are intended to provide temporary power when utility is not available. These devices are usually connected to the loads via extension cords, although a connection via an optional transfer switch is more convenient. They are often used in homes, small offices, on construction sites, farms, motor homes, recreation vehicles, and in camping trips. Most of the models are fueled from the on-board tank and therefore can't run for a long time without refueling. More expensive multi-fuel devices can be hooked up to a natural gas or propane line for continuous operation. For more details, see our portable generator guide
. To save you hours of research and help you choose the best device for the job, I put up the chart below. It contains the ratings and typical prices on some of the top rated brands followed by selection considerations.
So, what portable generator is the best? Gasoline models are the most popular backup power devices. Many of them are relatively cheap, although after hurricane Sandy prices on most models have spiked and many are out of stock. Consumer Reports magazine in its 2012 reviews rated Generac model GP5500 5939 "best buy". It had a reasonable price and mostly positive users reviews. Note however, that CR rating covered only a few brands, mainly those that are sold at hardware stores. Of course, if you need an emergency power immediately, a local store is your only option. Otherwise, buying online have a number of potential advantages: broader selection, lower prices, no sales tax in some cases, and often even a free delivery. For example, DuroMax XP8500E
provides 30% more power with electric start, and it has about the same average users rating as GP5500 5939. Briggs & Stratton Elite model 30242 was once a best buy, but this year it is in the bottom of Consumer Reports rating list. If you need to supply power to just a few small appliances or tools, consider Sportsman GEN4065 that sells for 50% less than most domestic brands on the US market. Some of devices previously recommended by CR magazine have been discontinued. For example, among midsized units, they once recommended Coleman PM0545005. Coleman has sold its Powermate division to PRAMAC. This and some similar part numbers are no longer manufactured, but may still be available for sale quite cheap. Likewise, Troy-Bilt 30248 and 30245 are discontinued. Troy-Bilt is now a Briggs & Stratton brand sold at Lowe's. Its price seems to me higher than you can get online for comparable units.
Note that with any gasoline-fueled portable model you will need to refill the fuel tank several times a day if you run it non-stop at rated load. Unfortunately, gasoline can't be stored for a long time and during a blackout gas stations may not work. Therefore, a gas generator may be a good solution only for short-term rolling blackouts or for camping trips. However, if you keep a genset as an emergency backup system, you should store a large amount of stabilized gasoline (say, 100-200 gallons for a week supply) and replace it at least every other year.
Also note that practically all gasoline gensets use 3600-RPM air cooled engines with relatively short product lives: about 500-1500 hours of use. When used occasionally for emergency backup purposes, they may remain operational for about 5 to 7 years. But if you need a power source for frequent use (for example on job sites), consider a model with a diesel
engine such as APG3201
. Diesel generators cost more, but they have 2-3 times longer life than gas models. Diesel, like gasoline may not be available during a wide spread blackout, but it is more safe to store. If you are concerned about major blackouts, consider propane
models, such as GEN4000LP
. Propane can be stored practically indefinitely and it is the only type of fuel that may be obtainable during power outages- you don't need power to refill the canister. When powered from a single BBQ tank, GEN4000LP will provide about the same run time as comparable gas or diesel gensets per tankful.
Finally, if you prefer the convenience of portability and continuous power at extra cost, you might consider a multi-fuel device that can be hooked up to a natural gas line or a large propane tank. The tri-fuel Northstar 8000 TFG
was once featured in a Consumer Reports and had good users reviews. Unfortunately, Northern Tool + Equipment who used to make this device has discontinued all its tri fuel generators. Off-the-shelf multi fuel portables generally are too expensive- for the same money you may probably buy two regular devices. However, many gasoline models can be converted to multi-fuel ones with a third party conversion kit that enables them to run on LPG and diesel. This would be less expensive than to buy a tri-fuel model, but you would still have to deal with a light-duty gasoline engine.
For more information see this review
to portable power and my picks
of best portable generators.
The characteristics in the chart are based on manufacturer's or seller's specifications available at the time we compiled this review. The prices are given for the same period of time (taxes and shipping are not included, but may be free at some retailers). Of course, prices and specs are subject to change without notice. For permanent "whole house" backup power devices and transfer switches see our discount generators
All listed models provide standard duplex outlets 120VAC 60 Hz (15 or 20 A) and a twist-lock 120/240VAC 30 A outlet (except for 4000 watt models, which have only 120VAC) . Other higher current twist-lock outlets if offered are listed in the "Features" column.
Weight is given without packaging (shipping weight will be higher).
N/a means data "not available" (i.e. we could not find this information).
All data here are provided As Is
- no responsibility for any errors. The devices compared above represent only a fraction of all available models. For official datasheets you may contact the respective manufacturers.