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Generator Buying Guide: What You Need to Know

Get details on generator safety, the different types of generators and more.

A yellow and black generator sitting on wooden decking.
Generators can provide backup electricity in a pinch.
DonNichols/Getty Images

Large parts of North America are at an elevated risk for power outages this summer, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said on Wednesday. That's thanks to higher than average temperatures and drought that's affecting hydroelectric plants throughout the west.

If you've ever lost power in your home, then you know how inconvenient it can be. Whether it's due to a major storm or a downed power line in your area, you never know if the power will be down for minutes, hours or even days. And not only can that be inconvenient, but it can also be dangerous. That's where generators (or a backup battery) come in.

Having a generator on hand to power your home (or anything else) can be a game-changer. But the first step is choosing the right generator for you. It's important to do your research and understand exactly what you need. It's also important to understand some of the safety concerns that come with generators, such as the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning.

In this guide, we are diving into how generators work, the different types of generators, how to maintain your generator and a few considerations to help you choose the right generator for your home.

What is a home generator?

A generator is an appliance that can supply electricity for your home, your business or when you're on the go. Despite what the name implies, generators don't actually create electricity. Instead, they take another form of energy and convert it into electricity. 

Generators can be used to provide backup power to your home or business when there's an outage due to inclement weather, downed power lines or any other hazards. They can also be used to provide power on the go, such as when you're camping or traveling in an RV.

Safety concerns

Before choosing a generator, it's important to understand the safety considerations involved. Like anything that produces exhaust, generators can result in carbon monoxide poisoning if you aren't careful. To learn more about the safety considerations of generators, we spoke to Christopher Haas, a licensed master electrician and owner of Haas & Sons Electric.

"Never run the generator in enclosed spaces, as they produce exhaust no different than your car or power tools and, that's not good for anyone due to CO poisoning," Haas said. "Even so, we recommend a portable CO detector to be certain exhaust doesn't find its way to your living quarters. These can be purchased easily online for infrequent use, but I recommend installing CO detectors in your home anyways, so place a wall unit near your garage year-round."

Underwriters Laboratories also provides a comprehensive overview of the potential safety hazards associated with portable generators. The UL guide includes specific certification (UL 2201) to look for to ensure your model meets the requirements for carbon monoxide mitigation, though you still need to take the precautions spelled out above.

"UL 2201 has requirements that limit the active CO emissions coming from the portable generator. It also has a shutoff requirement for additional protection if the product is sensing a high output of CO," according to UL

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Types of generators

When it comes to choosing a generator, you'll first have to narrow down the type of generator you want. The primary types are portable generators, inverter generators and standby generators.

Portable generator

A portable generator, as the name suggests, is one that's easily portable. These generators often have wheels, making them easy to move around to deliver electricity anywhere. Even smaller models may be handheld rather than on wheels, making them even more mobile. Portable generators usually run on gasoline and tend to be more affordable than standby generators.

Inverter generator

An inverter generator is similar to a portable generator in that it's smaller and easier to transport. But inverter generators tend to be even lighter than a standard portable generator. They are also quieter, which can make them suitable for a wider range of activities, including camping and other activities. 

Inverter generators and standard portable generators differ in the type of electricity they produce, the amount of power they can generate, their portability, their noise level and their price. Inverter generators tend to be more expensive and produce less power, but are more portable, quieter and produce fewer emissions.

Standby generator

A standby generator is a more permanent solution than a portable generator. It's larger and considerably more expensive. Rather than being easily transported, it's permanently installed at your home or business. When your power goes out, the standby generator automatically turns on to continue providing power. Rather than gasoline, standby generators are often fueled by propane, and can also be powered by natural gas.

According to Haas, the licensed electrician we spoke with, standby generators eliminate many of the safety concerns associated with portable generators. And while they're most expensive, it could be an option if safety is your top priority. 

How much do generators cost?

The cost of a generator can span from hundreds to thousands of dollars, with standby generators being the most expensive of all. For a standby generator, you can expect to pay at least $2,000 for your unit, and possibly more than $10,000. In the case of portable generators, you could pay anywhere from just a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. The good news is that they are easily purchased -- you can find them at just about any home improvement store, including Home Depot, Lowe's, Ace Hardware and more.

Generator considerations

There's a lot to consider when buying a generator. Below, we'll talk about some of the most important considerations that can help you make your decision.

Power requirements

One of the most important considerations when choosing a generator is the amount of power you need. You can likely answer this question by considering what you'll be using the generator for. Portable generators produce less power and may be suitable for powering a few small things. On the other hand, a standby generator could power your entire home.

"When weighing the options for a generator, you need to consider and tally what appliances you consider mandatory for the continuation of services." Haas said. "A refrigerator needs about 600 watts, your sump pump (helpful for flood-prone regions) needs about 1,300 to 2,150 watts to start and about 800 to 1,000 watts to run. For those in winter regions, a portable heater may need up to 1,500 watts. Small devices like our phones charging only require 10 watts, so they're not a concern compared to the big appliances that you'll have to factor in and gauge what's right for your needs."

Common uses

It's not just about how much power you need your generator to produce, but also what you'll be using it for. Choosing a generator to power your home in an outage is very different from choosing one to take on a camping trip. As we mentioned, standby generators are installed permanently at your home and provide backup electricity during an outage. A portable generator, on the other hand, can be taken with you on the go. For even more portability, you might choose an inverter generator that is lighter and makes less noise.

Fuel source

There are generally three different ways you can fuel your generator. The choices available to you will depend on the type of generator you choose and the specific model. First, gasoline is most often used to fuel portable generators. Propane can be used to fuel both standby generators and portable generators. Finally, natural gas can be used to fuel standby generators, but isn't available for portable generators.

Budget 

The generator you choose will also ultimately depend on your budget. Remember that standby generators are more expensive, while portable generators are generally more affordable.

Other features

There are many features you can find with a generator. Before choosing the right model for you, consider which features are most important to you and which you can live without. Here are a few features to look out for in generators:

  • Automatic CO shutoff: This safety feature automatically shuts off your generator if it detects a dangerous level of gas building up. This feature is important to ensuring your and your family's safety.
  • Electric start: Rather than requiring you to pull-start the engine, an electric start simply requires that you push a button to start your generator.
  • Automatic start: If your generator is intended to power your home in a power outage, you may want an automatic start. It will automatically turn on your generator if your home's power goes off.
  • Fuel gauge: When your generator has a fuel gauge, you can easily glance at it to see how much gasoline or propane is left so you know when it's time to refuel.
  • Multiple outlets: Having multiple outlets on your portable generator allows you to plug in multiple items or appliances and spread the wattage use out.
  • Low-oil shutoff: This feature protects your generator from damage by automatically turning it off if the oil dips below a certain level.

Maintaining your generator

No matter what generator you choose, it's important that you regularly maintain. Not only will regular maintenance ensure that it runs its best when you need it, but it will also be necessary to use your generator safely.

"You have to service these generators annually so if you need them in an emergency you can rely on them in an emergency," Haas said.

First, it's important that you check and change the oil in your generator. It's recommended that you check the oil before using it and change the oil every 100 hours or so (though it should be earlier for a new generator). While you're checking the oil, also take the time to check the filters and the spark plug to ensure they're in good shape.

Next, avoid letting your generator sit for too long of periods without being used. Running your generator helps to burn off moisture and recharge the battery. And when you aren't planning to use it for more than a few weeks, it should be run dry so it's not sitting with fuel in the lines. Finally, be sure to store your generator properly in a way that it's protected.

"You shouldn't store your generator outdoors, but if you had to, please don't operate it with any sort of green debris on it," Haas said. "Dead leaves, pine needles, and more can find their way into the unit and when it fires up they can lead to fires."

The bottom line

There's a lot to consider when choosing the right generator. But when you take into consideration all of the information above, you'll have an easier time narrowing down the right generator type and model for you. If a generator is just too noisy, you might opt for a portable power station. Here are a few articles to help you learn more: