Generator Buying Guide
When the power goes out, a generator can keep your house warm in the winter or cool in the summer; it can keep your food cold, your kitchen cooking, and your computers and phones charging. Generators can also power essential medical devices, provide running water for homes with a well, and keep vital lines of communication open during outages or natural disasters.
People tend to buy generators around major storms, when they’re prone to making a desperate decision—without a plan for what to do when they get it home. Working by flashlight, in a rush to get the power up and running, they might skip over critical safety steps during setup, leading to damaged appliances or worse. Do your research before the storm season so you'll be fully prepared when the time comes.
Reasons you may want to consider a generator:
You run a business from home
Your water comes from a well
You have a sump pump
Your family loves camping and tailgating
You drive an electric vehicle
You rely on an electrical medical device
You live in a high fire-risk zone
Know Your Power Priorities
Generators are sold by power output, which is measured in watts. The amount of power they deliver determines how many lights and appliances you can run at once, whereas the quality and consistency of that power determines how well they'll run. Expect about 5,000 watts to cover the basics in a typical home.
Start by making a list of the items you don't want to go without while the power's down, then add up their watts to get you in the right ballpark. Here are some common essentials and their approximate running wattage requirements. (Note: many of these items require additional watts for start-up surges, which must be factored into your final sum).
Refrigerator: 600 watts
Portable heater: 1,800 watts
Sump pump: 750 to 1,500 watts
Window AC unit: 1,500 watts
Well pump: 1,000 watts Coffee maker: 1,000 watts Lights: 60 to 600 watts Computers: 60 to 300 watts
Pick a Type That Fits Your Needs
There are four types of generators, each with their own set of unique pros and cons. Home standby generators are installed permanently, run on natural gas or propane, and kick on automatically during an outage. Portable and inverter generators can both be moved around, but they come in a variety of sizes. Some are better for transporting to a tailgate or camping trip, while others are better kept on your property as a backup power source. And portable power stations are large batteries that store electricity until it's needed, which is a great option for apartment-dwellers who have no way to safely run a generator outdoors.
Home Standby Generators
Your goal: power most or all of your home's circuits during an outage, with minimal effort and downtime
These units cost the most money and should be installed by a professional. Your electrician will help with town or municipal permits, noise restrictions, and proper location. Don't forget to factor in labor costs for this option.
Standby generators can start automatically when the power goes out (you'll need a transfer switch for this— read more about these below), and typically supply more power than portable models.
They run a self-diagnosis and let you know when maintenance is needed. Some even do this via email or text, to you or your dealer.
What type of fuel will you be using? If you don't have access to natural gas, propane is a great option. You'll need a propane tank (either above or below ground) with a storage capacity of at least 500-gallons. Expect a typical propane-powered generator to burn 2-3 gallons an hour, meaning a 500-gallon tank will power your home continuously for a week. If you already have the hookups, natural gas provides an unlimited supply of power from your local utility company and requires no storage.
Standby generators range from roughly 5,000 to 20,000 watts.
Cost: $3,000-$6,000 (generator only)
Some models we recommend:
Generac 7043 Air-Cooled Generator
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ on HomeDepot.com
Liquid Propane: 22 kW
Natural Gas: 19.5 kW
Mobile-link remote monitoring for text updates
Noise Level: 67 dB
Best for Larger Homes or Small Businesses:
Kohler 30RCL Liquid-Cooled Generator
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ on ElectricGeneratorsDirect
Liquid Propane: 30 kW
Natural Gas: 30 kW
Noise Level: 62 dB
Best for Essential Circuits Only
Champion 8.5kW Home Standby
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ at Amazon.com
Propane: 8.5 kW / Natural Gas: 7.5 kW
50-amp 8-space transfer switch
Noise Level: 59.5 dB
10-yr-warranty: 2X the industry standard
$2349 - Find it here
Your goal: run a few essential appliances or charge your cellphone when the power goes down / Operate power tools at a job site or workshop with no existing power.
Portable generators are the most economical way to supply power during a power outage. Simply start up your generator and run extension cords into the house to power chosen appliances. Even safer is to have an electrician install a power transfer switch that is connected to the house's main electrical panel. If the lights go out, you can just run a single extension cord into the transfer switch and power the circuits you need through the main circuit breaker.
These units cost less than home standby generators, but will only run a small number of appliances and electronics. You can only connect lighting circuits or other non-plug items with a transfer switch connected to your main panel. Look for a model with at least 4,000 watts, which will cover the bare essentials in an outage.
Most portable generators are gasoline-powered, a few run on diesel, and some models have multi-fuel capabilities, running on gasoline, propane or natural gas. You may need to store your liquid fuel in large quantities, and stabilizer must be added to gasoline for prolonged storage.
You can use portable generators anywhere on or off your property—but never in an enclosed space. Keep your portable generator at least 20 feet away from your home when operating.
Portable generators provide from 3,000 to 12,000 watts—enough to power a fridge, window AC unit, space heater, TV and other electronics. These units can also be put to work on construction sites that have no electrical service, providing reliable power to operate circular saws, drills, air compressors, heaters, paint sprayers and other AC-powered tools.
Typical cost: $400 to $1,200
Some models we recommend:
DuroMax XP12000EH 9,500-watt
$1,299 at Amazon
Rated watts: 9.5 kW / Surge: 12 kW
Noise Level: 74 dB
This heavy-duty generator can run on gas or propane for a max of 20 hours. It has an electric-start feature and comes with a 12V battery. Idle control lowers RPMs when not in use, reducing fuel consumption and noise levels.
$849 at Home Depot
Rated watts: 7.5 kW / Surge: 9 kW
Noise Level: 72 dB
This portable generator runs off of gasoline and boasts a remote electric push-button start. Offers 11+ hours of running time with a full fuel tank. This model is a bit bulky at 200 lbs. and might be hard to move from place to place.
Champion 3800-watt Dual-fuel
$644 at Amazon
Rated watts: 3.8 kW/ Surge: 4.75 kW
Noise Level: 68 dB
An affordable and versatile option, the Champion has a toggle-switch electric
start with battery included. Can run for 9 hours on gasoline or 10.5 hours on propane, and is better suited to smaller loads, job site needs or camping trips.
Inverter Portable Generators
Your Goal: Power sensitive electronics like computers and phones during an outage, limit the noise-factor of your generator, easy portability
Inverter generators produce 'clean power' as they operate—allowing you to run sensitive equipment like computers during a power outage. Typically these models max out at 4,000 watts which may not be a sufficient amount of power to run multiple appliances during a storm.
Because their engines are more complex, these models generally cost more than portable generators of a comparable output.
Inverter generators are much quieter than their conventional counterparts because they throttle up and down to match demand rather than run at full power all the time. They are also much lighter than the standard generator and can be carried from one location to another easily.
These generators run more efficiently than standard portable units and produce fewer emissions
Typical cost: $500 to $4,000
Some Models we Recommend:
Briggs & Stratton 30675 Q6500 Inverter
Running watts: 5 kW / Surge: 6.5 kW
Noise: 66 dB (a bit louder than most)
Gas Tank Capacity: 5 gallons
Weight: 128 lbs
Run time: up to 14 hours at 25% load
Powers large tools/appliances
$899 at Home Depot
Honda EU2200i Quiet Inverter Generator
Running watts: 1.8 kW / Surge: 2.2 kW
Noise: 48-57 dB
Gas Tank Capacity: 1 gallon
Weight: 40 lbs
Run time: up to 8 hours at 25% load
$1049 at Northern Tool
This inverter generator is super quiet and portable—perfect for camping trips and tailgates. Sound construction, excellent performance and a stellar reputation have driven this model to the top of Amazon's bestseller list.
WEN 56200i 2000-watt Inverter Generator
Running watts: 1.6 kW / Surge: 2 kW
Noise: 53 dB
Gas Tank Capacity: 1 gallon
Weight: 50 lbs.
Run time: 9 hours at 25% load
$420 at Amazon
One of the quietest and least-expensive products on the market today. This CARB- compliant model produces exhaust that is friendly to the environment and neighbors alike. Perfect for camping or tailgating.
Portable power stations
Your goal: get power remotely without relying on gasoline or propane. Small size, portability, and ability to use indoors
These devices don’t use gas or propane—they’re powered by a battery that you charge by plugging into an outlet or 12V car adapter. If you are really roughing it, an included solar panel (sometimes called “solar generators”) can also be used to charge the power station.
Portable power stations are relatively new to the market, and they typically cost more than portable gas generators.
These devices are extremely quiet (often giving off a low hum similar to a computer fan) and they don’t produce fuel emissions or carbon monoxide, so you can use them indoors. This makes them perfect for apartment-dwellers, campers and contractors working indoors.
Don’t expect to power as many appliances or run them for an extended period of time, since they don’t output as much power as gas-powered generators. You can't keep them running without eventually recharging—a process that can take several hours.
Typical cost: $500 to $2,000
Models we recommend:
Best Home Office Pick
EcoFlow Delta 1300
Rated capacity: 1.2 kWh / Surge: 1.8 kW
Weight: 30 pounds
Dimensions: 12 by 8 by 11 inches
This model has a generous battery capacity, suitable for keeping most devices- from laptops to CPAP machines- running all day long. Tons of output ports: six AC, four USB-A, and two USB-C allows you to charge up to 13 devices at once. Charges to 80% in just one hour.
$1399 at EcoFlow.com
Best Rugged Portable
Goal Zero Yeti 1400 Lithium Wifi
Rated Capacity: 1.4 kWh / Surge: 3 kW
Weight: 45 pounds
Dimensions: 15.3 by 10.4 by 10.1 inches
This incredibly powerful power station is what we at Bell Electric use to power our tools off-grid. This model has tons of various ports and an app to control remotely. Takes 25 hours to fully recharge.
$1899 at REI
Powerful Budget Pick
Jackery Explorer 500
Rated capacity: .5 kWh / Surge: 1 kW
Weight: 13 pounds
Dimensions: 11.8 by 7.6 by 9.2 inches
This model offers impressive capacity for the dollar. You lose some power and port options with this lower-priced power station but save on space and money. Takes seven hours to fully recharge.
$499 at Amazon.com
Do I Need a Transfer Switch?
A transfer switch safely connects a home standby or portable generator to your circuit panel through one cable. Skipping it could fry your appliances, damage the generator itself, or endanger utility workers. Plus, it makes the process of getting the power back on much simpler when the lights inevitably go out. We highly recommend adding this to your list of generator must-haves.
Have a licensed electrician install your transfer switch, and be prepared to pay from $500 to $900 with labor. If you own a stationary generator, your transfer switch will turn on automatically. With a portable model, you'll need to flip a few switches manually when the power goes out.
If you want to save money, install an interlock device instead. These small devices get installed in your main electrical panel and cost $100-$200 less than a transfer switch. Interlocks cover your service panel's main breaker—so when the power pops back on, you can't accidentally turn the generator on.
Keep Your Family Safe (when using gas- or propane-powered generators)
Our team of dedicated electricians at Bell Electric are ready to help you reach your generator goals today. Please give us a call at 540-552-5397 with your questions or to schedule an appointment.