A Comprehensive Guide to Buying Generators
Date Posted:8 December 2016
A generator is an enormously useful appliance to have at home or at work. Even though we generally enjoy a steady and consistent supply of energy, there are times when the power can go out. Natural disasters such as heavy storms can up-end or cut power lines, or a surge could put an area into blackout.
When that happens, having a generator to supply backup power allows you to keep the lights on, the fridge running, or the computer operational. These generators run on fuel (commonly petrol), are easy to maintain and store, and certainly beat breaking out the candles in the event of a power outage. And as an alternative benefit, if you like seeing the great outdoors, a portable generator gives you power where you might not otherwise be able to find any. There’s no reason to go without the luxury of stove-cooked meals or a hot shower when you’ve got access to one of these machines, and the portable ones can come in some very small form factors these days, making them easy to store in a campervan or house boat when not in use.
There is an enormous range of generators on the market, so choosing the right one that will meet your needs can be a challenge. This comprehensive guide has been designed to give you an introduction to generators; how they work, and how they should be maintained, as well as helping guide you in finding the right generator to suit your needs.
What is a generator?
There are two main types of generators - stationary and portable. Stationary generators are the ones found on the top of office buildings or hospitals. They’re designed to provide a large amount of power over a substantial period of time in the event of an outage.
The other type is a portable generator, which, as the name suggests, is relatively easy to move around, and is intended more for home use; these generators might keep the lights on for a while in the event of a power outage, or you might use them to provide power to your houseboat or campervan.
How does it work?
Both types of generators work in much the same way; they contain a generator “head” which produces the electricity, and an engine, which is fuelled with gasoline, diesel or, in rare circumstances, an alternative fuel. These engines then provide the mechanical energy that is necessary to output through the generator head by spinning a shaft and making use of magnetism. As with car engines, the basic technology that powers generators has been around for long enough now to almost be considered “archaic,” but it’s worth noting that these systems are complex in practice, and do require maintenance in order to remain safe to use.
They should also be used outdoors at all times. Even portable generators, which generally have wheels to move around easily, and are a small enough that they can fit into the home, should never be operated inside. Generators produce carbon monoxide as a byproduct of the fuel that they consume, and this is quite toxic to humans. Leaving the generators outdoors is important for ventilation purposes, and it’s a good idea to leave a three-foot space, or one meter, in all directions around the generator clear. This ensures the free-flow of cooling air takes the carbon monoxide away and prevents the generator from overheating.
In addition to that free-flowing air, it’s also important to know that that generators have coolant systems that are regularly maintained. This process of converting fuel to electrical power also generates a great deal of heat, just as it does with a car, and if not adequately cooled, the generator can be severely damaged or may even become a fire hazard. Regardless of the specifics of the coolant system, it should be checked every 600 hours of generator use (or before you turn the generator on, if you use it infrequently and are planning to use it again).
The size of the tank will determine how long a generator can operate before it needs refuelling. Generally the tank will be large enough for a few hours of operation, with larger generators having larger tanks, but also requiring greater fuel usage in order to power more things simultaneously.
The power that is generated through a generator is accessed in the same basic way that we access power off the energy grid; you plug a cord into the generator, and the plug of the appliance you’re looking to use is plugged into one of the three-pronged “outlet” connections on the other end. The experience is no different to plugging it into a wall socket. The size of a generator will determine how many different appliances you can use at once. A small generator might only provide enough power to utilise a single utility at a time, though most generators (even the small portable ones), will give you enough power to have two or three appliances working simultaneously.
Examples of generators
As mentioned, there is a great variety in generators available, ranging from small portable personal use generators, through to large machines that will keep a great number of appliances running at the same time. Some examples of the most popular generators include:
1. BAR BR XYG2000i
At under $1000, this highly portable inverter generator will last for 4.8 hours on a full load of fuel (with a 4.8 litre tank). Weighing just 18kg, it’s a highly portable generator that produces a running output of 1.7 kW, making it a particularly useful choice for campers as it doesn’t take up much space, but provides enough power to run a small camping stove or similar electronics. It’s useful on worksites too, for operating single tools.
2. Gentech EPINV7KE 7kVA Inverter Generator
For a more high-end portable generator, the Gentech is a rugged and versatile option. It comes with a 25L fuel tank, which allows for a run time of 5.5 hours on a full load and as an inverter design, produces a clean sine wave power supply. The generator has been rated for 6.5kVA output, which means you’ll be able to power a wide range of different electronics, whether you’re on a work site, at home, or out and about.
3. Gentech 9.5kVA E/Start Honda Powered Generator with Long Range Fuel Tank - EP9500HSRE
For those who have serious power needs, the E/Start Honda Powered Generator is a good option. This one is not portable, but offers enough power that you’d be able to run a medium sized air conditioner or welding equipment off it. It comes with a 27 litre fuel tank, which provides 7.11 hours of operation at a standard 80% load.
Things to consider when buying a generator
There are a number of different things to keep in mind before buying a generator. The one that is right for you will depend a great deal on your intended use for it. Generators come in many different varieties, so determine the main purposes you require the generator for first, then shop around for the one that will meet those needs.
1. Does it need to be portable?
The first thing you’ll want to determine is whether you’ll be taking the generator around with you. If the purpose of the generator is as a backup power supply to the home, then a stationary generator is superior. They tend to be quieter, easier to start and more powerful, allowing you to maintain more appliances at home during a power outage.
2. What fuel do you want to run it?
There are two types of fuel that power generators; some are petrol-powered, while others are powered through diesel. Petrol-powered generators tend to be less expensive, and the portable generators tend to use petrol for this reason. But if you’re willing to make the investment, diesel-powered generators last longer, especially if you plan on using them frequently.
3. Do you need an inverter generator?
Traditionally, a generator will run at full speed regardless of how much power is actually needed. This is fine in many circumstances, but sensitive electronics like computers, TVs and microwaves are susceptible to damage from power provided this way. Inverter generators, meanwhile, provide a self-governing smart throttle which will make sure that the appliances get a clean sine wave, with no power surges. These generators cost a little more, but would be worth the investment if you’re planning on using important electronics with it. As a secondary benefit, inverter generators are quieter and better for the environment too.
4. Single or three phase?
For personal use, at home, or in small businesses, single phase generators are more than sufficient. All home-based appliances will never need more than a single phase supply. Commercial environments, however, often need three phase power supply, so if you’re looking for a generator for more business purposes you will need a three phase.
What are generators used for?
Portable generators have many uses, and most people will find them useful to have around, be that for home or work purposes. Some uses of portable generators are obvious, but then there are times that you’ll be glad to have one without even realising that you need it.
1. Power generators are useful as emergency backup
Even in areas with a reliable power supply, there will be times when wires go down or a surge disrupts supply to your home. Generators really come into their own then, keeping the air conditioning, fridge, or lights running until the main power can come back online.
This is especially true if a natural disaster has impacted an area. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and fires can all sever power lines and disrupt connection to power for hours, even days. Key facilities in the local area, including banks, hospitals, fire and police, maintain generators for this reason. Homes and local businesses should also strongly consider generators for this reason.
People who live in extreme conditions (e.g. deserts or frigid environments) should consider a generator essential. If the power goes out (and it will more frequently in such environments), a generator hooked up to the air conditioning or heater system can mean the difference between life and death. Similarly, in emergency situations, a generator might be the only way to keep communications lines opening.
2. You can work in areas without power
If you work on job sites that don’t have a connection to the power grid, then you’ll need a power generator in order to make use of tools or equipment. Most work sites require generators of 30 or 50 Amps, and a generator will allow you to work with power tools remotely, whether you’re on the roof with a nail gun, or you’re indoors and need access to light.
Construction workers that commonly find themselves in need of generators include painters that use spray gun systems powered by electricity, roofers with nail guns, and contractors working indoors before the power has been connected and are in need of illumination for the workspace.
3. For events
If you’ve got a large event, concert or party to plan, then a generator will allow you to power speakers, lights, and so on, outdoors and away from typical sources of power. It’s also a safety issue. If an event is going to use a lot of powerful lights or loud music, then it’s relatively easy to overload circuits from the main supply lines. What organisers will generally do instead, is run multiple generators at the same time; one for the lights, one for the sound, and so on.
4. For small businesses
Small businesses are typically so technologically connected these days that any downtime whatsoever can cost the business severely. One report, for example, found that the average cost of downtime for a company was $5,600 per minute
A generator can help minimise the impact of that downtime by allowing the business to keep its computers on and connected to the internet, meaning staff are able to continue working without interruption.
5. For holidays
Generators are really useful for trips off the beaten track. Whether it’s camping, driving around in a caravan, or taking a trip down a river in houseboat, while you’re away from civilization, it’s the generator that’s going to supply you with all the power you’ll need for cooking, running the air conditioner, or showering. With portable generators, there’s no reason to spend quality time in nature at the expense of comfort.
Common camping luxuries that make good use of generators include portable lights, electronic bug zappers, fans, microwaves, stoves and refrigerators.
A guide to maintaining a generator
A generator is a significant investment and, as with all machinery, it needs to be maintained in order to continue to run optimally and be safe to use. The good news is that maintaining a generator is far easier than an engine such as a car and every generator owner will be able to do the bulk of the maintenance work themselves.
1. Self-service the generator twice per year
In order to make sure the generator is operable, a twice yearly self-service is a good idea, even if you don’t use the generator frequently. When you’re servicing the generator, start by checking it for any corrosion, loose or damaged wiring, and make sure the buttons are working as they should. As generators are outdoor tools, there’s also the potential that, through operation, they’ve sucked up dirt, leaves, or other debris. Clear this out of the machine to ensure it doesn’t get into the engine and any cause damage.
2. Clean the generator after every use
It’s important to wipe away grease, mud, organic matter, fuel and so on that accumulates on or in a generator during use. Keep a handy supply of rags for the wipe down and invest in a compressed air blower to help blast clean the ventilation fans. Additionally, after each use, check the generator thoroughly for signs of corrosion and treat it instantly with an inhibitor product if you spot any.
3. Check the battery
You’ll likely have to top up the distilled water in the battery frequently, and when you do, check on the battery’s voltage. Batteries degrade, meaning that the voltage will start to falter over time, reducing the effectiveness of the generator itself. Batteries are designed to be replaced every 2-3 years to maintain maximum output and life for the generator.
4. Perform an annual replacement for filters
Once per year, go through the machine as per the manufacturer’s instructions and change the filters for super, by-pass and so on, that are in your machine.
5. Change the oil regularly
For air-cooled machines, oil will need to be topped up for every 30-40 hours of use. For liquid-cooled machines, oil needs replacing less frequently, but you’ll need to do it every 100 hours of operation. Check with your manufacturer if there’s any particular oil products that you should be using, but as a rule of thumb, air-cooled machines will require the use of a synthetic oil. For this reason, you should also keep a supply of oil at home, so if there’s a big storm that takes out the power for a long period of time, you’re able to keep the generator running throughout.
6. Don’t refill the generator while it’s running
This is more of a safety tip, but people can get into serious accidents by trying to refill a running generator. Because these machines run hot, spilling some fuel can create a combustion incident, which can have serious implications for both your generator and your health. At a minimum, a generator should be allowed to cool for at least 15 minutes before refuelling.
7. Don’t allow your generator to run out of fuel
Keep a rough idea of how much time is left on the generator before it runs out of fuel, and check in on it around that point in time. Most generators provide low fuel warnings. If a generator runs out of fuel, and is left on, the appliances attached to it can drain the magnetic field from the generator coils, which means that when re-fuelled, the generator will no longer produce power. This requires a repair job, then. Some higher end models will shut themselves down when the fuel hits a critically low point.
8. Don’t use old fuel in the generator
As with any engine, stale fuel breaks down and is actually quite toxic to engines so, wherever possible, empty the fuel tank after use and when you use it the next time, use only fresh, stabilised fuel.
9. Turn it on regularly
Even if you don’t use your generator often, you should still turn it on to give it a run and make sure there are no problems with it. It’s best to give it a whirl once every quarter. The last thing you want is to have a generator for a power emergency, only to discover that when the power goes down, the generator isn’t functioning as it should.
10. Sometimes you’ll need a technician
There are some elements of a generator that you will need a certified generator technician to check on, which you should do on an annually or biannually basis, depending on how heavily you use the generator. These components include:
o Fuel Pump
o Automatic voltage regulator
The technician will be able to tell you if these components need replacing.
11. Where possible, store the generator indoors
It’s a good idea to keep a generator free of moisture, water and outdoor elements in general. For a portable generator, it’s easy to wheel it into a spare room or garage after use (remember, don’t use it indoors). However, still cover it with a cloth to protect it against dust. For stationary generators, it would be a good idea to build a ceiling covering to protect it from the worst of the elements and use a good, heavy cover for when it’s not in use.
By now you should have a good understanding of what type of generator you need and how to use it safely. Whether you’re using it at home, for a business, or on a work site, if you follow these maintenance tips, you will be able to get a long life out of your new generator for whatever purpose you require it. And for a range of generators, as well as other industrial and engineering supplies and equipment, check out BJ Bearings.