Anyone who is even vaguely thinking of being prepared for emergencies or adding off grid capability to their amateur radio station has at least considered getting a small gas generator. A Generator is a valuable but often misunderstood tool, and it does not help that much of the information out there is uninformed, overly biased, or is presented through the lens of one person’s unique situation and does not readily apply to a wider audience.
The internet is full of criticism of small generators: They are poorly made, they are noisy, inefficient, and cannot be relied on long term. All of these statements are true, to a degree. What I’m going to do is put the facts into context and help the consumer come to an informed conclusion.
Generators are relatively inexpensive, costing less than $1000 and in many cases less than $500. Mainly for this reason they are very popular. They are very easy to set up and use and can produce from a few hundred to several thousand watts.
Belief: Small gas generators are poorly made, cheap junk.
Reality: With only a few exceptions, generators are made to meet a low price point. Yet, they do have a surprising service life. There are tens of thousands of cheap generators on construction sites every day that still run reliably after hundreds of hours of abuse.
What you need to know: A gas generator is probably not a lifetime investment, but it does not have to be. They don’t cost much to replace anyway. Do not think of it as a big ticket item that you expect to have forever. Think of it as something that can pay for itself in the form of avoiding one flooded basement or saving one freezer of expensive food. A properly maintained generator, even a cheap one, should give many years of solid service.
Belief: Small gas generators are noisy.
Reality: Unfortunately, this belief is almost universally true. Manufacturers keep the price down is by using tiny mufflers and generator coils that have to turn at 3600 RPM to maintain a correct AC power output. That means the engine speed will need to be maxed out. The sum of this is a lot of noise. There is a reason why small generators are called “screamers”.
What you need to know: Noise is something you’re just going to have to live with if you use a portable generator. There are literally thousands of videos on YouTube with do it yourself remedies for loud generators. Even the best ones are a compromise. None are going to be a complete solution.
Belief: Small gas generators are inefficient.
Reality: Efficiency is relative. When someone says a generator is inefficient, they are usually comparing it to an inverter generator or a slower turning 1800 RPM diesel unit. These types of generators are indeed more fuel efficient than a “screamer,” but it’s not exactly an apple to apples comparison.
What you need to know: It’s important to calculate how much fuel you will need on hand to run your generator for as long as you anticipate the typical outage to last. For example, my 5000 watt generator has a five gallon tank that will last ten to twelve hours at half load. That sounds pretty good, but it comes out to about ten gallons of gas every single day if I run it continuously at 2500 watts.
There are plenty of ways to stretch your fuel in emergency situations. For starters, you don’t necessarily need to run a generator continuously. Besides the noise issue, you have to be mindful of fuel. In a widespread power outage, there may not be a gas station open for miles. Assume the only fuel you have is what you can store at home.
You can keep your food cold and your batteries charged if you run the generator a few hours on and a few hours off. One tank of fuel will last several days. If a generator needs to be run continuously for, say, a sump pump or furnace blower, then place as small a load as possible on the generator to conserve gas. For continuous run loads, it may be worth it to get a separate, smaller generator and dedicate it for that purpose.
Generators are most efficient when run at 50%-66% of their rated limit. If you have a generator pushing a load that is light relative to its total capacity, then you have too much generator and are needlessly burning fuel. That brings me to my next point:
Belief: Get the biggest, baddest most powerful generator you can afford.
Reality: This is a horrible idea and the worst mistake you can make when buying a generator.
What you need to know: There is absolutely no benefit at all to buying more capacity than you realistically think you will need, and it can even be to your detriment. You will be stuck with a machine that is bigger, heavier, and more fuel hungry with no added benefit to justify the extra expense and hassles.
Before shopping for any generator, the first thing you should do is determine how much power you really need, keeping in mind that you will not be drawing maximum power all the time. When my house is on the generator, most of the time I am in the 800-1000 watt range. It will pop up to about 2300 watts for short periods, such as when the furnace and refrigerator are on at the same time. With careful rotation of my high demand loads, I could get by using my smaller 1400 watt Honda to power my entire house.
Small gas generators are often derided as undesirable junk, but the people who trash talk about them never offer any comparable alternatives. Generators are good for some things and not so good for others. Shortcomings aside, they are the best and in many cases the only option for short term off gird power needs.