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Cheap Portable Generators Buying Guide

Portable Generator Reviews
Generator Features: Wattage, Starters, and Outlets
Portable Gas Generators and Propane Generators

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.

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.

Portable Generator Reviews

Whichever generator you buy should meet three important criteria: sufficient power to run your appliances and electronics, easy starting, and reliability. Apart from a few dissenting reports here and there, portable generator reviews indicate that our top three picks handily meet these standards. The remaining two on our list take some heat for units that arrive damaged or fail after minimal use.

Generators Power.

A generator must have enough power, measured in watts, to run all your essential electricity-dependent gear at the same time. Otherwise, you'll be forced to choose which items to shut off so the generator can power the rest. Maybe you can get by without that 1,000-watt microwave for a day or two, but you don't want to have to decide between the refrigerator and the heater. That means you want a generator that provides at least 3,000 watts of running power. You can find cheaper generators with fewer watts, but they probably won't provide enough power for your needs. The amount of power that refrigerators, heating and cooling systems, house lights, radios, TVs, and laptops require adds up quickly. Factor in a microwave, a space heater, even a simple coffee maker or iron, and your total household watts usage will likely sail well past 3,000.

According to the reviews of portable generators we read, most users found that their electric backup unit was equal to the task. In fact, many reviewers crow about how much stuff they were able to run off their little portable generators. For example, in reviews posted at Amazon, users of the Champion Power Equipment 46539 (starting at $482) recite long lists of the appliances and electronics their units ran simultaneously -- various combinations of fridges, freezers, PCs, TVs, lights, boilers, and the like. When describing the might of the Champion Power Equipment 46533 (starting at $358) in reviews at Home Depot, users likewise reel off the electronics that keep on going -- radios, TVs, game consoles, computer equipment, appliances, and more. Numerous reviews of Champion Power Equipment portable generators clearly indicate that owners were impressed with their consistent and trouble-free performance during and after Hurricane Sandy.

Other budget generators we researched also deliver. The Gentron GG3500 (starting at $415) has enough muscle to run a 13,500 BTU air conditioner, a TV, and a couple of fans for up to 18 hours, according to a generators review at Sears. And one buyer of the Briggs & Stratton 30466 (starting at $400) writes in a post at Home Depot that this generator has "serious guts," saying it powered a double-door fridge, TV, DVD player, iPhones, and lamp with no hiccups at all. The Sportsman GEN4000LP (starting at $404) provides ample power for home electronics, and one generators review at Amazon asserts that it powered two apartments -- two refrigerators, three TVs, several lights, and a couple of laptops -- at the same time.

Generators Startup.

Portable generators have simple startup mechanisms, usually a recoil starter. Some models feature an electric starter but also include a recoil starter as backup. According to reviews posted by users, the models we researched pose few startup challenges. We didn't come across any complaints about generators refusing to start, even when relying exclusively on the recoil mechanism.

For example, the Champion Power Equipment 46533 is recoil-only, but reviews of the portable generator at sites such as Tractor Supply Co. say it starts easily, usually on the first pull. Another Champion Power Equipment model, the 46539, boasts an electric starter and a wireless remote starter, the latter being a feature that users find quite convenient. The Briggs & Stratton 30466 consistently earns kudos in reviews for its one-pull start, while shoppers at Sam's Club say the Gentron GG3500 is a breeze to fire up thanks to the electric starter.

Generators Quality.

Obviously, a generator that won't start or breaks down during a blackout is no help at all. Most of the models we researched boast excellent track records for performance and reliability. That said, you may be better off buying one at a brick-and-mortar store or arranging for store pick-up if you go the online route rather than having it delivered to your door. We read several generator reviews at Sam's Club and Sears claiming that the Gentron GG3500 arrived damaged (a number of users also gripe that the instructions for attaching the wheels are confusing); a similar complaint also cropped up occasionally in reviews of other models.

Review continues below

Reports about total breakdowns are fairly rare. We did see a few accounts of critical failure by the Briggs & Stratton 30466 in comments about the generator at Amazon; and yet, posts at other sites, like Electric Generators Direct, don't raise any red flags. Users who commented at Amazon also cite problems with the Sportsman GEN4000LP. One buyer says the generator stopped working after going through only two tanks of fuel and another grouses that several internal components fell apart after only a few hours of use.

Generator Features: Wattage, Starters, and Outlets

Wattage.

There are several things to keep in mind before you buy a new portable generator. First, you'll need to know how much power (in watts) you would need in the event of an outage. A 3,000-watt generator should just suffice for the average household, but check an online wattage calculator, such as the ones at Consumer Reports or Briggs & Stratton, to be sure. Run time and fuel type are also important considerations. Almost all portable generators now have a reliable recoil pull-start mechanism, although you may prefer an electric starter. Another nice extra for a portable generator is a wheel kit, which makes moving the generator considerably easier.

Running Watts and starting watts.

Specifications for every generator contain two numbers related to its power: running watts and starting watts. A generator's running watts indicates the maximum amount of power the generator can provide. As long as the total watts of the equipment you're running is less than that of the generator's maximum running watts, the generator will power those items without a problem. A generator with 3,000 running watts is the recommended minimum, although demand for electricity varies by household, so plan accordingly. The top two cheap portable generators we recommend offer owners 3,500 running watts for example.

That said, some machines, such as refrigerators, need an extra boost when starting up. The amount of extra power necessary to jump-start an appliance or electrical device is referred to as starting watts. All generators can supply a temporary power boost beyond the running wattage.

The generator's running watts is always listed first, followed by the starting watts. For example, the Champion Power Equipment 46539 has 3,500 running watts and 4,000 starting watts, so the specification is displayed as 3,500/4,000w. The Champion 45633 also features 3,500 running watts and 4,000 starting watts. The Gentron GG3500, a 3,000-watt generator with 3,500 starting watts, isn't quite as powerful while the Briggs & Stratton 30466, with its 3,500/4,375-watt listing, is the most powerful model in our lineup. The Sportsman GEN4000LP from Buffalo Tools is a 3,250/4,000-watt generator.

Generators Starter.

The generators we researched all come with the old-fashioned "recoil" start (i.e., pull-start); one or two good tugs and the generator is up and running. Some generators, like the Champion Power Equipment 46539 and Gentron GG3500, also feature an electric start; flip a switch, press a button, and the generator kicks on. Just note that an electric starter requires a battery, so check that little power cell periodically to make sure it's still working. Generators with an electric start should also have a backup recoil-start mechanism, as do those we researched. Techies will appreciate that the Champion 46539 additionally includes a remote for wireless starts -- quite an amazing feature for a generator in this price range.

Generators Outlets.

Portable generators typically have three or four outlets, but they're not all standard, household-type plugs. Aside from the regular 120v outlet for lamps, refrigerators, heaters, and the like, generators usually include a 120v outlet designed for RVs (another good way to make use of a generator) in addition to a twist-lock outlet that keeps a plug securely in place. A generator with more than one standard 120v outlet is the best option because you'll be able to use more than one extension cord to power your household needs.

Most outlets on the 3,000-watt to 4,000-watt generators we researched are 120v only. If you need a generator with a 220-240v outlet, check the specs carefully. Among our picks the Gentron GG3500 includes a 220v locking outlet in addition to two 110v standard outlets. The Briggs & Stratton 30466 has one 120/240v locking outlet and a pair of standard 120v outlets. The other models on our list stick to 120v outlets only, but of various types.

Portable Gas Generators and Propane Generators

Most portable generators use unleaded gasoline as their fuel source. Other models, such as the Generac LP3250 (starting at $609) and the budget Sportsman GEN4000LP, are propane generators. You may occasionally see a portable generator that runs on diesel fuel, although none made our list of picks.

Most models are gas generators simply because gasoline is the fuel of choice for small engines and is widely available. However, there are some drawbacks to gas generators. As many unfortunate East Coasters discovered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a severe natural disaster can disrupt a region's gas supply. Moreover, storing large quantities of gasoline isn't exactly safe and its shelf life is limited. (The fuel starts to break down after a few months and if you use old fuel in a gas generator, you run the risk of gumming up the engine, which creates a real mess.) Bottom line: It's best to purchase the gas shortly before you need it -- if possible. A related issue for gas generators is the octane level of the unleaded gasoline that runs the unit. Although most call for 87 octane fuel, some, such as the All Power APGG4000 (starting at $399) need 90 octane or higher. Most gas generators are fitted with a four-gallon tank.

Propane generators are a good alternative to gas models. Propane generators are less common, though, and a good one may cost a bit more than a comparable gas generator. (The Sportsman GEN4000LP is a relative bargain for a propane generator.) One advantage of a propane generator is being able to store propane almost indefinitely. Additionally, propane tanks are safer to store than full gas cans. Propane tanks used by generators also serve propane-powered outdoor grills, so they're not hard to find. The price for a propane tank is also pretty low. Propane generators use either 20-pound or 30-pound tanks. When a propane generator lists its run time, it usually does so assuming you'll use a 20-pound tank.

Generators Run Time.

The amount of time a generator can run on a single tank of gasoline or propane varies considerably. Generally, the more appliances and electronics connected to a generator, the shorter the run before it needs to be refueled. A generator's run time is measured in hours and assumes it runs at "half load," meaning it's using only 50 percent of the available running watts; i.e., a half load for a 3,000-watt generator would be 1500w. The standard four gallon tank on a gas generator should keep the generator running for about 10 to 12 hours; a propane generator with a 20-pound tank is generally good for about 10 hours.

For the most part, the generators we researched meet these standards. The Champion Power Equipment 46539 is, indeed, a champ by this measure. A review at Portable Generator Master asserts it provides 12 hours of run time, as the manufacturer stipulates. (Ditto for the no-frills Champion Power Equipment 46533.) The Gentron GG3500 hits a solid run time of 11 hours, according to the manufacturer's specifications. By contrast, the Briggs & Stratton 30466 lists run time at a relatively short eight hours, which may understate its capabilities. Users who posted reviews at Amazon and Electric Generators Direct report this model goes for 10 hours or more with a pretty large load. All Power's APGG4000, a 3,300/4,000-watt generator, also lists an eight-hour run time while a pricy Briggs & Stratton model, the 30430 (starting at $799), is a 5500/8250w powerhouse with a run time of 13 hours on a seven-gallon tank.

Among the propane generators we researched, the Sportsman GEN4000LP boasts a 10-hour run time on a 20-pound tank. The run time for a 30-pound tank isn't listed, but we'd expect power delivery for up to four hours longer than with a 20 pounder. Run time for the Generac LP3250 when using a 20-pound tank is nine hours and hits 13.5 hours with a 30-pound tank.

Generators Wheel Kits.

Generators are heavy. All the models we researched weigh 100 pounds or more, so a wheel kit that makes the generator portable is a boon. Most generators include a wheel kit as part of the package; you can usually buy one separately for those models that don't. The lack of a wheel kit may not be an issue if you plan to park the unit in one spot and leave it there, but it will take some heavy lifting to get the generator into position in the first place.

Most of the generators we looked at come with a wheel kit; the Champion Power Equipment 46533 and Sportsman GEN4000LP are exceptions, which partly accounts for their lower price.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Portable Generators
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