Blackouts like the one that crippled the East Coast last June needn’t lead to spoiled food and nights by flashlight. Our latest generator tests show that you can start powering a houseful of lights and appliances for less than $700. But as we found, some important components cost extra.
We focused on moderately priced portable and stationary models that deliver 5,000 to 7,000 watts, enough for most needs. Portables cost the least and can be stored in a garage or shed when you don’t need them. One Generac model, a CR Best Buy at $670, powered refrigerators, well pumps, and other home gear almost as well as the $900 top-scoring Troy-Bilt.
Stationary models install permanently outside your home and start automatically when needed. And because they run on propane or natural gas instead of gasoline, they offer extended or unlimited run time.
Buying a generator is just the beginning. Many models don’t come with parts that you’d think would be part of the price. And some could let you down when you need them most or put an added load on appliances. Here are the details:
“Batteries not included” applies. Several portables offer electric starting. But the battery required for that feature usually costs an extra $50. And if you think all portables have wheels, think again: They’re a $150 option on the Yamaha we tested.
Some slipped when demand surged. All of the tested generators met their basic wattage claims. Manufacturers also make higher surge-wattage claims for the extra power needed when fridges, air conditioners, and pumps cycle on.
Two could overheat appliances. Our power-quality test judges the ability to deliver the 120 volts that home circuits usually need. Most met that challenge. But one Generac model was shy under heavy load, and the Voltage from a stationary Briggs & Stratton unit was also low—and slightly uneven. Both conditions make motorized appliances and some electronics run hotter.
Decide what you really need to power. If that includes a central air conditioner or an electric dryer or range oven, you’ll need a larger generator than the ones we tested.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Generators."