By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com
With every winter storm, more people huddle under blankets by candlelight and contemplate buying a generator as the contents of the refrigerator rot. Just last week, snow, sleet, and tornadoes terrorized the South and Midwest, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of households. A portable generator can keep the lights, fridge and heat on for less than $500.
Below are Cheapism’s top picks among budget generators.
- The Champion Power Equipment 46539 (starting at $482) provides 3,500 watts of constant backup power and a maximum of 4,000 watts to temporarily give appliances the extra boost they need to restart after an outage. This model purports to run for 12 hours on one tank of fuel, and satisfied online reviewers have posted laundry lists of appliances it has successfully fed for days. It boasts an electric starter with a wireless remote -- a rare feature for this price range. A low-oil sensor shuts off the engine automatically to prevent damage. (Where to buy)
- The Champion Power Equipment 46533 (starting at $358) mirrors the more expensive 46539 model in many respects but lacks an electric starter and a wheel kit for moving the 102.5-pound unit out of storage (experts warn that you should never use any model indoors). Still, this no-frills generator offers impressive power for the price and reviewers report no trouble with the recoil (or pull) start. (Where to buy)
- The Gentron GG3500 (starting at $415) can run continuously at 3,000 watts and peaks at 3,500 watts. It features an electric starter and a wheel kit, prompting copious praise in reviews for ease of use. The specs list a slightly shorter run time of 11 hours. This model includes a 220-volt outlet in addition to two standard outlets. (Where to buy)
Whether they come with or without a wheel kit, these models qualify as portable generators, as opposed to stationary behemoths that require professional installation and cost more than $1,000. While portable generators can reach 10,000 watts, about 4,000 watts is as much as consumers can expect for less than $500. This Consumer Reports wattage calculator can help you estimate how much power you need to keep the basics up and running during an outage. The estimated run time listed by the manufacturer typically assumes that the generator is operating at 50 percent capacity.
All the low-cost generators above incorporate lawnmower-like recoil starters. For models with electric start, such as the Champion 46539 and Gentron GG3500, the pull-start functions as a backup. The engines all take unleaded gasoline and the tanks hold about four gallons. East Coasters who stood in lines at gas stations after Hurricane Sandy may be inclined to stock up, but be wary of storing too much hazardous fuel. You may want to look instead at generators that run on propane, which is safer to store and has a longer shelf life. However, these models are less common and often more expensive than their gasoline counterparts.
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