Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.
Generators typically fall into one of two categories: those designed to provide emergency power after an outage, and recreational generators, which you’d take to a tailgate or campsite to run a few lights, play some music, and maybe even cook dinner on an electric hotplate.
But can a single recreational generator provide power at home and keep your lights on after a storm? The answer depends on your power needs and your expectations.
Many newer generator models use inverter technology, which makes even modestly sized recreational generators more powerful—and, in turn, more versatile than the underpowered campsite generators of yesteryear.
“Inverter technology has made these models more efficient, and most top out around 2,000 watts,” says Dave Trezza, who oversees generator testing at Consumer Reports. “But there are still a lot of reasons to choose a portable or home standby generator, a requirement if you have a 220-volt well pump and need to have running water.”
If a recreational generator is your only option, here’s what you need to know to operate it safely and meet some of your power needs.
Making Sense of Wattage Ratings
Every generator has a wattage rating, or an output rating, usually stamped right on the generator itself. Most have both a baseline rating and a peak rating. The former refers to the standard electrical load the generator is capable of delivering. The second number, or peak, refers to the maximum wattage that a generator can deliver on a short-term basis to meet the temporary power demands of, say, a refrigerator when the compressor kicks on for a few minutes to cool the contents.
How Much Power Do You Need?
Start with the lower baseline number, and consider which essentials you’d like to power after a storm. Our generator buying guide provides typical wattage draws for essentials such as a space heater, fan, and refrigerator. Most electronics list their wattage requirements on the tag or plate that also includes the model number.
A typical recreational generator produces 1,600 to 2,000 watts (compared with the 5,000 watts or more put out by a larger, portable generator). That’s plenty for some lights or to charge your phone, but even a single space heater requires about 1,500 watts.
One way around that limitation is to run multiple generators parallel to one another, such as the stackable Champion 73536i, $480. Connecting two or more recreational generators via a cable allows them to run in tandem and produce a high enough wattage for power-hungry devices such as a window air conditioner or large heater. Just be sure to use a heavy-gauge extension cord, designed to carry larger electrical loads. Most have the maximum wattage rating on a tag near one end of the cord.
Hardwired Appliances Are a No-Go
The biggest limitation of recreational generators? They can’t power hardwired appliances (such as central heating or air conditioning, or a well pump) or plug-in appliances that require 220 volts (such as an electric range or dryer).
Portable generators can (and should) be connected to your home’s circuit breaker panel with a transfer switch or interlock device, which allows the generator to power an entire circuit rather than plugging in devices à la carte. That means running a hardwired water heater, with no plug, is out of the question, even if the generator produces more wattage than the heater draws.
And there’s no workaround—there aren’t interlock devices or transfer switches that operate with 110-volt generators. That's presumably because if you’re going through the hassle and expense of installing either mechanism, you'd opt for a generator capable of powering more than a few creature comforts.
The Bottom Line
In an outage, any generator is better than no generator—but recreational models are still best-suited for a campground. If you already own one and the power goes out, you can keep a single room toasty or cool, or keep the lights on, charge your phone, and even keep the contents of your fridge from going bad until power is restored.
But if outages are common in your area or you can’t go without conveniences such as central air or a hot shower, you’re better off saving up for a portable or home standby generator.
New Portable Generator Safety Features
From 2005 to 2017 more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning while using portable generators, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
To reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, some new generators feature a built-in sensor that triggers an automatic shutoff if CO builds up to dangerous levels in an enclosed space, and some also have engines that emit less CO in the first place. Recent test data from CR shows that these safety features probably save lives.
Consumer Reports now only recommends portable generators that pass our new CO safety technology test.
Two of the recreational models in our ratings have these safety features, and both are recommended.
Whether a portable generator has these safety features or not, you should never operate a generator indoors. Position it at least 20 feet from your home with the exhaust directed away from it, as well as from any windows, doors, air conditioners, or other structures.
Damaging storms can happen at any time. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Paul Hope shows host Jack Rico how to avoid being left in the dark during a power outage.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.