Six months ago Superstorm Sandy knocked out power to millions in the Northeast and the homes of Consumer Reports readers were no exception. When we spoke to 8,389 of our subscribers who live in the affected areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, 76 percent said they lost power for at least a day and the median number of days without power was seven. A fortunate few, 19 percent, used generators during the outage and, in part, because of the unavailability of fuel, those who owned portable models fared worse than those with stationary models.
As a result of Sandy, many folks got a crash course in the types of generators. Typically, a portable generator is powered by gasoline and moved into place when needed. Some use propane. Regardless of the fuel type, the generator has to be well maintained between uses so it starts when you need it. In our survey, 22 percent of those who used portable generators ran out of fuel, 10 percent said the generator didn't power what they needed it to and nine percent said it was hard to start or didn't start at all. More than half of those asked had a combination of problems, including these and others, with their portable generator.
Stationary generators are ready when a storm hits but only 12 percent of the generator owners in our sample had one. More expensive than portables, stationary generators require professional installation and typically run on natural gas. Some are powered by propane. The advantage they have over portables is that they are hard-wired into your electrical system and most perform periodic self-checks to ensure smooth operation. And when the power goes out, the generator switches on. In our survey, 89 percent of those who used stationary generators were highly satisfied with their performance.
Since Sandy, generators of both types have become a hot commodity. And with hurricane season starting in June, more and more homeowners are considering generators as essential rather than optional.
In Consumer Reports tests of generators, six models made our list of top generator picks including four portables and two stationary models. The two CR Best Buys were both made by Generac. Of the stationary models, the Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7, $3,200, delivered smooth, steady power and offers 7,000 watts with natural gas and 8,500 using propane. It was also the quietest model we tested, and it shuts down automatically if the engine-oil level gets low. The Generac CorePower 5837, $1,800, offers capable performance for roughly half the cost of the top-rated Kohler. It offers 6,000 watts using natural gas and 1,000 more if using propane. This generator was the only one we tested that comes with a transfer switch, usually an extra $400.
Our top-rated portable was the Troy-Bilt XP 7000 30477, $900, with such helpful features as electric start, fuel shutoff (which prevents leaks and keeps fuel from getting trapped in the fuel system and spoiling during storage), low-oil shutdown, a nine-gallon tank for an average 15 hours of run time, and a fuel gauge. The Best Buy Generac GP5500 5939, $670, performed almost as well as the top-scoring Troy-Bilt for hundreds less. Features include fuel shutoff, low-oil shutdown, and a fuel gauge.
For more information on surviving a major storm, read our full report: Lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy.