We’ve all had the power knocked out by a mega storm or a hurricane that made landfall. We worry about the freezer full of food spoiling while we call out for pizza, teach the kids how to play Hangman and Pictionary, dig out the candles, drive into the next county to wherever there’s power to charge our phones, and take cold showers. That’s always fun.
This is a big deal, because some people need medicines that are chilled, machine treatments like oxygen, and emergency notifications for their doctors. These things require power. Here’s where generators enter the picture.
There are three types of generators: portable, inverter generator, and standby generator. We want to talk about portable generators. They’re small, obviously, so they’re better suited to powering some items in a home rather than a Walmart.
They run on gas, which makes them a fire hazard. Always keep the portable generator outdoors. Don’t even put it in the garage unless the door remains open at all times to prevent fire. The fumes can cause havoc, too, so keep that door open. They can also run on diesel, propane, or natural gas.
There’s another type of portable generator that might surprise you. For a long time now, science has been working on turning hydrogen into fuel. Such fuel cells have been planned for powering NASA’s rockets as well as the Navy’s ships. Why not start small, and power a generator using hydrogen fuel? They, too, require attention so that no disasters happen, though.
Last but definitely not least is the solar generator. The solar panels charge in direct sunlight while connected to a storage unit like a battery. When Mother Nature has a hissy fit, just hook up the battery, and you’re in business. They have the capacity to power a whole house, but they’re mainly used to power the important stuff (like the fridge, stove, and hot water heater.)
Features of Backup Generators
You’ll need to know the wattage of the items you want powered by a portable generator during an outage. Typically, homeowners want the fridge powered (600 watts,) the sump pump (up to 1,500 watts,) the lights (up to 600 watts,) and the computer (up to 300 watts.) Now that you know how much power you need, you should know what features to look.
Automatic Shutoff For CO
If the exhaust on the generator isn’t pointed away from the house, dangerous carbon monoxide gas can harm people in the house. Almost all models of gasoline powered portable generators have an automatic shutoff feature that turns off the generator when levels of CO get to a certain point. Generac and Honda are two makers using this technology on their generators.
Engine With Low CO
Emissions from an engine can cause just as much trouble as CO. A feature of generators is the engine shutting down when these emissions reach a certain point. Echo and Ryobi use this technology in their generators.
Automatic Turn On
This feature turns on the generator the instant the power goes off. This is a great feature for those at work when disaster strikes.
Electric Turn On
This comes in handy when the machine turns on when a button is pushed instead of pull-starting the generator like a lawn mower.
Low Oil Turn Off
The engine can be damaged when the oil gets too low to lubricate it. This feature turns off the motor before the oil level reaches the danger point.
Most portable generators run on gasoline. They can be modified to run on natural gas, propane, or even hydrogen.
Since you don’t want your most important household items to stop running, knowing how much fuel is in the generator is imperative.
You can take off the cover in order to plug electrical plugs into the outlets. This negates the dangers of running extension cords from the house to the generator.
Outlets And USB Ports
Which brings us to outlets into which to plug the important stuff. You should have four or five in order to run the most important things in the house plus USB ports for charging phones and tablets. This spreads the load evenly instead of jacking everything into one outlet.
Portable generators producing 5,000 watts or more require special treatment. A transfer switch looks like a smaller breaker panel, and it’s placed near the house’s breaker panel. It prevents the appliances, wiring, and other considerations from getting fried when the power goes off or the generator shuts itself off.
Styles Of Portable Generators
Marbero Portable Solar Power Station
A 110 volt, peak 120 watt solar generator, this model features a USB port, electrical outlets, an LED flashlight, a vent, so the temperature remains constant, and it even comes with an internal fan to keep the generator cool. A tad larger than a car battery, this model features automatic shutoff options. Available on Amazon.
WEN Portable Inverter Generator
This portable inverter generator, also a little bigger than a car battery, features multiple voltage outlets, USB port, emergency shutoff options, and offers 2,000 watts of power. This model comes with a fuel control switch for saving on fuel consumption. Available on Amazon.
Briggs & Stratton Electric Start Portable Inverter Generator
Looking more like a child’s Tonka toy with its square body and wheels, this model is 120 volts and offers 4500 watts of power. With a push-button electrical start, the generator offers automatic shutoff when CO levels are unacceptable. You’ll have multiple outlets and USB ports. Available on Amazon.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Generator
Hydrogen fuel cells power things in the ten volt category like phones, tablets, small fans, radios, Bluetooth headphones, and the like. These ten watt six volt generators come with the usual emergency shutoff options and are subject to the same temperature restrictions. Your best bet would be to order one online, because they aren’t listed on Amazon. I haven’t found one listed at big box stores, either.
Now we come to the generator styles that feature a steel frame with what looks like a car motor inside the frame. The frame sits on wheels. Its features vary by brand, but this is the style generator that packs the biggest punch.
This style generator runs on either gasoline or propane or a mixture of the two called dual fuel. This is when you flip a switch to use the other. You’d have to ask a professional if a gasoline generator would run on diesel, because they simply aren’t listed on Amazon or in big box stores.
Westinghouse Wgen9500DF Dual Fuel Gas/Propane Generator
With 12,500 watts of power with gasoline and 11,200 with propane, this model has a remote electrical start, There are multiple electrical outlets with rubber plugs plus they’re GFCI which means they’re grounded. You’ll have a USB port. There are some shutoff options. Available at Amazon.
Champion 100111 Portable Generator
Electric start, 12,000 watts of power, multiple electrical outlets with covers and all GFCI, USB port, and even surge protection marks this model as special. Standard shutoff options and gauges to monitor necessary functions. Available on Amazon.
Pros And Cons Of Using Portable Generators
Portable generators are good when a power outage occurs, and you’re working from home. You need your phone and computer or tablet to be up and running, or no payday for you. A portable generator is your only option.
Those who love camping and travel all over the country to do it are the perfect candidates for portable generators. Not every campground offers electricity. It’s kind of difficult to cook, use the lights for reading, or get a hot shower with no power. Hello, generator!
Construction crews and those working around boat slips could always use power for various reasons. Power tools and working at night are just two of them. Amazon to the rescue. Portable generators have their pros and cons, though.
- With budgetary considerations, portable generators are better than whole-house or standby generators.
- They’re not complicated to understand. A couple of steps, and you’re up and running.
- They’re portable, so you can move them wherever they’re needed most, and then move them right into storage.
- With a transfer switch, a portable generator can power almost as many appliances as a whole-house generator. Without one, you can use suitable extension cords to run certain appliances.
- Portable generators start with the touch of a button or the pull of a cord, they’re durable, and reliable.
- They automatically shut off when they sense a problem with oil or CO levels.
- New generators offer the capability of doubling the power. It’s called parallel capability. It means plugging in another generator beside the one you have. You can power a lot more of your house with two generators.
- They’re noisy at first until they hit the idle stage, they have dangerous fumes, and they run hot after a while.
- Unlike whole-house generators, portable ones have to be started. They don’t kick on automatically when the power goes out.
- They only have enough power to run essentials like the fridge, water heater, sump pump, small electronics, and possibly a fan if not the air conditioner.
- Portable generators require maintenance. You’ll have to start it two or three times per year, empty the gas tank when not in use and refill it when you need power, check the oil, and make sure the electrical outlets are covered among other things.
What Should You Look For In A Portable Generator?
We’ve covered the styles and the fuel types of portable generators, but there are a few other things you should know that the product descriptions don’t explain.
- Total harmonic distortion. Computers and phones are delicate things. The least little thing can damage them. In these cases, generators with a waveform is necessary. It should have a total harmonic distortion of less than six percent, or the circuits will be fried. Look for “pure sine wave” or “clean power” on the box.
- Electronic fuel injection. Carburetors get clogged, which means cleaning it before you can use your generator. Electronic fuel injection means no carburetor with which to fuss. It also means a smoother start in cold weather.
- Wheel Kits. Generators are heavy, but they’re more manageable with wheels attached. If you don’t have a small wagon or cart upon which to mount your generator, get some wheels. No sense throwing your back out lugging the thing outside when you don’t have to.
- Lift hook bar. Industrial generators have to be moved from floor to floor occasionally. This is heavy work not meant for the human body. You’ll need a lift hook bar through which to thread a winch to lift the generator from floor to floor.
A Short History Of Generators
Grab a coffee and have a seat, because we’re going back in time to physics class. You don’t necessarily have to know how generators work in order to buy one, but it does help to have a rudimentary understanding of their workings.
Generators got their start in the 1700s with the steam engine. James Watt noticed a huge loss of power in the heat of the engine. He invented the Watt Steam Engine with rotary movements in the engine. This paved the way for generators later on.
Meanwhile, in England, Michael Faraday was inventing a magnetic generator using a Faraday disk rotating between magnets with poles perpendicular to the disk. The apparatus generated high current, but the voltage was low. This invention paved the way for the dynamo which was used in industrial electricity.
Now other scientists got on the bandwagon. The German Werner von Siemens developed DC and AC generators. American Thomas Edison lit both industry and homes with his DC powered Electric Lighting System. Nikola Tesla combined multiple existing generators’ rotating mechanisms into one large one. This produced huge amounts of power. Industry could now grow since it was reliably powered.
The 1900s found the motor being developed alongside the generator. Steam, water, and gas turbines produced mechanical energy, thus creating an electrical current. This in turn powered a grid system that supplied power to large areas.
Welcome to the 2000s, when generators are relatively small and portable, run on gas, hydrogen fuel cells, or solar energy, and can power a few appliances and electronics for up to nine hours on six gallons of gas. Technology has made them quieter than their original cousins, safer with shutoff options, and with multiple outlets for appliances and electronics.
What is the Lifespan of a Portable Generator?
Keep in mind, generators aren’t used but a couple of times per year for a limited number of hours. Thus, lifespan depends on things such as a quality brand name machine and regular maintenance including good quality fuel and oil.
That said, a diesel generator will last around ten thousand to 30,000 hours or perhaps ten years. A gasoline generator will last around two thousand to three thousand hours or perhaps two years. Using freebies like solar power should see your solar generator lasting between 20 and 35 years.
Can a Portable Generator Power a House?
You’ll need to know the wattage of the appliances and electronics you’ll want to be powered. Computers and phones tend to be about 30 watts while the fridge is around 600 watts and the sump pump about 1,500 watts. Add up the wattage of the things you need to power the most. The generator will power these things for as many hours as the gas holds out. You’ll have to keep adding gas to the tank in order to have uninterrupted power. Yes, it will power a house, as long as you keep the generator going.
Can You Run a Generator with a Cover on it?
You’ll need a generator when the weather knocks out the power. This can be the rainfall that comes when a hurricane makes landfall, an awful thunderstorm, or snow. However, moisture and mechanical things don’t mix. You’ll need a cover.
The snag to that is that the voltage could cause an explosion or electrocution. The outlets getting wet could short out your appliances or electronics. The buildup of exhaust beneath a cover is also extremely dangerous. For these reasons, covers are not recommended.
There are solutions, though. Special tents are manufactured that protect the generator from rain and snow. They ventilate the machine so that no fumes become dangerous to people. These tents can deal with the strong winds of a hurricane or vicious thunderstorm. Look for them on Amazon.
Steel and wooden boxes with ventilation are also available. You might want to use them on the drive or lay a cement base on which to place the box. These boxes have hinged sides with which to open the box for ventilation and to easily set the generator settings. There is some concern that these boxes can foster overheating and fires. Be very careful how close to the house you place these boxes.
Can You Plug A Generator Into A Dryer Outlet?
Power enters a house through the power lines. A transformer cuts down the raw power to the voltage necessary in the house. Then the power goes through a circuit breaker box. This sends the power to outlets, appliances, and lights.
Powering the house from a generator back through the breaker box is extremely dangerous and also illegal. When the power goes backward through the steps detailed above, a lineman working on the line gets shocked and could possibly die. You would be responsible for this and could be prosecuted.
Moreover, backfeeding power like that puts the electrical load out of balance. This is an inefficient use of power and could damage not only your appliances and other things, but could damage your generator.
Does Your Generator Need Grounding?
Most generators come with grounding built-in, but just in case it doesn’t, the metal frame of the generator serves as a grounding rod. Since the metal frame is in touch with the earth, and all the various parts are bonded to the metal frame, the frame itself serves as a grounding rod. So, basically, you’re good to go.
How Do You Hook Up A Portable Generator To A House?
Most homeowners get caught short without the necessary tools when disaster strikes. The first thing they reach for is the extension cord. This is perfectly okay for powering phones, the computer, the fridge, and the lights. Extension cords are alright for short periods of time. They are not suited to items hardwired into the house like the furnace or water heater.
Homeowners who did think about options go for the transfer switch. This looks like a circuit board attached to the breaker box. It can power the things an extension cord can’t such as the A/C, water heater, and sump pump. All you have to do is flip a switch for the power to kick into gear.
Can You Run A Generator Overnight?
The considerations you need to know to answer that question are the engine size, the kind of fuel used, the fuel tank capacity, and the power it puts out. Most generators run continuously for between seven and 12 hours. Then the tank runs dry, the machine shuts off, and you have to let it cool down and possibly service it before refilling the tank.
Figuring that most generators can run for eight hours before the tank empties, then yes, you can run a generator overnight. Just figure on eight hours being between ten pm and six am, 11 pm and seven am, or midnight and eight am. Just remember that proper maintenance will keep your machine running longer.
Will A 12,000 Watt Generator Run A House?
Absolutely. These are connected directly with the house and must be installed by a professional. A whole house generator can power everything including a well pump if you live in the country. It will power the A/C and heat, the lights, fridge, washer and dryer, sump pump, and anything else that requires power. They generally run on natural gas or propane, and the professional electrician will be able to tell you how long it will last.
Are Portable Generators Worth It?
Power outages generally occur when snow is so heavy on the power lines or tree branches that they break. Most hurricanes that make landfall happen in the autumn when it begins to get cool. You can only put on so many layers of clothes and lie beneath so many blankets before your body has had enough of the cold.
I remember when Hurricane Elizabeth tore across several states knocking out the power. We were down for two weeks. We had just bought around $600 worth of food and put it in the freezer. We didn’t have a generator, and we were forced to use the walk-in coolers where I worked until the power came back on. The high school wasn’t hit, so they were feeding and sleeping whoever needed help. A generator would have solved several problems.
Home businesses, those living in high risk for fire zones, those with senior family members on oxygen or with medicine requiring refrigeration, and those with babies and small children needing to be kept warm all are candidates for portable generators.