Widespread power outages, power failures in commercial and industrial facilities, construction in areas where electric service is unavailable, debris cleanup and essential service restoration following storms or human-caused disasters all are situations that call for temporary, portable power.
To meet these and other needs, manufacturers offer a wide selection of portable generators.
Compared to models of a few years ago, today’s generators are more compact and powerful for their size, are lighter and have new ergonomic and safety features.
Most electrical contracting companies have an inventory of portable generators, and models of various sizes are available from equipment rental houses.
Changing climate patterns are blamed for the increasing number and severity of storms in warm and cold weather, and relatively inexpensive small generators are marketed to the general public for use during power outages.
Generator users in professional trades understand that rugged, durable generator products are needed for their work.
Jeff Magedanz, marketing manager at Generac Power Systems, Waukesha, Wis., said contractor-grade, portable generators are specifically built for durability, reliability and serviceability.
“These generators, like the Generac XC Series, have steel tube frames, lift handles and impact-resistant metal tanks that can handle the demands of a job site,” he said. “They also have covered outlets that will protect the control panel from the elements as well as idle control mechanisms that will help conserve fuel and reduce noise.”
Without a doubt, carbon monoxide (CO) sensing and rapid-shutdown technology have been the most significant new advances. For many people depending on portable power in cases of emergency, this is powerful protection from hazardous carbon monoxide.
“Generac’s COsense protects portable generator users against CO poisoning,” Magedanz said. “The technology can sense when CO reaches dangerous levels and will shut the generator down immediately. It detects building amounts of CO faster than a household carbon monoxide monitor. This has been critical to helping users feel safe when they operate generators.”
Compact portable generators still require a gasoline engine to generate electricity, and there are power source improvements.
“Features like electric start and low-oil-level shutdowns have further improved the portable generator’s ease-of-use, and we’re starting to see these features become available on more opening price-point portable generators,” Magedanz said. “PowerRush is an advanced technology that brings an additional rush of starting capacity for when it’s needed.”
Of course, quality of power is important, and Magedanz said most portable inverter generators have a clean signal that never varies, and manufacturers claim less than 3% total harmonic distortion, making it ideal for sensitive electronics.
“Conventional portable generators maintain a constant speed to produce electricity, but the fluctuating, on-demand nature of an open-frame generator will mean it adjusts its engine speeds to fit the desired amount of output required,” he said.
Outdoors is the only safe place to operate a portable generator, Magedanz emphasized. Also, allow for at least 5 feet of clearance on all sides. Proper and regular maintenance are keys to keeping a generator operating safely and optimally.
Generac offers portable inverter generators that start at 2,200W and conventional portable generators starting at 3,600W outputs. PowerRush Advanced Technology comes available on the 3,600W model and offers the COsense technology on generators up to 8,000W. Models with electronic fuel-injection also start at the 8,000W mark, which delivers the right amount of power to get the best performance and efficiency out of the 459cc EFI engine.
David Bush, senior marketing strategist at Alpharetta, Ga.-based Honda Power Equipment, said generators have become smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient while being quieter, easier and safer to use. Many are being designed to fit smaller, tighter spaces.
“The benefits of lighter-weight units in smaller package sizes are driving a real transformation,” Bush said. “Smaller, lighter inverter generators are easier to transport, can be located closer to the user and can be connected in parallel to double the output when needed.”
Also on the market, Bush said, are open-frame inverter models with rugged, full-frame protection that offer industry-leading lightweight and quiet operation as well as high-quality power, fuel efficiency and long run times. And in other models, features such as color-coded startup components, easier oil fill and drains and new fuel shutoff valves make theses portable generators easier to use and maintain.
“Generator manufacturers like Honda also are making generator use easier and more convenient with the integration of a Bluetooth app on a number of models (an example is the Honda My Generator Bluetooth App) that allows a user to start, stop and monitor critical operations of a portable generator remotely from a compatible Apple device or Android smartphone through a Bluetooth interface,” Bush said. “It all comes down to ease of use, simplified maintenance and durable, dependable operation.”
For safe operation, many generator manufacturers, including Honda, are now designing models with CO-shutoff systems that continuously measure CO levels in the air near the generator and automatically shuts down the unit before detected CO reaches a dangerous level. Honda Power Equipment was the first manufacturer to commit to applying this safety feature to all models in its lineup.
“Honda CO-Minder technology incorporates a robust, fast-reacting sensor that continuously monitors for carbon monoxide in the air near the generator. If the sensor detects a CO level at or exceeding 800 parts per million [ppm] at a given time, or an average of 400 ppm for 10 minutes (per ANSI/Portable Generators Manufacturers’ Association G300-2018 standards), it triggers the generator to shut down automatically,” he said. “The CO-Minder is not intended to be overridden or tampered with, and the sensors are designed to work even if they are accidentally blocked.”
Bush said generators can safely power computers and other office equipment if they feature automatic voltage regulation or inverter technology. These generators produce regulated, stable power that can operate the most sensitive electronics without fear of interruption. Computers and other power-sensitive equipment require a stable sine wave.
“Changing regulations of the National Electrical Code and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration with regard to generators on job sites are important considerations, such as ground-fault circuit interrupter receptacles,” he said. “The reduction of sound levels also is an important feature on sites near residential properties.”
Bush said consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the differences in performance between quality generators versus low-cost alternatives. They are choosing to invest in models that feature new, innovative technologies.
Honda Power Equipment markets a complete line of generators for commercial and consumer applications. Lightweight, compact Honda generators produce between 1,000W and 10,000W of power and provide smooth, dependable power for recreation, construction, rental and home emergency use.
Benjamin Marotz, senior product manager for Kohler Power Products at Kohler Co., Kohler, Wis., believes professional contractors need to consider, first and foremost, the generator’s engine quality.
“Industrial-grade engines are built to be more powerful and durable, and they will last longer and start easier,” Marotz said. “The quality of the engine is typically the first place where a maker of inexpensive generators can shave cost.
“We have not seen any significant changes in power outputs of growth in inverter power sizes, up from 2 kilowatts (kW) to 3 and even 4 kW as the price of inverter technology declines. There has been good growth in battery power systems (no engine), but these products still remain at the smaller power nodes at less than 2 kW.”
CO monitors and shutdown mechanisms are becoming a common feature on more portable generators and could likely become a requirement on all products sold through home-improvement retailers in the near future, he added.
“The total harmonic distortion [noise in the power signal] can cause issues with sensitive electronics, and an inverter generator will provide the cleanest power. However, if the standard compact portable generator is built with a quality alternator and electronic governor, it will provide a good clean signal that is adequate for many electronics,” Marotz said.
Generators powered by a gasoline engine must always be used outside in well-ventilated areas to prevent CO from building up, and Marotz said users should ensure the muffler is not near anything potentially flammable. If working near any generator, especially for a long period of time, always wear hearing protection.
A gasoline-engine-powered generator should never be used indoors.
“An ultra-portable battery power source can run a tool where an extension cord or cords may be dangerous for others to trip over. They also can be used to recharge smaller battery packs used by tools,” Marotz said.
Kohler offers engine-driven compact portable generators at 5–9 kW (peak power) and a 1.8kW battery inverter.