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How to buy generators for your home, according to an expert

Generators for homes come in a variety of sizes and styles. Here's what to know before shopping.
Home generators can make or break how well you handle an emergency — and how powered your home will be throughout. Here's how to choose the best home generators for different uses.
Home generators can make or break how well you handle an emergency — and how powered your home will be throughout. Here's how to choose the best home generators for different uses.Generac; Honda

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Summer weather is solidly here, which means perfect camping weather — and destructive storms and hurricanes. Both scenarios stand to benefit from an emergency generator, which can produce enough power to keep your gadgets juiced and appliances running, even if you aren’t near a working outlet. But generators can run the gamut from small models that’ll power a few personal items to larger models that will keep your whole house powered without skipping a beat — if you aren’t well-versed in the latest generator tech, sifting through what’s available can be awfully confusing.

These days, there are two main types of portable generators: conventional generators (which generally run on gasoline) and inverter generators (which run on gasoline and, in some cases, propane). “An inverter generator is going to provide you with cleaner energy, but it won’t power as much because it’s a lot smaller,” explains Ryan Buckley, a generator technician at Reliable Heating & Air in Atlanta, Georgia.

“An inverter may power the same as one traditional home circuit, where a conventional portable generator could power three to four rooms or more.” But conventional generators are larger and louder, so they may not be ideal for all situations. Buckley puts it like this:

  • If you’re looking for something to power a portion of your home or if you’re spending some vacation time at an RV park, a conventional generator will give you some good, short-term power.
  • An inverter generator is better for powering your computer during an outage, tailgating or grabbing some quick camping sessions in the woods.

Both require refueling after a certain amount of time, though — often eight to 10 hours, depending on the load — so even with a few backup cans of gas, they’re ideal for shorter periods of time. That said, both types of generators vary in how much power they can put out. So, as you shop for the best generator for you, tally up how many watts of power you’ll need and buy accordingly. This chart is a good starting point if you aren’t sure how much wattage you need.

Generators to shop in 2020

Generac GP8000E COsense Portable Generator

If you want a generator that can power your home’s essentials, look at a conventional generator like Generac’s GP8000E series. It provides 8,000 watts of running power, as well as 10,000 watts of starting power for appliances that require extra juice when they first turn on. That’s enough to run, for example, your refrigerator and heating system, plus a few lights. It’ll shut off automatically if it runs low on fuel or oil. And, unlike many generators, it will also shut off if it detects unsafe levels of carbon monoxide. You can connect appliances to the generator with long extension cords or — with the help of a professional — connect it to your home’s electrical system with a transfer switch.

Honda EU2200i Portable Inverter Generator

For something a bit more portable, consider this generator from Honda, which offers 1,800 watts of running power and 2,200 watts of starting power. It’s much quieter than a conventional generator, and while it won’t power your whole house, it’s enough to power an appliance or two, as needed. Just put the generator outside, plug an extension cord into one of its three-prong outlets, and run the cord inside to your equipment. It’ll shut off automatically if fuel or oil gets too low, and it comes with a three year warranty from Honda.

Predator 2000 Watt Inverter Generator

If you’re on a stricter budget, Buckley notes that the Predator models found at Harbor Freight are great alternatives for the price. It has similar power output to the Honda model (1,600 watts running, 2,000 watts starting) at nearly half the price, and while Consumer Reports found the Honda edged it out in reliability, you can’t go too wrong with the Predator if you only have a few hundred bucks to spend.

Those are just a few selections — you can find options from the same brands in lower or higher wattages, if you need, with prices that'll match. While Buckley notes most of these are pretty user-friendly, he stresses the significance of proper safety precautions.

  • Never use a portable generator inside the house or even on a covered deck. You want to place it in open air, far away from windows and vents, since these generators produce odorless-but-deadly carbon monoxide.
  • Be sure to read the generator’s manual and keep up with any maintenance it requires — your generator may not come with motor oil, for example, and you’ll need to change its oil regularly. Fuel stabilizer can also help your gasoline reserves last longer.
  • You can read more about generator safety at Take It Outside, an informational site from The Portable Generator Manufacturers’ Association (PGMA).

Portable generators will serve you well enough for short power outages, but if you’re in a part of town where power doesn’t always come back on quickly — or you don’t want to ration your power during an outage — a home standby generator will provide more reliable and long-term power for your entire house.

Generac Guardian 13,000 Watt Standby Generator with 200-Amp Transfer Switch

Home standby generators, like this Generac model, are designed to be a more semi-permanent installation. You’ll need a professional to connect it to your home’s electrical system, but since it can run on natural gas, you can hook it up to your gas line and get practically unlimited power for longer-term outages. It’ll automatically kick in when the power goes out, and flip off when the power comes back on.

Finally, if all that seems too involved and you just want something that can keep your laptop powered while you travel, a portable power station is much lower maintenance — albeit less versatile. Think of them less like generators and more like very large battery packs: You charge them up at home and bring them with you when you know you won’t have easy access to an outlet.

Goal Zero Yeti 200X Portable Power Station

With 200Wh of power, Goal Zero’s Yeti 200X can charge your smartphone 20 times, your laptop four times or run a 12V portable fridge for 10 hours. It’s perfect for bringing along some juice while you travel, and will even work on a camping trip if you pair it with Goal Zero’s Nomad 50 solar panel. You can grab it in higher wattages if you need to run appliances at home, but Buckley notes that it isn’t as useful as a generator, which can produce more power independently.

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