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Cheap Portable Generators Buying Guide

Our two favorite portable generators are both from Champion Power Equipment: The feature-rich 46539 (starting at $482) and the no-frills but equally powerful 46533 (starting at $358) have 3,500 watts of running power but still remain in the Cheapism price range. Gentron's GG3500 (starting at $415) is a budget-worthy choice with an electric starter that sits in our runner-up spot.

Buffalo Tools' Sportsman GEN4000LP (starting at $404) appeals for its price and use of propane as fuel, but falls to the bottom of the list due to concerns about reliability. The powerful Briggs & Stratton 30466 (starting at $400) earns its share of praise but also a handful of complaints about defective units.

A number of well known companies produce inexpensive generators. Popular brands include Champion Power Equipment, Briggs & Stratton, Troy-Bilt, Powermate, Gentron, Generac, All Power, and many others. And the generators can be bought at retailers such as Home Depot, Sears, Tractor Supply Co., and Lowe's, as well as online and at smaller shops that specialize in power tools and equipment. Generally, the more powerful a generator is, the more it costs. The cheapest generators we focus on range from 3,000 watts to 4,000 watts while beefier models in the 7,000 watt to 10,000 watt territory cost well over $1,000. Extra features, such as an electric starter or a wheel kit, may also boost the price.

The most important criterion when choosing a portable generator is how much power it produces. You want a model with enough juice to provide the electricity needed to run critical appliances and must-have electronics during a blackout. (An online wattage calculator, such as these from Consumer Reports and Briggs & Stratton, will help you determine how much power you'll need.) And, of course, any generator worth buying must be easy to start and totally dependable.

In terms of specifics, here's what you should know:

The running watts and starting watts on cheap generators indicate how powerful it is. Starting watts is always a higher number because you need more watts to start some appliances than to keep them running. Cheap portable generators are generally powered by unleaded gasoline or propane fuel. Gas models are far more common due to the easy availability of gasoline (most of the time), but propane is safer and easier to store long term. Any good generator, cheap or not, should be able to run for at least eight hours and perhaps 12 on one tank of fuel. It should have a recoil start mechanism (a simple pull-start, like the type used on most gas lawnmowers), although some include a convenient electric starter, as well.

Even inexpensive generators are fitted with an array of outlets, including a standard 120v outlet for household use. Some generators also include a locking outlet (120v or 240v), which secures the cord in place, and a 120v "RV" outlet. Most cheap generators come with a wheel kit, which is a very good thing. Generators are quite heavy, so moving them around is a chore. A wheel kit is especially useful if you want to take the generator on a camping trip or to any remote location where you need power.

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A good generator can be a lifesaver in a severe storm and is handy for a variety of other purposes, like powering up that tool shed in the backyard or backing up a basement sump pump. Make sure you have fuel on hand along with several heavy-duty extension cords and a power strip to connect essential appliances and electric devices. (Note: Running a whole-house system, including overhead lights, off of a generator requires a manual transfer switch that's located near and connected to the main electrical panel.)

And finally, always be sure to run the generator outdoors; the burning fuel releases harmful carbon monoxide.

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