Top-Rated Powerplants: Portable & Standby Generators

More portable generators than ever before use inverter technology, and prices have dropped. Further, permanent standby generators were redesigned, so smaller models can power larger loads.

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The deep freeze that caused sporadic power outages over much of the country in January 2014 sent homeowners scurrying to buy a generator to keep the heat going, turn on a couple of lights or salvage the food that was in their refrigerators.

Numerous bouts of bad weather mean that the sales of portable generators soared, manufacturers tell us. This kept prices stable for portable generators and permanent standby generators—those that are hard-wired into a home’s electrical system.

PORTABLE POWER. When it comes to portable generators, you’ll find that inverter generators, which have been around mainly for recreational purposes, are more widely available for home use now. Around the turn of the decade, Honda and Yamaha boosted wattage for a handful of models, which made them more attractive for residential use. Now at least five manufacturers make a total of 19 inverter models that can generate at least 1,000 watts of power, which is the amount of power that’s required for running lights and one or two small appliances. Prices have come down, too. Four years ago, you would have paid about $2,300 for an inverter portable generator that produced 3,000 watts of power, which can run, say, a refrigerator, a sump pump, a TV, and several lights and small electrical devices. You now can get that capability for about $1,900.

An inverter generator monitors the demand for a generator’s energy output and, as needed, increases or decreases the generator’s engine speed and, thus, how much power that it generates. Consequently, an inverter generator will run at higher speeds to operate high-wattage appliances and lower speeds for smaller devices. This capability makes inverter generators more fuel-efficient than are conventional generators, which run at full speed regardless of the demand. Our research shows that inverter portable generators weigh up to 40 percent less than do conventional models—some 1,000-watt models are as light as 29 pounds—which, of course, makes them even more portable.

Although inverter portable generators aren’t powerful enough for heavy-load demands, such as operating a central air conditioner, manufacturers tell us, it’s widely accepted that these models deliver uninterrupted utility-line-quality power. Power that’s produced by conventional portable generators can fluctuate and disrupt the operation of sensitive electronics, such as computers and TVs.

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However, despite the benefits of an inverter portable generator, we still believe that you’re better off with a conventional model. Manufacturers and dealers with whom we spoke agree that the only reason to buy an inverter portable generator for residential use is if you want to plug in sensitive electronic equipment during an outage. Inverter models aren’t as cost-effective as conventional models are: For example, for about the same price as an inverter portable generator that generates 3,000 watts, you can buy a conventional model that delivers 10,000 watts. That output is enough to run an air conditioner, a stove and a garage-door opener in addition to the appliances that the less powerful generator can handle. The better fuel efficiency of inverter portable generators doesn’t make up for the price difference.

Although inverter portable generators have become more powerful in the past 4 years, no manufacturer is willing to predict whether, or when, such models, which now top out at 6,500 watts, would rival the 12,000-watt power output of the most powerful conventional portable generator that we found.

Regarding conventional portable generators, manufacturers tell us that, over the next 2 years, built-in power management likely will trickle down to the premium end of the portable-generator category from permanent standby generators. Power management allows standby models that are connected to a home’s electrical panel via a transfer switch to turn off the flow of electricity to one appliance automatically to send electricity to another. You don’t have to turn off or unplug one appliance to use another, as is typically the case. Honda has an optional power-management upgrade for its portable generators. This feature will cost you $399–$499 on top of the generator’s price, which starts at $1,150.

STATIC ELECTRICITY. Power-management capability, which is handled by a transfer switch, is widespread on today’s permanent standby generators. Two manufacturers—Cummins and General Electric—make that a standard feature on models that generate more than 8,000 watts; other manufacturers make you pay $200–$500 extra for the transfer switch. Power-management operation means that a homeowner could get by with using a less powerful, less expensive generator as long as he/she doesn’t want to run all of his/her home’s appliances simultaneously.

At the time of installation, you can decide which appliances the generator will “shed,” and in which order, to prevent a power overload. For example, you could run a kitchen exhaust fan while you cook dinner and watch TV in an air-conditioned home during a power outage. The power-management system might turn the water heater off for 20 minutes until, say, the oven and exhaust fan are turned off. That isn’t long enough for the home’s hot water to go cold, so your family wouldn’t notice that the generator temporarily stopped supplying electricity to the water heater. “It’s as if nothing happened to the consumer,” says Horacio Muslera, who owns Plus Electric, which installs permanent standby generators.

In central New Jersey, builder Hallmark Homes is installing 13,000-watt generators that have power-management systems into houses that otherwise would require a 20,000-watt generator. “We deemed that to be enough for the critical areas of the home to function in the event of a power outage,” construction supervisor Jonathan Hove says about the 13,000-watt generators. According to the five manufacturers that distribute permanent standby generators nationally, a generator that’s capable of producing 20,000 watts typically is required to run all of the appliances that are in a typical home simultaneously. These models start at about $4,000, excluding installation, which adds at least $1,000 regardless of generator size, depending on where you live.

Further, manufacturers estimate that new features that are on today’s permanent standby generators can save you hundreds of dollars in installation costs. These models, which are at all prices, are more compatible with a home’s wiring. Generac, for example, now has prewired transfer switches and dual-rated lugs that can accept aluminum wire. The latter means that you don’t have to upgrade to copper wire from aluminum as you had to before to be compatible with the switch.

That’s disaster relief that goes straight to your wallet.

Sharon O’Malley is a freelancer who specializes in reporting on home construction, home improvement and building products.

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