I am learning a great deal about the portable emergency market during this journey.  One sad reality that is becoming increasingly apparent is that most generators sold at big box stores are made with “no-name” engines and other components that are built primarily in China.  In addition, as these are “emergency” generators that may not be used for some time after purchase, nor for prolonged periods of time, the portable generator market has come to realize that they can get away with the cheapest components as price overwhelmingly drives sales over quality. Coming to understand that the “price over quality” approach that dominates portable generator sales goes a long way to explain why so many well-known engine companies like Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki are rapidly fading from the generator marketplace.  
With that as a backdrop, the 2 most important components of a generator are:

1.  The Engine
2.  The Alternator

Simply put, the engine creates mechanical energy, while the alternator converts this energy into electricity.    

The Engine: 
I have been doing a bunch of research and have been speaking to a number of small-engine and generator technicians with many years of experience.  The overall consensus is that the engines of many portable generators sold today are lucky to have an engine lifespan that exceeds 100 running hours without some type of breakdown.  On top of that, should your generator’s engine break down, getting replacement parts and service for these imported engines and parts (even during the warranty period) can be very difficult to locate.  As a result, these repair shops are littered with countless generators in their shops for extended periods of time (weeks) awaiting parts to come in.

The Alternator:
The second major component of a generator is the alternator.  When focusing on purchasing a generator, most focus on the size and quality of the engine because we are more familiar with engine brands.  But, what about the quality of the alternator?  As the alternator is often overlooked, the cheapest alternators are used in the portable generator market.  Considering that the power coming from the alternator will be fed throughout your home and to all electronics and appliances, I would argue that the quality of the alternator is EQUALLY important to the quality of the engine when buying a generator.  To dig deeper into understanding the alternator power coming from a portable create electricity that is defined as being “dirty power.”  So exactly, what is dirty power?  

“Dirty power” is an abnormality in the power quality that is being delivered to a system. These abnormalities can include low power factor, voltage variations, frequency variations, and surges. All electrical systems and components are based on a consistent supply of power at a certain voltage and frequency.”

To be perfectly frank, all portable generators produce “dirty power.”  The cleanest portable generator power you can typically get is an “inverter” generator that produces the cleanest power possible (Target:  < 5% Total Harmonic Distortion).  As a result, inverter generators typically cost 2X that of a normal generator.

Most modern households have so many sensitive electronics, insurance claims for power surges now average approximately $12,000 per claim!  When I first saw this amount, this seemed excessive to me.  However, when you consider that most homes have a handful of large flat-screen TV’s,  “smart” refrigerators and freezers, “Ring” Doorbells, “Nest” Thermostats, routers, wi-fi extenders, computers, printers, monitors, etc., you can quickly see how costly and devastating power surges can become.  One guy who came over to my home to see my generator setup said that when his house took a direct hit by lightning, he BOTH (2) Central A/C’s AND virtually all electronic appliances in his home!  Total Insurance Claim – $22,000!  So with that as a backdrop, an average claim of $12,000 may be reasonable after all.

What is even more insidious about “dirty power” is that it degrades the life and quality of circuits in electronics and appliances over time.  This means that you may not notice any damage to electronics while the generator is running.  Rather, the more likely scenario, you will notice that expensive electronics that have been exposed to “dirty power” begin failing months after being connected to a generator.  One generator technician said, “After a power outage where you had to run your house on generator power, everything runs just fine.  Then, 6 months later, the control board on your freezer goes out, or your big screen’s outputs start failing.”  Many people fail to recognize the connection, but in many cases, the generator power used months prior, accelerated the failures.  Those who know generators well have told me, “A portable generator is great to drag into the woods to run power tools, but is really tough on all electronics and circuits in the home.”  Then to make things work, normally lightning strikes are a single “moment in time” event, these are typically covered by homeowners insurance.  However, when appliances go out randomly in the future after being exposed to generator power, the homeowner typically has no recourse with his insurance company.  

Just like everybody else, I want to get the best value on the best generator for my home.  But, does it make sense to start up that “big box” generator and send low-quality electricity throughout your home with so much money invested in the latest electronics?

In short, the portable generator market focuses on creating large quantities of generators at the lowest price possible, and should they break, as repairs are often costly and difficult, these generators often end up in the dumpster!  So the $1000 – $1500 (or more) spent on a big box generator can become virtually worthless in a very short period of time.  

Just like during Hurricane Ike, and the most recent 2021 winter storm in Texas, when the power goes out I want a RELIABLE generator that can run on natural gas (and propane), and has a high-quality engine matched with a high-quality alternator to give me the cleanest power possible to protect the electronics within my home.

Mark Kidder
Founder, Portable Whole House Generators LLC