February 06, 2024 / by Danny Mavis

Being prepared will always have you at an advantage. With the frequency of power outages due to wild weather and flooding on the rise, generators are the necessary tools that keep power flowing. They’re essential in basic facilities like hospitals and are also the go-to devices that help equipment and machinery run even in periodic or prolonged cuts in the grid. And where mains power is missing, like at construction or camping sites, generators along with similar tools like compressors, bring power to cordless tools, appliances, devices and more.

Generator Basics

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An electric generator is a device that converts mechanical or chemical energy into usable electricity. They’re small combustion engines, that burn fuel to generate an electric current. Newer versions are of the overhead type (OHV) with inlet and exhaust valves sitting in the cylinder head. This allows for a more compact size, simpler operation and lower noise levels. The mechanical power from the combustion process then gets turned into electricity by the alternator, with a voltage regulator converting alternative current into usable DC for compatible equipment.

Additional parts are tasked with efficient operation. Cooling systems prevent overheating and help on startup and control panels indicate basic parameters such as voltage, current, oil temperatures, engine speed and operating times. These also house the controls. Here you’ll also find outlets for connecting tools, equipment, devices and appliances. This is the basic working principle of traditional generator types running on petrol or diesel, but other variants, like power stations relying on solar power, are a new take on an old idea.

Major Types

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Different designs and sizes determine how much electric generators put out and how long they can be used. This means different types for different applications. To power homes during outages, or for anyone not connected to the grid, large standalone types are complex multi-piston designs, usually relying on diesel or natural gas as a fuel source, and managing outputs upwards of 50kW. The devices have intricate electronics, switching power generators on within milliseconds of outages, and reverting to grid power once it’s restored and stabilised. The huge purchase price and maintenance needs mean these are often reserved for large manufacturing facilities, as well as schools and hospitals.

Scale down to portable units for affordability and versatility. These are lightweight, so can be moved to places where there’s no mains connection. Portable types make up the bulk of solar power backup systems (on rainy and cloudy days) for camping and off-roading, while bigger units can be seen on farms and acreage in irrigation and moving flood waters. They are also the mainstay of new construction sites. Running on diesel or petrol, they are easy and cheap to operate, dependable and have power outputs of up to 20kW.

Inverter generators come as both fixed or portable types but differ somewhat in operation. They adjust engine speed to meet electrical demands and also increase efficiency with lower fuel use and lower noise levels. They also generate ‘clean’ energy for sensitive devices and appliances, such as phones and laptops as well as a range of camping goods. The only downsides are the slightly higher prices and lower power output than conventional electric generators. Solar power stations take this working principle to the extreme, completely doing without an engine, but still providing clean power in a compact and whisper-quiet package, ideal for areas like packed-out camping sites.

What to Consider in Your Next Generator

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Think of how and where the generator will be used. Also, the power and fuel requirements to narrow down which type ticks all the boxes. Power output, durability, fuel type, sizing and features that make operation easy and safe should be your main considerations.

Power ratings are the biggest determining factor in end prices. For recreational use, even the smallest and cheapest diesel generators with 2000W of available power will suffice in most cases. Large displacement engines in bigger units average around 5000W, or enough to power several tools or power-hungry appliances in a single go. If you have larger power needs, size up to industrial-grade generators pushing close to 20000W in both single and three-phase electricity. And if you’re running sensitive items, go for inverter variants, which churn out anywhere between 2000 and 4000W of clean power, and with higher efficiency.

As for fuel, diesel remains the most popular option, followed closely by petrol types. Natural gas variants are usually more expensive, largely due to more specialised uses and lower availability. In this respect, also consider fuel tank capacity, as this largely determines how long the generator can run before being refuelled.

Generators can get heavy, so consider features like roll frames that double as protection or wheels to position the device where it’s needed. And ensure that what you’re buying is safe to use. Look for things like overload protection to protect connected items in power surges, electric starting and auto-off functions for simple use, and the correct number of outlets for the tools or equipment you intend to use. Lastly, consider getting a generator from established brands, to ensure you’re getting the build quality and durability to last in varying conditions, and that you get your money’s worth.