The Cat RP8000 E, one of the best new generators.
The Cat RP8000 E portable generator

When you need to power your house during an outage, you have two options: a home standby generator or a portable model. If you lose power often, you might opt for a standby, also called a stationary, generator. The unit itself can cost thousands, with an installation bill to match.

But if you live in an area where outages are infrequent or where the lights often come back on in a few hours, you’ll save thousands by going with a portable generator. These units keep costs down and pack plenty of power to run most of the essentials in your home. Even smaller midsized and recreational generators—which we also feature here—will power some essentials in a pinch. 

But portable generators also carry safety risks. They produce carbon monoxide (CO), an odorless and invisible gas—and more than 60 people die each year from generator-related CO poisoning. Many new models feature automatic shut-offs and low-CO engines.  Consumer Reports now puts every gas-burning generator through a rigorous safety test, and only recommends portable generators with either or both of these potentially lifesaving safety features.

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“The newest generators we've tested prove that these tools can blend safety and performance,” says Misha Kollontai, CR’s test engineer in charge of generators. “The majority of newly tested models make major improvements over older generators in terms of safety, and still manage to deliver power reliably.”

No matter what kind of generator you choose, use it outdoors only and place it at least 20 feet from your home, with the exhaust directed away from any open windows or doors. CR recommends having a licensed electrician install a transfer switch, which connects a generator to your home’s circuit breaker panel, allowing you to power entire circuits at once. Note that these devices are compatible with full-sized portable generators and large inverter generators, but not with midsized or recreational generators. With those, you should use outdoor-rated extension cords to plug individual appliances directly into the generator. Make sure the cords are at least the gauge specified by the generator manufacturer and long enough that the generator can remain 20 feet from your home.

CR's Generator Performance Tests

While safety is essential, our performance testing ensures that a generator will work as promised in the moment you need it most. To do that, our expert engineers load up every generator we assess with a variety of essentials you might want to power during an outage, like a space heater, refrigerator, or window air conditioner. We make sure the generator can handle the load it promises and also determine what happens when a sudden spike in voltage hits, like what would happen if the compressor in your refrigerator kicked on when the generator was already close to capacity.

The best models take that in stride, while others bog down or even stall. We also look at how easy it is to move and use a generator, as well as how efficiently it uses gasoline and how long it runs on a single tank. 

Best Portable Generators From CR's Tests

What, exactly, is a “portable” generator, anyway? That designation can include everything from a little 30-pound generator you’d use at a campground to charge your phone, all the way up to a 250-pound behemoth, capable of powering your entire house through a sustained outage. Think of a portable generator as any model that’s not a home standby generator.

Here, we’ve divided portable generators into three common styles you’ll find, with some notes on what each can do. 

Our ratings include results for dozens of portable generators, as well as home standby generators. If you’re just starting to shop for a generator, start with our generator buying guide to get a sense of the differences among types. CR members can also jump to our generator ratings or read on for ratings and reviews of the best portable generators from our tests. 

Best Portable Generators to Power Your Entire Home

These tools provide 4,000 to 8,500 watts of power and usually weigh upward of 200 pounds. They're what you want to power most or all of your home's essentials during a prolonged outage. Prices range from $500 to about $1,500.

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CO safety technology
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2

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Best Portable Generators for Small Houses, Boats, and Recreational Vehicles

These generators, referred to as midsized inverter generators in our ratings, provide 2,000 to 4,000 watts of power, and they weigh 75 to 150 pounds. They pack plenty of power for a boat, an RV, or a camper, or they can power a few household essentials. They're more fuel-efficient and quieter than those above, but despite their lower power output, they're also pricier, at a range of $500 to $2,500.

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CO safety technology
Power delivery
Power quality

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Best Portable Generators for Camping and Tailgates

These generators, called recreational inverter generators in our ratings, provide up to 2,000 watts of power and usually weigh 50 pounds or less, making them perfect for campsites. In a pinch, you can power a fridge and a few lights with these, but for anything more, look to the generators above. These more modest units are fuel-efficient and quiet, and you'll pay $500 to $1,200.

Top Picks

1

CO safety technology
Power delivery
Power quality

2

CO safety technology
Power delivery
Power quality
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