Portable Generators: Small vs Large - Pros, Cons, and How to Choose
- Small portable generators
- Larger stationary generators
- Can small portable generators power sensitive electronic devices, such as laptops and smartphones?
- Can small portable generators be used with solar panels?
Portable generators provide a convenient backup or remote power source wherever you need it. However, there is a trade-off between small, lightweight portable generators and more heavy-duty stationary generators regarding power capacity, run time, portability, and cost.
Small portable generators, ranging from 500 to 3000 watts, are ideal when you only require limited power for a short time. They are compact, affordable, easy to transport in a vehicle, and set up for fast, short-term use. However, their power is insufficient for large loads or prolonged runtimes.
|Small Portable Generators||
|Larger Stationary Generators||
Larger stationary generators, 5000 watts and above, produce significantly more power to handle heavy-duty equipment and extend run times, but they sacrifice portability. They are bulkier, more expensive, labor-intensive to move and set up, and intended for fixed long-term installations.
When choosing between these options, you must weigh your power needs against portability requirements and budget.
A small portable generator may suffice for casual backup power, while a heavy-duty stationary generator is necessary for primary power and critical loads. This guide will explore the pros and cons of each to help you determine which generator type best fits your particular requirements.
With an informed decision, you can select the portable or stationary generator that optimally balances power delivery, ease of use, and affordability for your needs.
Check more about how to choose the best portable generator for RV!
Small portable generators
- Portability: Small portable generators are lightweight, compact, and designed to be easily transported in a vehicle and set up anywhere needed. They weigh 65-200 lbs for a 500-3000W unit, allowing one or two people to safely lift and move them.
- Quick setup: Portable generator can be set up and ready to provide power in minutes. They do not require special foundations, installation equipment, or tools to get started. Simply place them on a level surface, connect the fuel source and power cables, and you can start generating power.
- Lower upfront costs: Budget-friendly small portable generators typically cost between $200 to $1000. While more expensive than other temporary power options on a demand basis, the lower upfront investment may save money if only occasional backup power is needed.
- Limited run time solution: For running essential equipment for a short duration, a small portable generator provides an adequate solution without the high fuel costs or maintenance needs of larger stationary generators.
- Backup and remote power: Small portable generators are ideal for providing backup power in an emergency or temporary primary power at remote locations without access to main power lines or cell service. They provide an independent source of electricity whenever and wherever it's needed.
- Easy to maintain: Fewer moving parts and components mean small portable generators require minimal maintenance. They do not need professional installation or monitoring. With proper care, routine maintenance like checking fluid levels can keep them running well for a long time. If you are using a portable solar generator, basically no maintenance is required.
- Environmental friendliness: Gas and diesel generator emissions can be reduced by using portable generators instead of stationary models running constantly. They only operate when there is a need for power, thus producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions per kilowatt-hour during actual use. Like the portable solar powered generator, it uses solar energy to generate electricity, and it will not produce harmful gases, so it is the best choice for environmental protection.
- Limited power capacity: Small portable generators typically provide 500 to 3000 watts of backup power which is insufficient for large loads like air conditioners, electric heating systems, electric stoves, or welders. They are only suitable for limited essential needs.
- Inadequate for whole-house power: In most cases, a small portable generator will only power a few essential circuits in a home, not the entire house. It typically does not have the starting power to simultaneously handle the loads powered by an HVAC system, water heater, stove, and other major residential appliances.
Larger stationary generators
- High power capacity: Stationary generators typically range from 4000 to 50000 watts, providing significantly more power than small portable generators. They can handle large loads like air conditioners, electric heating systems, electric stoves, water heaters, welders, and other heavy-duty power equipment with ease.
- Extended runtime: Larger stationary generators have fuel tanks that hold 20-200 gallons or more, resulting in run times of 8-24 hours or longer on a single tank. This provides continued operation for extended periods without needing frequent refueling. Some can run for days or even weeks at a time.
- Whole-house power capability: For homes and residences without access to main power lines, a stationary generator provides enough capacity and is designed specifically for powering essential circuits and appliances or even the entire house. It starts fast enough under load for most HVAC systems and other major home loads.
- Very expensive upfront costs: Stationary generators typically start around $3000-$5000 for a small 4000-watt model and can cost $10,000-$50,000 or more for heavy-duty commercial-grade units. The initial capital required can be a barrier for many individuals and businesses.
- Heavy and difficult to transport: Stationary generators weigh 500-6000 lbs or more, so they require heavy equipment like forklifts, cranes, or large trucks/trailers to move, which adds significantly to costs and effort. They are designed to remain in a fixed location.
- Labor-intensive to set up: Besides high costs to transport and move stationary generators, professional installation is typically required due to their size, weight, and complexity. Concrete foundations, fuel lines, exhaust systems, switchgear, and other components must be properly installed for safety, efficiency, and adherence to electrical codes.
- Noisy operation: Although generally not as loud as some portable generators, stationary generators still produce noise in the 70-95 dB range at close distances, which can disturb nearby areas, especially when first starting under load. Sound-dampening enclosures help but do not eliminate noise.
- Oversized for occasional use: Stationary generators are optimized for continuous operation and provide substantial power for extended periods. For those only requiring limited power occasionally for a short runtime, a stationary generator is an oversized solution with higher costs despite lower utilization.
- Waste heat issues: The large engines and alternators in stationary generators generate substantial heat, which must be properly exhausted to avoid reducing component lifespan or causing overheating. This requires larger exhaust and cooling systems, increasing costs, fuel usage, and emissions.
- Emissions challenges: Although emissions per kilowatt-hour may be higher than portable generators at times, stationary generators still produce air pollutants, especially when first starting under load. Newer Tier 4 emissions standards have helped reduce emissions, but stationary generators still do not match the low emissions of a power grid or renewable energy sources.
- Additional safety equipment needed: Extra equipment like automatic start systems, double-walled fuel tanks, sprinkler systems, fire suppression gear, and guarding/barriers are often required for safety when stationary generators present hazards. Such safety components significantly add to costs, size, and maintenance requirements.
- Difficulty accessing: Doors, cable entries, and other access points on stationary generators are less accessible once installed compared to portable units, which can be a challenge for equipment removal, repair, or replacement. Openings must remain clear but also weather-sealed for continuous operation.
Can small portable generators power sensitive electronic devices, such as laptops and smartphones?
Small portable generators can potentially power sensitive electronic devices like laptops, smartphones, and other mobile electronics, but there are some essential things to keep in mind:
- Make sure the generator has an AC output. Most small portable generators produce a modified sine wave which can be fine for running power tools, lights, etc. but may cause issues with sensitive electronics. Look for a "pure sine wave" or "inverter generator", which provides power closer to standard wall outlets. These tend to be more expensive but will safely power sensitive equipment.
- Check the voltage output. Typical small portable generators output 120V, 240V, or a combination. Ensure the voltage matches what your electronic devices require. Using a higher or lower voltage can damage equipment. 120V generators are most compatible with household power.
- Look at the starting wattage and power surge capability. Running sensitive electronics requires enough power to start up and run properly. Too little starting power can cause generators to overload or damage components. Higher surge wattage ratings indicate a more robust and capable power supply.
- Consider using a voltage regulator. Even with a pure sine wave generator, the power output can still potentially fluctuate under load, which could impact sensitive electronics. An inexpensive voltage regulator, especially a step-up/step-down regulator, helps ensure a consistent and regulated power supply for your devices.
- Ensure adequate grounding. Proper grounding is essential for avoiding electric shock and short circuit hazards when powering electronics. Ensure your generator has a 3-prong outlet and that all devices, power cables, and the generator itself are properly grounded. If you use solar powered generator, you don't need to consider this.
- Check cable size recommendations. The power cables connecting your generator to electronics must properly handle the amount of current drawn to avoid excessive voltage drop, heating, or fire risks. Use cables rated for at least the amp draw of all connected devices. Extra long cables require larger gauge wire sizes.
- Consider alternative power options for more sensitive devices. For high-value or mission-critical electronics, it may be safer to power them using an auxiliary power bank, utility power strip with surge protection, or alternative power from solar panels, wind turbines, or other renewable sources rather than a small portable generator.
Can small portable generators be used with solar panels?
Small portable generators can work with solar panels. Here are some tips for using them together:
- Solar panels charge batteries during the day to provide backup power at night or when the main power is out. A small portable generator can be used to help charge the batteries faster using an inverter compatible with the generator voltage. This extends the power provided by the solar system.
- Renewable energy sources provide eco-friendly power, while the portable generator can be used cautiously as a backup power source with fewer emissions. Using them together maximizes power availability while minimizing environmental impact.
- Ensure the generator voltage matches the inverter used to connect solar panels or batteries. Most portable generators provide 120V or 240V, so you select solar equipment and inverters compatible with the generator voltage.
- An inverter is placed between the generator and solar or battery power sources to combine their outputs and use them simultaneously. The inverter converts the different voltage sources to provide a single, compatible output.
- Charge controllers regulate the power flow between your generator, solar panels, and batteries to avoid overcharging or damaging the battery bank. They ensure power is shared appropriately between the different power sources.
- Proper grounding through a ground fault circuit interrupter or GFCI is essential to avoid risks of electric shock when multiple power sources are combined with crossover cables. Ground each source and share a common grounding path.
- Consider using a battery inverter or power box with built-in AC transfer switching to provide an all-in-one solution for combining and managing power from multiple sources like generators, solar panels, and utility power.
In summary, both small portable and larger stationary generators have worthy pros and cons to consider based on your unique setup and priorities.
Ensure you evaluate all factors thoroughly before determining which generator, if any, best meets your needs affordably and sustainably for the long run.