Like many Texas residents, I spent the middle of February 2021 sitting in the dark considering the purchase of a portable generator.
The winter storm of 2021 was easy on our household –– we lost power for about 10 hours, most of which was overnight. Most of our local friends and colleagues were not as fortunate, and spent days and days without power and water.
Texas’ power grid has proven ineffective in extreme weather conditions; hurricanes, thunderstorms, and now ice are exposing how fragile the state’s power generation and distribution system is after more than 4 million Texas homes and businesses lost power, and more than 50 Texans lost their lives.
So last month I set out to find a generator, a purchase that required much more thought and planning than I had ever anticipated.
For anyone considering a generator purchase, here are my recommendations on how to approach it.
Consider Your needs, Then Calculate Running Wattage
Portable generators come in a wide range of wattages, or energy output. Identify your electrical needs by listing which of your appliances you’ll want to run during an outage. In our case, I want to be able to operate a refrigerator, a backup chest freezer, several lights, a coffee maker, mobile devices and a television and cable box for up to three days. Crosscheck your list of desired appliances against this chart to tabulate your total wattage needs.
If you underestimate, you’ll spend a power outage unplugging and plugging appliances to properly balance your electricity. Overestimate your wattage, and you’ll unnecessarily burn fuel to generate watts you’re not using.
Inverter vs Conventional Generators
In short, inverter generators are safer for electronic devices by producing “cleaner” electricity. They also tend to be more fuel-efficient and quieter. Those benefits come at a premium. Conventional generators are larger and less expensive.
Generator Fuel Types
Generators run on different types of fuel. You’ll have the choice to run a generator on gasoline, propane or your home’s natural gas supply. Careful consideration should be given to what fuel you’ll want to have on hand during a storm, as well as what fuel is most available in your area during an emergency. Propane is very stable and has a long shelf life, whereas gasoline requires a stabilizer and can be dangerous and ineffective if not properly stored. Propane tends to burn “clean” and is less harsh on your generator’s engine. Many generators are dual-fuel or even tri-fuel, giving you an option of fuel types.
Consider your tolerance for noise. Generators are loud. Imagine having a gas lawnmower running in your backyard for several hours or even several days. Generator product descriptions typically include sound output as measured in decibels.
Power and Run Time
How many hours will a generator run under a particular electrical load? Manufacturers typically publish run times in their product descriptions. Consideration should be given to how long you think you’ll need to run a generator and how much fuel you’ll have on hand.
Portable is a relative term. There are many uses for a portable generator other than emergency home backup. Tailgating, camping and backyard projects come to mind.
Buy proper, outdoor-rated extension cables that allow you to run a generator at least 20 feet from your home. Under no circumstances should a generator be operated in or even near a home or garage.
Generator engines, much like airplanes and cars, need to be operated regularly to stay healthy. Plan on running your generator at least once every two months.
Pay special attention to your generator’s break-in period, a fixed time the manufacturer recommends you run a generator under light load to flush out metal contamination, circulate oil and lubricate cylinder walls.
A generator is an engine that generators electricity. Electricity and water do not mix. Generators should not be operated in rain or snow. Consider purchasing a high-quality generator enclosure or tent that will allow you to run it in wet, snowy and rainy conditions.
My Shortlist of Best Portable Generators by Price Point
Champion DH 4000-Watt Recoil Start Gas and Propane Dual Fuel Powered Open frame Inverter Generator with 224 cc Engine
Honda EU2200i, 2200-Watt Remote Stop/Recoil Start Bluetooth Super Quiet Gasoline Powered Inverter Generator with Advanced CO Shutdown
Firman 1600W Running / 2000W Peak Gasoline Powered Inverter Generator
Champion Power Equipment 200915 1500/1200-Watt Portable Generator, CARB