The Best Portable Generators That Don’t Cost a Fortune

Portable power generators are among the most essential pieces of equipment for outdoor enthusiasts, campers, preppers, and anyone serious about “living off the grid” for even a little while.

Even though prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, there’s no doubt that a few key players stand out in the market: generators that offer reliability, lightweight models, long run times, high power output, and low noise levels.

How to Shop for Generators

Before heading out to buy a new generator, consider making a list of your preferences in several categories: run time, weight, fuel efficiency, noise level, maximum power output, ability for parallel operation, design simplicity and price. It’s tempting to rush for the low-priced or sale items, but selecting a generator is serious business and should not be governed by price alone.

How much power will you need in the event of a residential power outage? Do you require a quiet generator that doesn’t bother the neighbors, or is a loud one okay? Can the unit be connected to other generators to boost power output (as most inverter units can)? How many hours of operation do you want before having to refuel the unit?

Finally, don’t gloss over the total weight of the generator. Some models weight in excess of 200 pounds and can only be moved on their wheeled cases. Others are light enough to pick up with one hand and carry from spot to spot. Older people who live alone might want to opt for a lightweight unit, while families who camp a lot and need long run times could choose a heavier generator with wheels.

Here are some of the top models on the market today at various price points, power capabilities and levels of sophistication:

Honeywell 5500

By far, the most popular power generators sold are in the 5,000-watt range, so this selection is a tad bigger than average. Boasting a push-button starter and a trusted name in the business, the Honeywell 5500 is priced at $400, offers a running time of just over 9 hours, and is a very reliable, simple piece of equipment for those who are buying their first generator. On the down side, the model lacks some of the typical safety features that appear on most other generators and that 9-hour run time is shorter than average in its class.

There is no spark-stopper and the tires are old-fashioned air-filled, which means that a flat makes for a difficult situation because the generator weighs in excess of 180 pounds. With its few faults, the Honeywell 5500 remains a big seller and a good entry-level product. The easy-to-use control panel has all the key features of a high-quality generator: five 120-volt outlets with one adaptable for 240 volts, a handy electric starter and clearly labeled circuit breakers.

Champion Power Medium-duty 5500

Priced at $530, this is one of the best values in the portable generator category. It’s not the best or worst product in its class, but it delivers 11 hours of run time, an electric starter with coil rope backup, and two 120-volt power outlets.

The Champion is ideal as a residential power source during emergencies and also works well for short camping trips. While some owners balk at the low number of outlets (just two), everyone seems to praise this gas generator’s quiet performance, a rarity among portable generators.

Westinghouse WH5500

Of all the gas generators priced in the $500 range (it comes in at $565) the WH5500 has the best fuel efficiency, offering a 14-hour run time. That means the 6.5-gallon tank squeezes out more than two hours of operation for each gallon of fuel. In an emergency/disaster situation, that’s a very important consideration. The company is known for solid customer support, the product comes with circuit-breakers, but there is no GFCI protection. Ground-fault circuit interruption (GFCI) is a feature of most generators; it decreases the risk of electrocution if the current happens to find an alternate pathway. Backed by a three-year warranty, the WH5500 is also enhanced by the company’s many video tutorials and educational materials that are available on its website.

Champion 46596

The price, $299, of this generator makes it an amazing buy for its size. Offering 3,500 watts of running capacity, the little portable can operate most standard household appliances in a pinch. It comes with a low-oil shutoff switch, a fuel gauge, a twist-lock outlet, and four power outlets for 120-volt power. There’s also a TT30R outlet for owners of RVs. For the price it’s hard to beat this quiet generator that comes with a three-year warranty and a rated run time of 12 hours.

Sportsman GEN7000LP

This $579 generator can power anything in a typical home, but it does not run on gasoline. The propane-powered unit puts out fewer odors and has the advantage of being able to use a fuel that can be stored for long periods of time very safely: propane. No carburetor means maintenance is simple, and it can run for up to 12 hours. Consumers who want an alternative to standard gasoline generators have made this product a best seller in its class.

Honda EU2000i

Don’t let the $999 price throw you. For an inverter portable generator, this is a good buy. The EU2000i runs for up to 8 hours, producing 1,600 watts of continuous power. Because it is an inverter-type unit, there is no danger of surge damage. Besides being very small, it is lightweight and almost completely quiet. This generator is a favorite for weekend campers, tailgaters and as a backup for residential power outages. As is the case with all inverter generators, multiple units can be connected together for longer run time and more power. The source fuel is gasoline.

Generac GP5500

Priced at $689, the Generac is one of the best portable gasoline units in its class, boasting a 10-hour run time and 5,500 watts of continuous electric power. For residential emergencies, this is a consumer favorite in parts of the U.S. where hurricanes, tornadoes and floods are frequent visitors. It does not have an electric starter, but instead comes with a two-year warranty, is easy to operate and has a clearly labeled fuel gauge.

What to Buy?

Shoppers who set out to find the best power generator for their particular needs will be surprised at the dizzying array of choices available. The first thing to do is decide on a price range, and then make a list of your reasons for buying a generator. Casual campers and weekend nature lovers might not be so concerned about run time as portability, while long-term outdoor enthusiasts will be happy to acquire a heavy-duty model with high power output and very long run times.

Buying a portable power generator is a lot like purchasing a computer. You can look for a refurbished, low-end model to meet minimal needs, or seek a high-end version that has all the bells and whistles. This is one outdoor item that calls for research and due diligence before buying. Knowing exactly what your needs are will go a long way toward making the right decision.

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