples- a soft whisper is 30 dB, normal conversation is about 60 dB, a vacuum cleaner is about 60-75 dB and a rock concert is about 110-120 dB.

Max Power Output

You added up all the wattages for the equipment you want to run at once and you bought a generator that could produce exactly that amount. You get it home and start using it and powering all your things and then the generator gets overloaded and stops working. What gives?

Many generators are often advertised at the maximum wattage they can produce, but this maximum power can usually only be supplied for 30 minutes.

Be sure you look at the generator’s rated power too, this is the power that a generator can easily produce for long periods of time. It is usually 90 percent of the max power.

Quality of Power Produced

It is your turn to host the tailgate and you decide to get a small classic generator. You get everything all set up, get the generator going and plug in the TV. “Ut oh.” The TV gets fried. Disaster. And now you’re “that person.”

Classic generators produce raw power that is great for appliances, like refrigerators but not so great for sensitive electronics. Inverter generators are a better choice for powering laptops, televisions and other delicate electrical devices.

 Main Takeaways

That was a hefty amount of information, so let’s sum it all up in nutshell.

  • Generators are an amazing option for powering all kinds of equipment in a lot of different scenarios.
  • Portable electric generators use electromagnetic induction to give you usable electricity to power up what you need to.
  • Portable inverter generators are a better choice for powering sensitive electronics because they provide cleaner electricity than classic portable generators.
  • Determining wattage is the biggest deciding factor for purchasing a portable generator but there are other key features that are important considerations too.

Still confused about which portable generator will be the best for you? Don’t worry, we got you. ISC Sales has experienced, knowledgeable experts that would love to answer your lingering questions.

Just can’t get enough information about portable generators, and want to read more about them? Check out our other blog posts that are rich with information.

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