Top-scoring portable, recreational, and inverter generators with lifesaving features
By Paul Hope
When you need to power your house during an outage, you have two options: a home standby generator and a portable generator. If you lose power often, you might opt for a standby, also called a stationary, generator. The unit itself can cost thousands, with an installation bill to match.
But if you live in an area where outages are infrequent or where the lights often come back on in a few hours, you’ll save thousands by going with a portable generator. These units keep costs down and pack plenty of power to run most of the essentials in your home. Even smaller midsized and recreational generators—which we also feature here—will power some essentials in a pinch.
But portable generators also carry safety risks. They produce carbon monoxide (CO), an odorless and invisible gas. About 70 people die each year in the U.S. from generator-related CO poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many new models feature automatic shutoff and a low-CO engine. Consumer Reports now puts every gas-burning generator through a rigorous safety test and recommends portable generators only if they have either or both of these potentially lifesaving safety features.
“The newest generators we’ve tested prove that these tools can blend safety and performance,” says Misha Kollontai, who oversees CR’s generator tests. “The majority of newly tested models make major improvements over older generators in terms of safety and still manage to deliver power reliably.”
No matter which kind of generator you choose, use it only outdoors and place it at least 20 feet from your home, with the exhaust directed away from any open windows or doors. CR recommends having a licensed electrician install a transfer switch, which connects a generator to your home’s circuit breaker panel, allowing you to power entire circuits at once. These devices are compatible with full-sized portable generators and large inverter generators but not with midsized or recreational generators. With those, you should use outdoor-rated extension cords to plug individual appliances directly into the generator. Make sure the cords are at least the gauge specified by the generator manufacturer and long enough that the generator can remain 20 feet from your home.
CR's Generator Performance Tests
While safety is essential, our performance testing ensures that a generator will work as promised in the moment you need it most. To do that, our expert engineers load up every generator we assess with a variety of essentials you might want to power during an outage, like a space heater, refrigerator, or window air conditioner. We make sure the generator can handle the load it promises and also determine what happens when a sudden spike in voltage hits, which is what would happen if the compressor in your refrigerator kicked on when the generator was already close to capacity.
The best models take these spikes in stride, while others bog down or even stall. We also look at how easy it is to move and use a generator, as well as how efficiently it uses gasoline and how long it runs on a single tank.
What, exactly, is a “portable” generator? That designation can include everything from a little 30-pound generator you’d use at a campground to charge your phone all the way up to a 250-pound behemoth capable of powering your entire house through a sustained outage. Think of a portable generator as any model that’s not a home standby generator.
Here, we’ve divided portable generators into three common styles you’ll find, with some notes on what each can do.
Our ratings include results for almost 20 portable generators, as well as home standby generators. If you’re just beginning to shop for a generator, start with our generator buying guide to get a sense of the differences among types. CR members can also jump to our generator ratings, or read on for ratings and reviews of the best portable generators from our tests.
Best Portable Generators to Power Your Entire Home
These tools provide 7,000 to more than 8,000 watts of power and usually weigh upward of 200 pounds. They’re what you want to power most or all of your home’s essentials during a prolonged outage. Prices range from $500 to about $1,500.
Best Portable Generators for Small Houses, Boats, and Recreational Vehicles
These generators, referred to as midsized inverter generators in our ratings, provide 2,500 to 5,000 watts of power, and they weigh 75 to 150 pounds. They pack plenty of power for a boat, an RV, or a camper, or they can power a few household essentials. They’re more fuel-efficient and quieter than those above, but despite their lower power output, they’re also pricier, at a range of $500 to $2,500.
Best Portable Generators for Camping and Tailgating
These generators, called recreational inverter generators in our ratings, provide up to 2,500 watts of power and usually weigh 50 pounds or less, making them perfect for campsites. In a pinch, you can power a fridge and a few lights with these, but for anything more, look to the generators above. These more modest units are fuel-efficient and quiet, and you’ll pay $500 to about $1,200.
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