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Portable Generator Buying Guide

A portable generator is a good power solution if you don't want to invest in a standby generator or if you need electricity for activities away from the home. Learn how to calculate your power requirements and find the best portable generator for your needs.

Portable Generator

Portable Generator Basics

Portable generators can supply power to vital devices around the home when you're facing a blackout. Outside the home, a small portable generator can provide power for TVs, small appliances, power tools and lights while camping. You can put medium to larger portable generators to work at construction sites to operate power tools such as drills, saws, paint sprayers and air compressors.

Good to Know

Always follow the generator manufacturer's operating, maintenance and safety instructions.

Backup Power with Portable Generators

Portable generators run on gasoline or liquid propane (LP) to back up important devices and appliances (such as lights, a refrigerator or a sump pump) during an outage. Add a manual transfer switch and you can deliver the full output of your portable generator to your home's electrical system, letting you back up hardwired appliances.

You should regularly maintain and test backup portable generators for readiness. Have a safe outdoor location to operate the generator, and be familiar with the manufacturer's operation recommendations.

Power Requirements and Portable Generator Size

The wattage a portable generator produces will determine the items it can power. Deciding how much power you need is an important part of selecting a portable generator size. Use this worksheet to estimate the power requirements of the items you want to run and determine how much power you need from a generator.

Portable Generator Features

Portable generators are available in a wide range of sizes and features:

  • Circuit-breaker-protected outlets to guard against generator overload
  • Larger fuel tanks for extra run time
  • Integrated fuel gauges to help prevent power interruptions
  • Power that is safe for computers and other sensitive electronic devices
  • Low-tone mufflers for quiet operation
  • Fold-down handles and wheel kits for easy portability

Portable Generator Safety Tips

Before reading these tips, always read the owner's manual and instructions for your portable generator, which also provide safety tips. Carefully follow all instructions and warnings to safely start and operate the generator. Do not cut corners when it comes to safety. These tips are merely supplemental and are not intended to substitute reading the owner's manual.

Carbon Monoxide and Ventilation

  • Portable generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide, a deadly poisonous gas you cannot see or smell.
  • Never run a generator indoors or in partly enclosed areas such as garages.
  • Only use a portable generator outdoors — far from windows, doors, vents and crawl spaces — and in an area where adequate ventilation is available.
  • Using a fan or opening doors and windows will not provide sufficient ventilation.
  • Install battery-operated carbon monoxide alarms indoors according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Gasoline, Fueling and Preventing Burns

  • Gasoline is extremely flammable and explosive.
  • Do not overfill the fuel tank. Always allow room for fuel expansion.
  • If the fuel tank is over-filled, fuel can overflow onto a hot engine and cause a fire or explosion.
  • Never add fuel while the unit is running or hot. Allow the generator and the engine to cool entirely before adding fuel.
  • Never store a generator with fuel in the tank where gasoline vapors might reach an open flame, spark or pilot light.
  • Do not smoke near fuel or a generator.
  • Many generator parts are hot enough to burn you during operation and while the generator is cooling after turning off. Avoid coming into contact with a hot generator.

Electrocution Hazard and Electrical Shock Hazards

  • Connecting a portable electric generator directly to your household wiring can be deadly to you and others. A generator that is directly connected to your home's wiring can back-feed onto the power lines connected to your home and injure neighbors or utility workers.
  • Do not connect your generator directly to your home's wiring or into a regular household outlet.
  • Always start or stop the generator only when no electrical loads are connected.
  • Overloading your generator can seriously damage valuable appliances and electronics. Do not overload the generator. Do not operate more appliances and equipment than the output rating of the generator. Prioritize your needs. You should use a portable generator only when necessary and only to power essential equipment.
  • Use the proper power cords. Plug individual appliances into the generator using heavy-duty, outdoor-rated cords with a wire gauge adequate for the appliance load. Overloaded cords can cause fires or equipment damage. Do not use extension cords with exposed wires or worn shielding.
  • Do not operate the generator in wet conditions such as rain or snow.
  • The generator must be properly grounded. If the generator is not grounded, you risk electrocution. Check and adhere to all applicable federal, state and local regulations relating to grounding.

Generator Placement and Operation

  • Keep children away from portable generators at all times.
  • Allow at least five feet of clearance on all sides of the generator when it is operating.
  • You can use a generator during a wide variety of weather and temperatures, but you should protect the generator from the elements when it is not in use to prevent shorting and rusting.
  • Never run a generator indoors.
  • Operate the generator only on level surfaces where it will not be exposed to excessive moisture, dirt, dust or corrosive vapors.
  • Inspect the generator regularly and contact the nearest authorized dealer for parts needing repair or replacement.
  • Always disconnect the spark plug wire and place the wire where it cannot contact the spark plug to prevent accidental starting when setting up, transporting, adjusting or making repairs to the generator.

Portable Generator Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between rated watts and maximum (surge) watts?

Rated watts describe the amount of power the portable generator can produce continuously. Maximum wattage is the power that the generator can produce for short periods of time. The power a motor needs when starting up is a good example of maximum wattage requirements.

Can I use a portable generator for backup during a power outage?

Yes. You can plug household appliances and devices into a portable generator, but not all simultaneously.

Never plug your generator into an outlet in your home or business. If you would like to connect a portable generator to your home's wiring system, have a certified electrician install an approved manual power transfer switch in compliance with electrical codes.

What is a transfer switch?

A transfer switch allows you to connect a portable generator to your home's electrical system, while safely disconnecting you from the utility grid. This will eliminate any chance of a dangerous back-feed.

What is a back-feed?

A back-feed occurs when a generator is plugged into an electrical outlet, feeding power back onto utility lines. This creates a life-threatening hazard for any utility employees working to restore power to these lines.

Does the portable generator need to be grounded?

Yes. For safety, the generator must be properly grounded. If the generator is not grounded, you risk electrocution. Check and adhere to all applicable federal, state and local regulations relating to grounding.

Can I vent the exhaust out of an enclosed area?

No. Never run the generator in the home or an enclosed area. Portable generators are designed to run outside where there is plenty of ventilation. Generator exhaust, like that of all gasoline engines, contains poisonous carbon monoxide. For more information, refer to Portable Generator Safety Tips above.

Can I use the generator during inclement weather?

You can use a generator during a wide variety of weather and temperatures, but you should protect it from the elements when it is not in use to prevent shorting and rusting. Never run a generator indoors.

How often should I perform routine maintenance?

Check your owner's manual for the recommended maintenance schedule.

Where can I purchase parts?

You can purchase parts through any authorized dealer. Refer to the dealer locator section on the manufacturer's web site to find a dealer near you.

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Good to Know

A fuel stabilizer can prevent gum, varnish, rust and corrosion from forming in a portable generator engine and can keep gasoline fresh for more dependable starts. See the generator manual for instructions on using fuel additives.