Buying a generator is a big decision. These systems are a sizeable investment, so you’ll want to make sure the unit you choose is going to be the one that will meet your needs and keep you happy with performance through whatever you need it to do. However, finding a delicate balance between a unit that’s the right size and a unit that fits your budget is often trickier than you might think.
How do you know what size of a generator you need and what type of system you should get? These are important questions to ask yourself before you begin your search, and this blog will hopefully give you the information you need to answer them with confidence.
Types of Generators
Before we begin, we need to go over the two primary types of generators you will encounter: portable generators and standby generators. Portable generators have the ability to move from place to place and provide power wherever you need them. These are the generators you typically see at campgrounds powering RVs and trailers that have electrical hookups. They are typically a smaller box, but these systems can actually come just about as big as you could imagine. In fact, the largest portable generators are towed in with semi-trucks and used to power entire television productions (though that’s probably way more power than you need).
A portable generator that you would typically find in a house, boat, or camper is typically powered by a small gasoline engine. When you fire up the engine, the crankshaft turns a generator motor, creating the electrical current you need. The bigger the generator motor, the bigger the engine needed to turn it, and the more expensive the generator becomes. While some of these systems are technically still portable, they can be a real burden to move, weighing hundreds of pounds.
Standby generators are not capable of being relocated like portable generators. These systems require a permanent mounting point because they are supplied with fuel from a natural gas or propane fuel line. That means they are typically installed close to your home and do not move from the spot where they are initially set up. There are two major advantages to these systems: they do not need to be refueled, and they operate automatically. These systems are essentially always “on standby,” meaning they are ready to fire up at a moment’s notice should the power go out in your home. Once they turn on, they continuously collect fuel from your gas utility, providing you with reliable power for as long as you need it (so long as the gas supply remains stable). Standby generators also typically carry a higher price tag than a portable generator, and their installation is a much bigger project.
What Size Generator Do I Need?
As for generator sizing, you need to ask yourself a few questions regarding what you want your generator to be capable of doing? Are you just looking for a small unit you can take with you on road trip vacations to exotic camping destinations? Then you probably don’t need more than a small generator and a few cans of gas. Are you looking for emergency power for your home? You might need a much greater capacity, particularly if you want to minimize the disruption of your day-to-day life as much as possible.
Let’s break things down into actual numbers.
- 2,000 Watt Size: The two kilowatt (1 kilowatt = 1,000 watts) class will essentially get you just a small amount of power to do a few basic tasks. They’re great for working with electric tools out in a field with no power anywhere around, or for bringing camping so you can have an electric cooker for your food. However, they aren’t great for emergency power because they aren’t capable of a whole lot. To put it simply, a single burner on an electric range can pull over 1,000 watts of power, and that’s more than half of what one of these generators can produce. One of these systems could keep your phone charged and give you a couple of electric lights, but that’s really about it.
- 7,000 Watt Size: This is the first size we would reasonably recommend you use as an emergency power supply. This can power a few of your lower-consumption appliances all at the same time as well as several lights. You may not have central cooling, but one of these systems could power a small ductless HVAC unit with room to spare. That makes them pretty good for larger camping vehicles as well!
- 12,000 Watt Size: These are not the system you are going to want to bring camping—they’re just too heavy and bulky to move around. But this is a good size to have at the ready for emergency power. At 12 kilowatts, you have access to pretty much all of the lights in your home, all of your lower-power appliances, and even one or two of your higher-power appliances all at the same time. That means you can reasonably do a load of laundry, use a hairdryer, run an electric range, and even run your water heater. Just, try to avoid doing all of that at once.
- 20,000 Watt Size: A 20 kilowatt generator would be able to provide you with enough power to do just about anything and everything you need in the average home, and even do it all at the same time. While we typically think something this large is typically a bit much for the average homeowner, it could make sense if you struggle with power reliability for long stretches of time. This is also a great option for agricultural businesses that might need some additional power to make sure important equipment will continue to run.