A Guide to Portable Generators: Operation, Features, and Safety Precautions

Portable generators are an excellent backup power solution if you don’t want to invest in a standby generator. It can also be vital if you need power away from home.

Unfortunately, portable generators come in many designs, capacities, and styles, which can make the process of choosing one challenging. This essential guide is designed to help you assess your options to make an informed decision.

What’s a Portable Generator?

A portable generator is a gas or diesel-run power equipment that provides temporary electrical power. It uses a small engine to turn a turbine. The turning turbine, in turn, generates electricity sufficient to run small applications.

Standby Generator
Standby Generator

Users can plug electrical devices and tools directly into the generator or via a home-installed subpanel. The generators are also easily movable, thus can be brought on trips, events, parties, and other applications away from home or the office.

Common Uses of a Portable Generator

Portable generators are applicable in many situations within and outside the home. The following are typical applications;

  • Home and garden use
  • Building and construction zones
  • Onboard electrical power for boats
  • Camping, festivals, and other outdoor activities
  • During prolonged power cuts and outages
  • Temporary installations and pop-up shops
  • General DIY and auto repair

How Portable Generators Work

Although portable generators come in many different styles and designs, the working principle is the same. The components are similar, and they also operate pretty much the same way. So whether it’s a diesel-powered or petrol-powered unit, the important parts don’t vary much.

The Main Parts

  • Internal combustion engine
  • The starter
  • A fuel tank
  • The alternator/gen head
  • Control devices/panel
  • Safety controls
  • Output ports

How it Works

Although the process is a little more complicated, the basic functioning of a portable generator (gas, diesel, or otherwise) is as follows;

  1. Feed fossil fuel, typically petrol or diesel, into the generator fuel tank. Some people will fill the fuel directly into the tank. However, it’s safer to use a spout or a funnel.
  2. Pull the starter cord or press the starting switch to start the unit. Once you do this, the fuel system will pass the petrol or other fuel to the engine.
  3. The internal combustion engine turns the in-built alternator, converting the mechanical energy (from the rotating motor) into electricity. This process involves turning a shaft connected to the engine, which, in turn, spins an electromagnet inside the rotor coil to generate an electric field. The original magnetic field then harnesses the new electric field to force the electrons through strategically positioned copper wires within the system to create an electric current.
  4. A voltage regulator converts the electric current into usable voltage/wattage and feeds it into the output controls from where it can be tapped to power home appliances and other electrical devices.

A cooling system within the generator typically uses a fan to protect the unit from overheating. Meanwhile, an exhaust system allows waste gases to exit the generator, including carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

If you’d wish to change the speed of the generator to reduce output, you can do so from the control panel. The panel also contains the ON/OFF button and other controls. The frame allows for balanced positioning while protecting the generator’s internal components.

Types of Portable Generators

Portable generators come in many shapes and styles, designed to serve various purposes in different scenarios. The most common types are;

1. Quiet portable generators

This might come as a surprise considering that we’d want every generator to be sufficiently quiet. But, unfortunately, in truth, most generators, even smaller, portable models, can be very noisy. Some can be so noisy that conversations become inaudible within five feet of the generator.

For this reason, a few manufacturers now develop a category of quieter generator units for consumers willing to compromise raw power for reduced operating volume. These generators are characterized by the following;

  • Smaller than standard engines
  • Higher build quality, especially the engine itself
  • Engines typically run inside an enclosure
  • A superior exhaust system/muffler quality
  • Advanced, typically water-cooled, systems
  • Unique framing/housing design

As expected, the quietest portable electric generators are more expensive than comparable alternatives. They are also almost always inverter-type generators, featuring highly compact engine designs.

Size is another key differentiator. Quieter portable generators tend to be smaller than louder models. An automatic/smart throttle is also typical to prevent the generator engine from at a constant speed, even at lower outputs. Automatic throttles step down the engine based on output requirements, effectively reducing fuel usage and minimizing the noise output.

2. Portable generators for homes

Another popular category of portable generators is portable generators for homes. Although you can use most portable generators in the home, a few units are specially designed for home appliances in case of a power outage.

Portable generators tend to be more powerful than other portable generator types. They are also equipped with more safety features to protect your appliances. A portable generator for the home can run the fridge, freezer, bulbs (incandescent and otherwise), laptops, smartphone chargers, air conditioner, kettle, toaster, etc., comfortably.

3. Portable generators for camping

If you’re a fan of camping, you can also find a portable generator specially designed for camping scenarios. They tend to be quiet while still powerful enough to handle the load. That’s because some campsites have noise restrictions.

Camping generators also tend to be rugged to withstand the rough conditions in the wild. They may have a toucher housing and larger feet to facilitate movement on bare ground. You may also find that the handles are sturdier. Make sure to choose the right size for your needs.

4. Portable generators for boating

Finally, you can also purchase a portable generator purposely for boating and perhaps fishing. Even if your boat has a permanent power generator on board, a second generator would be wise. The portable unit would serve as an emergency solution or backup power source.

Just make sure to find an appropriate size (physical) as boats don’t have much space for large generators. Also, never place the generator in the cabin, below the deck, or any other enclosed space on the boat. Also, always refill/fuel it outside the boat and make sure it’s not too noisy.

Tips When Choosing a Portable Generator

The best portable generator for your needs will depend on the type of application. Nevertheless, the following are a few considerations to help you make the right choice;

  • Size

Portable generators range from 900-10,000 watts. Make sure you’re getting a large enough size for the application. List everything you need to power at full load and add that to the total starting wattage to determine how much power you need.

A Guide to Portable Generators: Operation, Features, and Safety Precautions
A Guide to Portable Generators: Operation, Features, and Safety Precautions
  • Mobility

Will you need to move it a lot, or do you intend to have it relatively permanent in a single location? If you expect to move it a lot, such as a camping generator, wheels and handles are necessary. Weight and physical size also become important.

  • Run time

How long can the generator run on a full tank? Ideally, you want one that can run for at least eight hours. This should be enough to get you through the night when facing an emergency and unable to replenish the fuel.

  • Number of outlets

How many outlets do you want on the generator? This will depend on the number of appliances you wish to power. If the unit only has a few outlets, you may need an extension to connect additional appliances.

Portable Generator Safety

Unfortunately, portable generators aren’t completely safe. For one, they use flammable fossil fuels. Moreover, generators can become very hot during operation. We recommend the following safety precautions;

  1. Be cautious of carbon monoxide: Never run the generator indoors or in a partly enclosed area, such as the garage. Also, invest in carbon monoxide detectors to keep track of indoor oxygen levels.
  2. Ensure safe use of gasoline: Never overfill the tank or add fuel while the gas is running. It creates a massive fire risk. Also, don’t store the generator with gas inside. The gas may evaporate and reach open flames.
  3. Beware of electrocution and shock hazards: Never connect the generator directly to your household powerline, or overload the unit with appliances and electronics. Both of these create unnecessary risks. Additionally, use quality, properly-rated power cords and ensure the generator is properly grounded.
  4. Ensure safe generator placement: Place the generator outside, on a level surface, with a five-foot clearance (or more) all around. However, you must never place it in a wet area, which creates the risk of shorting and rusting. Above all, inspect it regularly to ensure everything is working as planned.

Summary

That’s pretty much everything you need to know when buying a portable generator. We’d just like to add two things. First, some (bigger) generators have a transfer switch that allows you to transfer your home’s electrical system to the generator. If so, contact a professional electrician to wire the system to the home system. For your safety, don’t attempt a DIY.

Secondly, we haven’t stressed enough the need for grounding: failure to ground your generator breaches federal, state, and country laws (in many areas). More importantly, it creates a massive risk of electrocution. So, stay warned. Happy shopping!

A Guide to Portable Generators: Operation, Features, and Safety Precautions
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