You never know when a generator might come in handy; it can serve as a backup power source for your business or house in the event of a power outage, or it can augment your capabilities on a camping trip or at a tailgate party. But with all the different generators on the market, you might be left wondering: which one is right for you?
In order to answer that question, you will want to figure out what appliances you’re going to want to power, what fuel sources you will have available, and what limitations your particular circumstances might apply. Whatever your needs, be they for something light and portable or a heavy duty behemoth, this quick guide will give you the information that will allow you to make a smart choice.
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What is a generator, and why might you want one?
A generator converts mechanical energy into electrical energy, allowing you to power appliances and devices in the absence of a functioning wall outlet. They have many uses: they can power a building and its appliances in the event of a loss of power, or they can bring electricity to outdoor events and workplaces. Small, portable generators can power a campsite, recreational vehicle, or watercraft lacking its own electrical system.
What are the different kinds of generators?
Generators can be usefully divided into three main classes: portable generators, inverter generators, and whole house (or home standby) generators. Here’s a quick explanation of the characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages of each type.
As the name indicates, portable generators are made to be easily moved from place to place as is necessary. They usually run off of gas or diesel fuel and provide the wattage to run many every day appliances (or a few heavy duty ones) at the same time.
If you need to provide power for a job site or outdoor event, a portable generator is likely your best option. They can support numerous power tools – drills, reciprocating saws, air compressors, etc. – and appliances like refrigerators, televisions, air conditioners, fans, and lights simultaneously.
There are a few drawbacks, however. Portable generators are usually pretty loud – which may not bother you on construction site, but might be problematic in a tranquil campground. They are not the most fuel efficient option, since they run at pretty much full capacity whenever they are turned on, and become wasteful when used to do something as simple as charge a phone or laptop computer.
Just like a lawn mower, a portable generator needs to be maintained. Motor oil and air filters should be changed regularly, and small amounts of fuel should not be left in the generator over a long period of time, lest it damage the engine.
Inverter generators could very well be considered a sub-class of portable generators, as they tend to be even lighter and can even more easily be transported from place to place. What makes them different is advanced technology that allows them to run more quietly and to use fuel far more efficiently.
Rather than run at full speed all the time like most portable generators, inverter generators electronically increase or decrease engine speed according to the demand for wattage. This means they use less fuel, and also create fewer carbon emissions, a boon for anyone concerned with protecting the environment.
The fact that inverter generators run quietly makes them ideal for camping and outdoor activity – you won’t have to worry about spoiling the sounds of nature for yourself and fellow campers with a motorcycle-like drone, since they don’t run much louder than your average conversation. That’s not to say that an inverter generator can’t work for a job site, too, and fuel savings that lower costs will certainly be appreciated there.
Of course, all of these perks must be paid for, so inverters tend to be much more expensive than most portable generators, reaching as much as four or five times the price. And inverter generators usually don’t provide the same raw power that other portable generators the same size can, which might be a problem if you have a lot of high wattage tools or appliances to power.
Whole house generators
Home standby or whole house generators are designed to be able to provide power to your residence in case of a power outage. They are installed in a fixed location outside of the house, thereby trading mobility for power production capacity. Usually, they will be connected directly to a natural gas line – which means that no refueling is necessary – although they can also use liquid propane. You don’t have to start up a home standby generator; it wil kick in automatically when it senses that power has been lost.
Whole house generators are meant to temporarily take the place of the power grid and act as an energy source for all the appliances in the house: central air conditioning, refrigerators and freezers, sump pumps, electronics, etc. They can be especially helpful in rural areas and places with frequent extreme weather events that might often be vulnerable to power loss.
As whole house generators generally provide the most power, they also tend to have the highest price tags, far surpassing even the upper end inverter generators. Fortunately, the companies that install home standby generators will often offer some type of regular maintenance to ensure continued reliability. You should take advantage of this if possible, as it will substantially expand the life of your generator.
Maintaining Your Generator
No matter which of the generator types you have, the basics of maintenance remain the same. To begin with, it is important to respect scheduled maintenance, as indicated by the manufacturer or operating manual.
Inspect the generator for leaks, check oil and coolant levels, and examine the belts, hoses, and cables frequently. Oil must be changed regularly if the generator is used often – as a rule of thumb, at least once per hundred hours of operation. If you are using diesel fuel, it may be necessary to change the oil more often than that.
Generators that use diesel fuel will require more maintenance in general. Diesel can not be allowed to sit in the generator for long periods of time, or it will become contaminated and corrosive. Fuel filters will need to be periodically drained of accumulated water vapor.
When the generator is shut down and the system is cool, remove the radiator cap from time to time and make sure that there is sufficient coolant. Check to see if there are any obstructions on radiator vents and if so, remove them, and wipe away any foreign objects or materials.
On home standby generators, it’s important to make sure that the battery is in good condition. Just like a car, a standby generator requires an electrical charge from a battery for ignition. The wet cell batteries that most home standby generators use may need to be topped off with distilled water to ensure that their cells don’t dry out. The battery should be regularly tested to make sure that it is capable of providing the charge necessary to start the generator.
By now, you should have a better idea of why a generator can be useful and what each kind is good for. Whether you want to ensure that your house will still have electricity in spite of an outage, power the tools needed to run a construction site, or charge your devices when far off the electrical grid, there is a generator that will be right for you. All that remains is to choose a generator that will best fit your needs, put it to good use, and take care of it so that it will provide you with a dependable power source for years to come.