Things to Consider When Shopping for a Generator
We all like to get away from it all once in a while. Whether that is to a cabin, a remote off-road campsite, the racetrack, or just the parking lot of your favorite team’s stadium chances are there aren’t any electrical outlets handy. Having a portable generator means getting away from it all while still taking a lot of the modern conveniences with you.
Portable generators are also great in any emergency where the power might go out. Even if you just use it to keep the refrigerator running for a few days, a generator can pay for itself after the first storm in food that didn’t go bad. Plus you’ll be able to keep your cell phones charged, and listen to the radio, or watch the TV news for important updates.
If you live in a rural or suburban area on a big spread of land, having a generator to take out to a far corner of your homestead is easier than running hundreds of feet of extension cords just to get some work lights or run a portable compressor. The bigger units will even allow you to run a MIG welder and do portable repairs in the field, without having to haul everything back to the shop for welding.
So, we’ve established you need a generator, so what should you consider before buying?
(Warning: There will be math, but we won’t quiz you on it)
- Wattage – Generators are rated in the amount of watts they can put out, usually with a peak number and a lower continuous number. This makes it easy to figure out how many light bulbs you could run off of it, but not much else is typically rated at watts. A 3000 watt portable generator rated at 2800 continuous can light 46 lightbulbs with a 60 watt rating. For tools and appliances with an electric motor the starting wattage can be a lot higher (2 to 3 times higher) than the continuous draw, that’s why they are rated that way. Most appliances have an amperage listed in their documentation, as do most tools. The formula to convert is an easy straightforward one: Watts = Volts x Amps. So multiply the rated amperage by 120v or 240v and you get the needed wattage to run it. Our MIG 135 welder rated at 20A 120V maximum input would need 2400 watts running at full power.
- Voltage– The MIG 135 welder brings up a good point, if you plan on running any tools or appliances that require 220V power you had better buy a generator that puts out 220V. Of course, you already know what sort of power your tools require, but if you plan on using it for emergency backup it is important to check things like furnace and hot water heater requirements. Who cares if you can watch TV and the food is still cold when you can’t heat the house or take a hot shower?
- Noise – This isn’t much of an issue with emergency backup usage, as it is at campsites and the race track. If you buy a cheap generator with a loud engine that runs all night you will not have any friends in the pits or campground. Be sure to look at the Db rating of the lower cost generator before you commit because you may have to be the one listening to it all night.
- Pull or Electric Start?– Usually the higher wattage rated generators come with electric start, instead of just a pull cord. A pull cord is fine, and when in good order, any generator will start up with a few pulls, but the 12th time you have to start it on a week-long trip you may regret not getting the pushbutton start.
- Run Time – If you plan on using your generator to run lights on a job site all night, or keep the fridge cold in an emergency, you are going to want an 8hr or more run time on a tank of fuel, or you are literally going to lose sleep over it. Remember running time is usually calculated at half load, and do the math again with the formula above.
- Portability – This will always be a compromise, the more wattage a generator can put out the bigger it usually is. If you plan on needing power somewhere really remote and rough, and having backup for your whole house, you may need to buy 2 generators. A 7500 watt generator typically weighs close to 200lbs, which is going to require a lot of muscle to carry over an unpaved trail, even with wheels on it.
- Fuel – Most small to medium sized generators run on regular gasoline. But for RV usage and rural backup use diesel power is the way to go because the motors are more rugged, and diesel fuel is stable in the tank for a lot longer than modern gasoline. Some generators are configured to run on propane or LPG as well, which doesn’t produce much carbon monoxide, so can be used in tighter quarters where the fumes from a diesel or gasoline generator would make people sick.
Eastwood’s 3000 watt generator is rated for 2800 watts of continuous usage. That will easily run most refrigerators, and a few of other appliances, as long as they don’t all start at once. Remember, anything with an electric heating element is going to be a wattage hog, a hot plate or electric griddle can use 1500 watts. We already talked about the MIG 175, but air compressor motors can suck up even more juice, especially when they first start. For example a 1hp motor can need 4500 watts to get going, so check what the motor on your portable compressor says before buying the generator.