Why would you need a portable generator? If you’re a contractor, like to camp, run a food truck, or something else, having your own portable generator to supply power is a handy thing. It’s also incredibly convenient as a backup when you’re experiencing power outages or an emergency. It will restore power and have you up and running in no time.
With the pull of a string and enough fuel on hand, a typical portable generator turns mechanical energy into electrical power. This portable unit ensures consistent power, no matter where you are. It will help you with all your power supply needs, allowing you to plug in all manner of appliances into your power outlets. You can use power tools, extension cords, and accessories with no need to tie “into the grid” for electrical energy. Running portable generators doesn’t have to be difficult, either. All you need is propane, gas, or diesel fuel. How wondrous is that?
But are you wondering how portable generators produce electricity? Maybe you’re wondering what you need to know about their inner workings before purchasing one.
If you feel like you have a lot to learn about portable generators and are interested in buying one, look no further.
How do Portable Generator Cooling Systems Work?
The generator components are made up of a series of moving parts. These include circuit breakers, an on-board alternator, an internal combustion engine (or gas engine), a spark plug, a starter, a fuel tank, a fuel stabilizer, and a set of various voltage-rated plug outlets. The manual transfer switch helps you switch over to generator power when utility power fails.
You can get different types of generators depending on their fuel, such as propane units. However, many generators will be able to switch between types of natural gas for all your home power needs.
One thing you’ll learn quickly about generators (especially if you were an early adopter of the first models) is that these portable units can get hot!
In the old days, some models didn’t come with cooling systems. It used to be dangerous to place things on your hot generator or touch it, especially near their exhaust points. You’d have to wait for the motor to cool before refilling the fuel system, too.
Fortunately, things have changed. Many portable generators now come with their own built-in cooling systems. They still provide power but with less of a safety risk. The most common system is simple air cooling from the engine’s air intake. This is adequate for smaller portable generator models, keeping the engine cool on its own (though we always recommend letting generators cool down before refilling the gas tank with fuel, especially gasoline and liquid propane).
However, the larger models get, the more advanced the cooling systems they need to keep the engine running smoothly and prevent overheating. Large portable generators feature liquid-cooled engines that work much like how coolants and radiators function in a car. Coolant is pumped near hotter portions of the engine, wicking away excess heat and allowing it to be air-cooled in a radiator.
Most portable generators have air cooling systems to keep them portable. Still, many will say that liquid-cooled portable generator units run far better and are a superior choice. They will allow for more outlet combinations. However, keep in mind that they will be more expensive.
Some people may wish for their generator to be permanently installed. They might enclose it in a tight space to muffle the sound. If this is the case and yours is air-cooled, you’ll need to ensure it’s still cooling properly or receiving adequate airflow to cool. If not, you may need to move it to some other enclosed space.
Some Tips for Enclosed Portable Generator Air Cooling:
Make sure you haven’t enclosed the portable generator over the top, which can help hot air escape. You can also remove the generator’s outer cover (usually plastic, rubber, or composite) to allow more heat to escape or install a vent or duct from the enclosed space to the outside.
Understanding Portable Generator Watts
If you’re in the market for the best portable generator, you’re going to need to understand wattage. This is the best way to get a precise measurement of how much power your portable generator will produce and if it’ll be enough for your needs.
Generator power can come in a measurement called watts or kilowatt measurements. To determine watts, multiply the listed amps (or amperage) number by the volts or voltage number indicated. This is especially helpful if a product doesn’t list how many watts a portable generator gives out in its product description – though it should have the amount of power listed. (One kilowatt equals 1000 watts).
In more specific portable generator product descriptions, you should find terms like running watts (also called rated watts) listed. Running watts indicates how much power a portable generator can sustain over an extended period to keep a certain appliance running. Most generators can handle standard plugs. But, if the continuous watts produced are not high enough, the generator won’t run the plugged-in appliance adequately, and it may even trip or overload a circuit breaker if too low.
You should also take starting watts (also called surge watts) into consideration. These will have a much higher watt rating than running watts. To power certain high-demand appliances, your portable generator will need to create a surge of power for a short period of time. That will give these tools or appliances a running start. Typically, these high-powered appliances will need around three times the amount of running watts they require to run to get started. So be sure to invest in a portable generator with the right starting watts to match.
Read Also: Best Inverter Generator
Understanding Portable Generator Amps
The amps rating of a portable generator will indicate how much electrical current flows through the plugs or outlets to your plugged-in appliance or extension cord. This flow of electricity also helps determine voltage (as well as watts).
Amps are really only important to have an idea of the portable generator’s voltage and watts. Amps measure the flow of electrons against a resistant conductor within the wiring of your generator and thus determine the electrical flow that will feed your plugged-in equipment— if the amperage is low, this indicates that you’ll have insufficient voltage and watts, too.
The more amps a generator has, the more power, electricity, and voltage it’s likely to be able to supply.
Understanding Portable Generator Volts
While amps measure the flow or current of electricity into an outlet, voltage measures how forcefully these electrons are pushed into the power source. In the case of electrical components, certain motors or engines need more voltage to turn and run. It’s not all that different from a mill with water or a turbine with airflow.
Most portable generators put out 120- or 240- volt outlet types, but you can get generators with extra power. You can use a portable generator to plug in both types of rated tools, extension cords, or equipment. Plug them into the indicated outlet, depending on what you want to run. (Some generators let you plug in more items simultaneously if there are enough watts to run both!)
Before buying your portable generator, ensure that it has enough voltage to run the appliances you’re aiming for. Check the power requirements for your appliances, as some may need more watts to run. How long can it run for? If you bought a generator for inclement weather, you might not know how long you’ll be without power. Make sure you have enough oil, too. The last thing you’re want to do is find diesel or propane in the middle of a storm when you need more fuel.
As a concluding point on the topic of safety: be sure always to operate these small engine machines outside (where it’s meant to be), with proper ventilation! Running a generator indoors without ventilation or an air filter runs the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep your generator’s fuel fresh, no matter the fuel source. And also, invest in the proper personal protective equipment, such as gloves. Be sure to run your tools, equipment, and appliances anywhere you like— but do it safely! Remember, this thing produces electricity. The last thing you need is an electric shock.