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Shopping Guide for Best Portable Generators

We live in an energized world, and it’s hard to picture what we’d do if the power goes out. The cause may be unexpected, such as high winds or a traffic accident taking down the lines to your house. In either case, a portable generator is just what you need for some temporary electricity.

With multiple potential uses, and a whole host of possible solutions, it's no surprise that people can get very confused about which is the best portable generator for their needs.

This is exactly kind of challenge the BestReviews engineers love to tackle!

Our lab facilities were designed specifically to find answers you can trust. Remember, we never accept manufacture samples. We buy the products we test so we can deliver accurate, independent results.

After hours of painstaking research we're happy to recommend the portable generators above as the best of their kind. Each meets or exceeds our team’s performance expectations. For a detailed look at how we judged our generators, check out our in-depth shopping guide, below.

Portable generators aren’t just for power outages. They’re also useful for projects requiring power tools at a remote site, or for camping.

What Portable Generator Do You Need?

Are you looking for a “rescue” generator because you suffer power outages at home? Are you looking for a portable generator for camping or RV trips? Do you need something to run power tools at a site with no electrical supply?

It's the big question, but finding the answer isn't always straight-forward – and often we expect a portable generator to fill more than one role.

Let's look at power consumption first, to get a better idea of what the portable generator must do.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Westinghouse WH7500E Portable Generator

Functionality

The Westinghouse WH7500E offers 7,500 watts via four 120V household outlets. It also has one 120/240V twist lock outlet. The Westinghouse is started by a push-button battery, but also offers a pull-cord recoil starting option in case the starter battery isn’t charged. Using the generator as a backup for power outages? Install a Westinghouse Manual Transfer switch in your household electrical system. When the power goes out, the transfer switch plugs into the generator – the household system draws from the generator, eliminating the need for long extension cords.

Power Demands

If you go around your house and make a quick inventory of electrical consumption, you'll soon realize that the even biggest portable generator can’t run everything at once.

An average home has power demands of 10,000 to 20,000 watts. If you want to run everything you need a permanent stand-by generator, hard-wired by a professional. It's the kind of thing that will cost you anywhere from $2,000 upwards.

DID YOU KNOW?

Every electrical device has a label detailing the wattage needed to power the device.

A portable generator gives you back-up power until the normal supply is restored. Depending on the size it can run much more than just basic necessities. If it's intended for work or recreational use there are other calculations to be made, but the same principle applies. Here are a few common items that will give you some idea. You can do your own math easily enough: every electrical gadget you own should have the wattage demand marked on it somewhere.

  • Lamps need 60 to 120 watts.

  • A sump pump needs 750 to 1,500 watts.

  • A refrigerator needs 500 to 750 watts.

  • Computers need 60 to 300 watts.

  • Heaters need 500 to 1,500 watts.

  • A coffee machine needs 750 to 1,000 watts.

  • Halogen work lights need 300 to 600 watts.

  • An electric drill needs 500 to 900 watts.

Think about adding a gen-cord. This type of extension cord is specially designed for generators, with a single plug on the generator end and three or four standard 120v sockets on the other. You’ll only need to run one cable from generator to house, rather than three or four separate extensions.

Staff
BestReviews

There's another important consideration when looking at power consumption. Most electric device have greater demand when they're initially turned on – it's called “surge.” It can be anywhere from 2 to 5 times the normal operating demand. That's why you see portable generators rated at, for example, 3,300 running watts and 4,000 starting watts. The latter is the surge it's capable of handling.

The important thing to note here is that surge lasts a few seconds at most, and you don't have to start all your electrical gadgets at once.

To manage surge, turn on your lights, wait a moment, turn on your refrigerator, and so forth. That way you don't get them all surging at once and causing an overload.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Champion Power Equipment 46539 Portable Generator

Features

The Champion Power Equipment 46539 is another generator with impressive stamina. It will go12 hours between refills, at 50% of its 3,500 watt maximum load. Surprisingly in this sector, it's also CARB compliant. It has plenty of outlets, including a 120V, 30A RV outlet. The wireless remote starter fob is a nice addition, and the generator includes a built-in surge protector. Though this model is widely advertised as an RV and camping generator, many customer reviews mention excellent performance by the Champion during multi-week power outages after hurricane strikes.

Types of Portable Generators

Most portable generators are broadly similar and either use a gasoline or propane motor to change mechanical energy into electricity.

Portable inverters use the same basic principle but, thanks to special mufflers, fuel injection and other clever tricks, they are smaller, lighter and a lot quieter. This makes them ideal for recreational use: outside parties, camping, tailgating, and RVing. They often feature automatic power fluctuation controls, making them especially good with sensitive electronic devices.

There are two drawbacks to inverters. First, power output is lower – generally between 1,000 and 3,000 Watts. Second, they are relatively expensive.

DID YOU KNOW?

Propane-powered generators require significantly more gas by volume to deliver the same amount of electricity as a gasoline-powered generator.

Portable Generator Efficiency

OK, you know how much power you need, but how long will your portable generator run? Can you leave it all day, or will  you have to refill the gas tank every few hours?

Portable generator manufacturers are happy to quote run times, but you have to be careful. Seldom, if ever, will the advertised figures align with the generator running at full capacity. You'll see things like “12 hours at 1/4 load,” or “8 hours at 50% capacity.”

To be fair, portable generators hardly ever run at peak performance for very long, so it's not that the manufacturers are being deceptive, though they are showing things in the best possible light!

You also have to consider the wattage you're consuming. Ten hours at 50% from a portable generator delivering 3500 watts is not the same as 10 hours at 50% when the power you're using is 7,000 watts.

EXPERT TIP

Manufacturers rarely advertise the running time for a generator at 100% output. It’s more common to list the number of hours the generator will run at 50% capacity, or even less.


Staff  | BestReviews

Gasoline or Liquid Propane

Each of the portable generators we've chosen runs on gasoline. Liquid propane is an alternative, and there are plenty of models that use it. The main reason none of these made our final selection is simply fuel storage.

The biggest tank among the gas-powered units we’ve selected is 7.5 gallons. A similar propane model requires several 20 lb. tanks to run for the same period.

Not only do you have to have the space to store them, you need to change them over more regularly.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Briggs & Stratton 30663 Portable Generator

Power

The Briggs & Stratton runs at 7,000 watts but can handle a surge of 8,750. The electric starter makes the generator simple to fire up, and owners appreciate the lo-tone muffler system. The control panel reports capacity in both gas remaining and hours remaining. It runs for 9 hours while providing 3,500 watts of power. This model offers both 120V and 240V outlets.

Portable Generator Features

Deciding how much power you need will focus your choices, but there are still many portable generators vying for your money. Here are some of the features you will want to look for.

Features

Easy Start

If it has a ripcord, the generator should offer decompression for easy starting. The best portable generators do away with a cord completely – you just turn a key or push a button.

Features

Fuel Gauge

It's nice to be able to check levels without taking the filler cap off.

EXPERT TIP

Keep extra oil at hand. Checking the oil level in your generator is vital. The generator will be damaged or inoperable quickly if it runs without oil.


Staff  | BestReviews
Features

Oil Level Warning

Running low on oil can seriously damage your equipment.

Features

Throttle Sensors

Units equipped with throttle sensors can adjust performance depending on load, thus increasing fuel efficiency and run time.

Features

Wheels

Wheels are a separate accessory with some portable generators. Portable inverters aren't designed to have wheels, and it's not a problem when the unit only weighs 45 pounds or so. However, when a model weighs 90 pounds plus, wheels are something of a necessity.

Portable generator gauges show either actual fuel remaining or estimated hours remaining. Combination gauges are very helpful, as they help you account for consumption rate based on the power demand.

Staff
BestReviews
Features

Multiple Power Outlets

Depending on the model, you'll get one or more 120V AC outlets. You might also get a DC outlet (useful for charging batteries), a specific RV outlet that you can plug directly into your RV's electrical circuit, or a 120/240V 30A (also called twist lock) that may be compatible with transfer switches.

Transfer switches, which should be installed by a suitably qualified professional, allow you to plug your portable generator directly into your household electrical supply, so you only run a single cable, rather than trying to run a number of extension cords through doors or windows.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

DuroStar DS4000S Portable Generator

Pricing

In many ways, the DuroStar DS4000S is an excellent choice with plenty of features, several power outlets, and a reputation among owners for ease of use and reliability. It's also remarkably cheap. However, some of the cost-cutting is achieved by not including a wheel kit ⸺ it’s an extra $35 or so. On a machine weighing 92 pounds, we think most people would choose to pay the extra. It would still be the cheapest portable generator we recommend by some margin.

Portable Generator Safety

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times, but in this case it's particularly important: always read the manufacturer's instructions! First, fumes from generators are dangerous. Second, if you fail to look after your portable generator and maintain it properly, it might let you down when you most need it.

The following might be covered within those instructions, but are worth underlining:

  • Manufacturers recommend a minimum of five feet of clear space on all sides of your generator when it's running.

  • It should always be run outdoors. A garage or shed with the door and windows open is NOT outdoors. Carbon monoxide can build up in enclosed spaces. It's colorless, odorless, and lethal.

EXPERT TIP

Never run a portable generator indoors, including sheds or garages. Open space is needed for deadly carbon monoxide to dissipate properly.


Staff  | BestReviews
  • Never fill the gas tank when the portable generator is hot. Spilled gas can ignite on a hot exhaust or casing. It's almost invisible, so it can burn you, or things around you, before you realize.

  • Never completely fill the gas tank – always allow room for expansion.

  • After use, never put your generator away until it is completely cool.

  • Never attempt to wire your generator into a household socket. “Back feed” can cause electrocution or fires not just in your home, but anywhere in the local network. If you want the option of a fixed connection, ask a properly qualified professional to install a transfer switch.

  • Beware of overloading your portable generator. If in doubt, consult an electrician.

  • Check that your generator is properly grounded. Follow all applicable federal, state and local regulations related to grounding. If you don't, you risk being electrocuted.

Turn devices on one at a time, waiting a moment between each, so they don’t surge against the generator simultaneously.

What Should A Portable Generator Cost?

During our research we found cheap portable generators for as little as $100. We don’t recommend generators at that level, but they do exist.

Our five finalists are all highly-rated models that receive lots of positive feedback from owners. They're also representative of what we would consider 'best in class', in terms of price and performance.

With portable generators, you pretty much get what you pay for.

Product in Depth

Product in Depth

Yamaha EF2000iSv2 Portable Inverter

Properties

The Yamaha EF2000iSv2 is an excellent portable inverter. With starting and running ratings of 2,000 and 1,600 watts respectively, it will comfortably run a couple of lights, a small TV (or your laptop), fridge, and coffee maker. It has automatic throttle adjustment, depending on load, so it's economical to run, and it weighs under 45 pounds. Unlike many standard portable generators it's CARB compliant – an emissions standard several states now demand. We believe it delivers the best price/performance in its class.

A robust, reliable entry-level machine can be yours for under $300. That's a great deal, but we recommend spending another hundred bucks or so for a model with similar power output, but a more exhaustive feature set.

Need to go big? Our more expensive selections get you significantly higher power output, along with excellent reliability.

Inverter generators are a slightly different story because they generally cost more than their “standard” counterparts. The model we recommend is close to a thousand dollars but, in our view, unbeatable in its class.

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