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Portable Generator Buying Guide: How to Choose the Right Model for Your Needs
Portable generators can keep your lights on through power outages and help you complete off-grid jobs. Plus, they’re a great way to take all your adventures to the next level, including RVing, camping, and oceanside excursions. So, it just makes sense to get ready for whatever comes your way by getting just the right unit for your needs.
With the dizzying number of generators for sale - hundreds here on our website alone - it can feel overwhelming trying to pick the best model. Fortunately, you can narrow down the list considerably by taking a look at this helpful portable generator buying guide. Here’s what you need to know.
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Understanding Portable Generators
Portable generators provide electricity on demand whether you’re far off the grid or just dealing with a power outage. These units produce electrical power by using a gas, diesel, propane, or solar engine to turn the armature in the alternator. As the armature spins, it continually converts the engine’s energy into electricity.
Once that process begins, you just have to plug your devices into the outlets on the unit to start using the electrical power. Your devices will keep running off the generator’s power until its engine runs out of fuel or otherwise gets shut down.
Exactly how long the generator can run before needing to refuel largely depends on its power output and fuel tank size. Tiny portable power stations only run for a couple of hours while full-size units offer over 10 hours of runtime.
Types of Portable Generators
In the past, conventional generators were the only type available. As technology improved, inverter generators were created to protect sensitive electronics while improving efficiency across the board. Since they’re the next generation of generators, inverter models are usually more expensive, but many find they’re worth the extra cost. Here’s what you need to know about each type.
Conventional generators run their engines at a static RPM as needed to produce a set amount of electrical energy. As that happens, the alternator creates alternating current, or AC, power that’s ready to flow directly to your connected devices.
A standard generator will cost less to purchase initially but could cost you more in fuel in the long run. Beyond that, you’ll likely find that these units have relatively high noise levels in comparison to inverter models.
Portable inverter generators work differently than conventional models. First of all, they throttle the engine speed up as and down as the load changes. Also, these generators send the AC power through a rectifier to turn it into direct current, or DC, power.
After that, the inverter converts the DC power back into clean AC before sending it through the outlets on the control panel. This helps protect sensitive electronics from power surges and other issues that could damage their delicate internals.
You’ll pay a bit more for an inverter generator but will likely save money on fuel over time. In addition, you will get longer runtimes and less noise than conventional units. Overall, they’re more eco-friendly, too, so you can feel good about running your generator whenever you need more power.
Figuring out what type of portable generator you want is the first step in finding the best model for your needs. After that, it’s time to think about fuel.
Portable Generator Fuel Types
Portable generators are typically built to operate on one or two different fuel types. Single-fuel generators are the most affordable, but dual-fuel models offer more flexibility in how you keep the unit running. To help you decide which to get, here’s a rundown of the benefits of each fuel type.
- Easy to find affordable gasoline fuel stations nearby
- Highly transportable in 2, 5, and 10-gallon containers
- Lasts for up to three years with fuel stabilizers added
- Offers the highest energy output per gallon of fuel
- Most service stations have diesel fuel available
- Lasts up to one full year when properly stored
- Sold at gas stations, hardware stores, and more
- Metal vessels safely and securely hold the fuel inside
- Possible to store the fuel indefinitely if need be
Dual Fuel and Tri Fuel
- Offers true flexibility in deciding how to fuel up
- More options allow you to refuel on a budget
- Fewer worries about storing fuel for the long term
- Dual fuel: Can use gasoline or propane
- Tri fuel: Can use gasoline, propane, or natural gas. More info here.
- Allows you to recharge at any time of the day
- Modular solar panels allow you to increase output
- Don’t have to worry about fuel ever going bad
- Lets you easily switch out battery packs for fast fuel ups
- Conveniently charges through AC outlets and solar panels
- No need to worry about having to run out to get fuel or store it
For the convenient operation of your portable generator, you need to pick the fuel type that’s easily accessible, affordable, and storable. Otherwise, you might find that it’s difficult to keep your generator running while on the go or after the lights go out. There’s no one right answer for everyone either. Just look at your own situation to decide which is the best choice.
Top Portable Generator Brands
You have many excellent brands to consider on your search for the top portable generator, such as:
Firman definitely serves as a leader in the portable generator industry. Their products range from whisper-quiet inverters to heavy-duty hybrids in the 1,700 to 4,500+ watt range. Dozens of models fill out every category, allowing you to pick the best build for your needs.
Across all the different model lines, each Firman generator comes with heavy-duty wheels made for rolling across all surfaces. They’re easy to bring along on all your travels or simply wheel out to the side of your house during emergency power outages.
Many of their models boast a smart inverter design that offers the ultimate in efficiency while producing clean sine wave energy. So, you never have to worry about plugging your sensitive equipment into the outlets.
Noise levels are never a problem either, especially if you go with the Whisper Series models. At ¼ load, these generators produce just 58 decibels of noise, which is only as loud as a few people chatting nearby. Runtimes typically land in the 9- to 14-hour range, allowing you to create a convenient refueling schedule.
As for extra features, you can expect remote start, CO detectors, and low oil shutoff. To sweeten the deal, all purchases come with the tools you need to properly use and maintain your generator, including an oil funnel, spark plug wrench, and 12V battery cable.
DuroMax generators are well known for its ultra-high output generators, boasting over 10,000 watts of power. But they’re also a fantastic source for middle-of-the-road portable generators as well. Their portable generators start at 1,200 watts and go up to around 5,500 watts. All of these models have large treaded wheels that allow you to move the unit around with ease.
Many of their models use a convenient dual fuel setup that allows you to decide how to best run the unit. Plus, they’re easily expandable with a parallel kit, which lets you run two generators side by side. If you get an inverter model, the efficient design will keep their operation well within budget, too.
As each unit runs, you can monitor its operation on the digital control center, which has a fuel gauge and power output meter. At a glance, you’ll get to see just how many running hours are left before you have to fuel back up.
Extra features abound on all Duromax portable generators, including CO alerts, remote start, and automatic low oil shutdown. Most models come RV-ready with L14-30R or TT-30R receptacles, ensuring that you’ll always be ready to hit the road. Expect to get all the maintenance tools with your purchase, like a battery tender, spark plug wrench, and oil funnel.
Champion Power Equipment is a well respected manufacturer of various kinds of power tools and generators. They're most well known for their wide range of portable generators including inverters, gas generators, dual fuel hybrid models, as well as their flagship tri-fuel generator.
Champion recently expanded their backup power product range to include two high performance portable power stations using rechargeable Lithium ion batteries.
Cummins are one of the biggest names in the world of backup power solutions and generators. They have a huge product range consisting of home backup generators, RV and marine generators, solar solutions, and also portable generators under the Cummins Onan brand.
Included in the Cummins portable generator range are inverters, dual fuel, gasoline, and batter powered portable power stations.
As a self-proclaimed next-gen propane generator company, ALP is all about convenience, efficiency, and affordability. Since they’re just starting to build their product line, your options are limited. But by investing in their early products, you’re likely to see many more models come online soon enough.
For right now, they just offer the highly portable 1000-watt ALP propane generator in a number of fun colors, such as green and black, orange and grey, and blue and black. If you need more power, there are parallel ports available for running two units in tandem.
A single unit is nothing to scoff at though because it’s powerful enough to run your refrigerator all on its own. Even while working that hard, noise levels are more than reasonable, too, hitting about 52 decibels at full bore.
When hooked to a 20-pound tank, the unit gives you 60 hours of runtime. Want to keep it low-key? Get three hours out of a single-pound propane tank. Expect to buy most accessories separately, including the hose adapter for 20-pound tanks. The unit is priced accordingly, however, so you can customize its setup without getting anything you don’t need.
The small footprint allows this generator to fit practically anywhere, including in the closet of your RV or under the counter at home. And at just 31 pounds, the generator is a cinch to move around – no wheels necessary.
While these three portable generator manufacturers are quite popular, they’re not the only game in town. You have many other brands to choose from, so it’s wise to check out all your options before deciding what portable generator you should buy.
A Note on Portable Power Stations and Solar Generators
Over the last few years there has been a sharp rise in the popularity of portable power stations as their battery technology has advanced at a rapid pace. The different between these devices and regular portable generators is that a power station in this context does not run on an external fuel source such as gasoline, propane or natural gas. Instead these units are charged via electricity, an external battery, or even solar panels.
This makes them particularly popular with people who are eco-conscious, or who are looking for reliable clean power to use out on adventures in nature - particularly camping.
Popular brands in this category include EcoFlow power stations and also Bluetti power stations. We'll be expanding our range of these units and other similar solar generators very soon.
Firman Power Equipment recently released their first model in this category, the Zero E Power Station.
The same is true for Champion Power Equipment with their new 100593 here and 100594 here.
These models are also the best choice if you're looking for an apartment generator which can be used inside safely and doesn't produce any emissions like a traditional fuel powered portable generator will.
How to Pick a Portable Generator That Suits Your Needs
As you figure out how to choose a portable generator, you have many things to think about before you can find the model that suits your needs. Luckily, you can efficiently move through that process by looking at all the following areas.
Add Up the Wattage of Your Appliances
Portable generators often have a running power output in the 850- to 5,500-watt range. When it comes to peak watts, expect to see anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000. Although you could just select the biggest generator you can afford, that’s not always the best approach. If a less powerful generator will work, you can greatly benefit from its top-notch portability, after all.
So, to figure out what you really need, you’ll want to add up the wattage of all the appliances and other devices you want to run. Think about what you will need during a power outage or while out on the road. Then, start adding up their average running and peak wattages separately.
Common appliance and device wattages:
- Cellphone: 5
- Laptop: 50
- Lightbulb: 100
- Aquarium: 350
- Shop vacuum: 700
- Stove burner: 850
- RV fridge: 1,000
- Circular saw: 1,400
- Space heater: 1,500
- RV AC unit: 1,500
For the exact figures, you have to check the owner’s manual of each device. Keep a running tally of the devices you’d like to run at the same time. Then, go for a generator with a power output just above what you need.
Review the Outlet Types on the Generator
Every portable generator manufacturer decides which outlets to put on their control panel. So, not every generator is going to be RV-ready, have USB ports, or other outlets you might need. For that reason, it’s important to check the outlet types built into each model to see if the generator will work for you.
Common portable generator outlet types include:
- AC: Available in 120 and 240 volts for running your household devices, power tools, and more
- DC: A low voltage outlet used to charge automotive batteries and other power storage devices
- USB: Made in standard and USB-C for charging your phones, tablets, and other small electronics
- L14-30R: A standard locking four-prong male plug made for use in 30 amp recreational vehicles
- TT-30R: Direct female plug for 30 amp RVS – also works with 50 amp RVs if you have an adapter
In some cases, you can get around the lack of a certain outlet by using a charging station or other adapter. Getting the right portable generator the first time around saves you from having to buy and keep track of extra accessories, however.
Think About Your Fuel and Runtime Preferences
The type of fuel that will work best for your needs largely depends on your operating budget, location, and other preferences. If you’re going to boondock in your RV more often than not, then it might be best to skip the gasoline in favor of propane or solar portable generators.
If you’re just looking for a generator for emergency power outages, on the other hand, a dual fuel model can provide immense peace of mind. You can store both types of fuel for emergencies, after all, and then fuel back up by grabbing whatever one is easiest to get to after it’s safe to travel.
Runtimes matter, too, especially if you want to keep the generator going through the night. A small portable generator may only have a runtime of a few hours, causing you to have to get up and refuel more often than you might like.
Dual fuel models can bridge the gap if you’re dead set on gasoline but still want to rest through the night. By switching to propane for the evening hours, you can get a full night’s rest on a 20-pound tank, and then go back to gasoline once you get up for the day. Our DuroMax dual fuel generators are well priced and offer great performance. The same can be said for the Firman dual fuel generator range.
Tri fuel generators offer even more flexibility and will usually operate on either gasoline, propane, or natural gas. We put together a short guide to some of the top tri fuel generators in this post.
Firman are well known for their high performance tri fuel models, particularly the T07571 and the T08071.
Check out our Firman tri fuel generators here.
It is also worth taking a good look at the DuroMax XP13000HXT which is one of the best selling and most powerful DuroMax models that also has tri fuel technology.
Lastly, the Champion tri fuel 100416 is another very popular option.
Look for the Features You Need Most
Modern portable generator features are everything if you want safe, convenient operation always. Features vary across all brands, so you have to dig into the specifications to figure out what each one comes with. Here’s a look at the features you might find while you do that.
Portable generators of yesteryear were all pull start. With that mechanism, you had to rip the cord out of the reel fast to spin the engine and get it to kick into high gear. Nowadays, the leading generator brands have switched to electric start systems instead. So, now you can just push a button to bring the unit roaring to life.
Electric start is definitely nice and all but what if you don’t even want to get up? Well, that’s where the innovative auto-start system comes into play. Instead of having to push a button on the generator, you just have to use the remote to get the job done. The generator will then fire right up on demand – just as long as it has enough fuel to do so.
Want to monitor your generator even while you’re off-site or tucked into bed? If so, you’ll want a unit with app connectivity at its core. Then, you can just use your smartphone to check on the operation of your generator, turn it off and on, and so much more.
Low Oil Shutoff
A lack of oil can quickly cause your generator’s engine to seize, so there’s no room for messing around. Fortunately, you can get a unit that monitors the situation at all times and springs into action at the first sign of a problem. You just need to find models with a low oil shutoff feature, and you can move on with your day with true peace of mind.
Automatic CO Shutoff
With the exception of 100% solar- or battery-powered units, portable generators release carbon monoxide into the air as they operate. That’s why you absolutely have to run them outside in a well-ventilated area at all times. For even more protection, it’s wise to look for models with automatic CO shutoff. With this feature on your side, your generator will shut off immediately upon detecting CO in the air, protecting you and your loved ones from harm.
As portable generator tech improves, many models are starting to show up with all these features and more. So, keep your eye out for models that offer it all and put them at the top of your list, for sure.
Reflect on Your Ideal Noise Levels
If you are staying at campgrounds or have neighbors near your home, you might need to think about noise levels. Large 5,500+ watt conventional generators are usually the loudest, especially when running at peak load. Modest 3,500-watt inverter generators are much quieter as their smart onboard systems throttle the engine to match the load.
Some generator manufacturers, like Firman, add a specially designed muffler to their builds to decrease noise levels even more. By doing so, they take the noise output down to a mid-50s decibel range in an instant. You can then run your generator without worrying about disturbing any of the people around you.
Beyond all else, let your budget lead the way to the best generator for your travels or home emergency kit. If you need to keep it modest for now, that’s okay. You can always upgrade in the future or even get a second generator to run parallel with the first. Just remember to check for parallel operation when buying the first unit to keep that door open.
Remember to Consider Emmissions
It's always a good idea to choose a generator with as few emissions as possible of course, however some states in the US do mandate this. California introduced a set of regulations called CARB which enforce strict guidelines around which units can be sold or used in the state. Over a dozen states now use these same rules in addition to California. We wrote about what CARB means for generators here.
Ready to Find Your Ideal Portable Generator?
Now that you know what to consider when buying a portable generator, it’s time to start shopping. You’ll quickly narrow down your list by thinking about the type of generator you want as you look over each model. From the fuel type and runtime to the outlets and features, each category allows you to zero in on the unit most likely to leave you delighted. So, it’s well worth taking the time to explore each model and all it has to offer.
Lastly, if you're looking for a solution to power your entire home during an extended power outage then you'll definitely want to consider having a whole house backup generator as well. Portables are great for short power outages, but in a serious prolonged blackout a whole house generator is the ideal solution.
We're building a directory of generator installation companies to help you find a reputable local contractor in your area who can guide you through the process of buying a backup generator then having it professionally installed and tested, along with all of the electrical work and safety regulations which need to be adhered to.