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Pick the right generator: eight steps

A portable  generator is a great investment for being prepared in an emergency power outage and also for dialing up the quality of a tailgate party. Read on for eight steps in choosing the best generator for your needs. 

By Guest blogger / January 9, 2014

A portable generator from Briggs & Stratton. When picking out a generator, consider factors including wattage, weight, and noise level.

Briggs & Stratton/Businesswire/File

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For the most part, we are an energy-addicted society that doesn't think twice about having accessible power available at every turn. Having a portable generator is a great investment for being prepared in an emergency power outage and also for dialing up the quality of a tailgate party with video and audio on a sumptuous widescreen TV.

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Thankfully both emergency preparedness and party improvement via a portable generator are less expensive than you might think. While generators start at around $200, there are a wide range of options available at vastly different price points. Here's a guide to picking the portable generator that best suits your household's needs at a price you can live with.

Discern the Proper Wattage

The size of the generator you need can be easily determined by what you intend to supply power to. For a tailgate party where you're running a video system and perhaps some warming trays, you could get by with a generator that produces 1,000 watts. However, if you hope to run your household via generator during a power failure, you'll need considerably more current. Check out this wattage calculator to determine how much juice your home will need. I estimated my need for three 100-watt lights, a 36" TV, a gas furnace, and a refrigerator, and came up with 2,033 watts; you might be surprised at what power-hogs coffee makers and microwave ovens are.

It's crucial to take into consideration that at startup, many electrical devices need more current. Thus, the peak power rating on your generator should be higher than your calculated need. Most experts suggest a unit producing 4,000 peak watts or more for household application.

Check Your Output Needs

You may choose to run several extension cords from your generator located outside, away from the house. Therefore, it's ideal for your generator to have more than one output plug. If you plan to run power to your whole house via a single generator, you'll need to have an electrician install a power transfer switch into your home electrical system; this is the only way anything hard-wired into your system (like the furnace electronics and fan) can run.

Get Smooth Energy with a High-End Rectifier

Some newer generators include a rectifier, which converts electrical output into smooth sine waves — the kind of electricity that sensitive equipment like laptops need. Generators with rectifiers can also be more efficient; some vary the speed of the engine depending on the current drain. You'll pay a premium for a rectified generator, but if you fear you might fry your MacBook Pro, the extra expense could be worth it.

Take Weight Into Consideration

A generator's size is also related to its weight. You'll note from the deals sprinkled throughout this article that we found units that weigh between 29 lbs. and 215 lbs. Note that lightweight units that have a high wattage are going to be more expensive, and you'll want wheels on heavier models to make them easier to move.

If you're looking for a lighter model, the Duracell DS10R1i ($249.99 with free shipping, a low by $15) is a 1,000-watt gasoline-powered portable inverter generator that weighs in at just 29 lbs. and produces clean electricity that works well with sensitive equipment like laptops. It's important to note though, that this generator doesn't produce a lot of juice and only features a 2-stroke engine, which usually doesn't have as long a lifetime as 4-strokes (see below).

Engine Type

Most generators are powered by 4-stroke engines, meaning they don't require that you mix oil into the fuel. There are some 2-stroke generators available which, although more cumbersome to fuel, are less expensive to build and therefore can be had at a lower price point. Most generators are also air-cooled, so if you plan to use one at high noon in the summer, you'll need to make sure it doesn't overheat.

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