Portable vs Standby Generator

Portable Generator

   PROS
  • Can power lights and appliances in a power outage
  • Inexpensive
  • Doesn’t take up permanent yard space
  • Little to no maintenance required
  CONS
  • Manual usage
  • Won’t power the entire home
  • Gives off carbon monoxide when in use
  • Requires separate fuel storage
  • Can be heavy and difficult to move
  • Noisy when running
$500 - $2,000

(for a 7,000 watt generator)

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Standby Generator

   PROS
  • Can power the entire home in a power outage
  • Turns on and off automatically
  • Requires no manual addition or storage of fuel
  • Increases home resale value
  CONS
  • Expensive
  • Takes up significant outdoor space
  • Requires regular maintenance
  • Requires an inspection after installation
  • Noisy when running
  • Requires weekly running
$7,000 - $9,000

(for a 10,000 watt generator, installed)

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If you live in an area that sees frequent or prolonged power outages due to rain, snow, or high winds, you may want to consider investing in a backup power generator. Generators power things like lights, heat, air conditioning, stoves, and refrigerators, allowing you to continue living comfortably at home until your power can be restored.

Generators come in two basic types, a portable version, which you set up and turn on as needed, and a standby generator, which is hooked up to a fuel source at all times and turns on automatically when it senses a drop in power to the home. We’ll outline the differences between the two below to help you make the right decision for your home.

Operation and Monitoring

Portable generators are manually operated. This means that you need to take it out of storage, carry it outdoors to the appropriate area plug it into your home, and add a fuel source such as propane 1, which you will need to store nearby. This has some drawbacks because you must be at home when the power goes out for it to work. If you are away from home, you may return to find spoiled food or a burst pipe.

Standby generators are designed to switch on automatically when they sense a drop in power. You do not need to be home when the power goes out, and the transfer of power is nearly seamless. You will experience only a few seconds without power before the generator comes on. In addition, the generator will be hooked up to a more consistent energy source—either natural gas or propane—so you do not need to worry about storing the fuel and the risks associated with it or about refueling the generator during an extended power outage.

Installation

Portable generators have little in the way of installation. Simply set the generator up, install the fuel, plug it in, and then turn it on. These generators may be heavy, and they require a source of fuel, which can be dangerous if not properly stored.

Standby generators must be professionally installed, usually by the company selling them. In addition to the installer, a plumber is needed to hook up the generator to your fuel source—either natural gas or propane—and your fuel supplier will need to make an inspection. For example, if you use propane, a plumber will run the pipes from your propane tank to your generator. Meanwhile, the generator installer sets up the panel indoors near your electrical panel. Before the propane is switched on, an inspector from the propane supplier must check the work. Most of this requires a permit, and in some cases an additional inspection by the fire department to make sure it is installed properly.

Costs

The average cost of a portable generator is between $500 and $2,000 for a generator that can handle up to 7000 watts, which can power most of the lights and appliances in a single family home. There is little setup cost beyond the purchase of fuel, which costs around $30 for 48 hours of use, for a total of $530-$2,030.

A standby generator costs around $3,000 to $5,000 for a model that can power your entire home. In addition, you will spend between $2,000 and $4,000 on installation, including the technician and plumber, for a total of $5,000 to $9,000 installed.

Location

Both portable and standby generators must be used outdoors. A portable generator can be stored, empty of all fuel, indoors in a garage, basement, or storage room until needed. Any fuel used for a portable generator should be stored separately in a container designed for storing gas or propane. Standby generators are permanently installed on a concrete and crushed stone pad in your yard. Ideally, both generators will be placed on level ground, near the area where electricity enters your home so that they can be hooked up directly to your electrical panel.

Use

Portable generators come in a number of sizes, which ultimately determines how much you can run on them. Ideally, you want a generator large enough to power your HVAC system, lights, and refrigerator. Some are also large enough to power a stove or microwave. In some cases, you may need to turn one item off to power another, such as shutting off the lights to run the stove or turning off the hot water heater to run a well pump.

Standby generators are also sized accordingly and most have a total power load. Running more electrical appliances than the load can handle will cause the generator to shut off. In most cases, your installer will talk to you about your home’s energy use and help you choose the correct size. A standby generator will power things like a well pump 2, water tank, furnace, lights, and small appliances, but it may not be able to handle the load of the stove, microwave, and home security system at the same time. For prolonged power outages, choices need to be made to determine which things to power.

Noise

Both types of generators produce some degree of noise. Portable generators tend to be slightly louder than standby generators. However, even standby generators can be heard throughout the home when they are running.

A standby generator runs for approximately 15 minutes once a week to determine if maintenance is required. It can be heard during this time, so you may want your technician to schedule this during daytime hours when you are not at home.

Maintenance

Portable generators need little to no maintenance beyond making sure that they are empty of fuel before storing and checking that there is no corrosion or loose wires before running.

Standby generators require more maintenance. In addition to running once a week automatically, the generators require periodic service. Some generators indicate a problem or need for maintenance by flashing a yellow or red light. Others simply require yearly inspections. If your generator has been running for 24 to 48 hours straight, you need to have it serviced. If it has been running for 10 days, you need to have the oil and filters changed as well. Many generator companies offer a maintenance plan where you pay a monthly fee, and they automatically perform the maintenance check. They also remain on call in case your generator has a more immediate problem. These types of plans range in cost depending on the area and type of generator but typically cost around $400 a year.

Carbon Monoxide

Portable generators produce high levels of carbon monoxide gas as they run. For this reason, always use the generator outdoors, away from doors and windows, and never in an enclosed environment like a garage. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be deadly if the gas is inhaled for too long. Even minor exposure can result in headaches, facial flushing, and other issues.

Return on Investment

Standby generators are known to increase your property value after installation, particularly in regions where power loss is common. In most cases, you can expect a return on investment of around 54% at the time of resale. Portable generators do not increase the value of your home because you have the option of taking them with you when you move.

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Remodeling Terms Cheat Sheet

Definitions in laymen's terms, cost considerations, pictures and things you need to know.
See full cheat sheet.
1 Propane: A hydrocarbon gas used as a common fuel source
2 Pump: A device used to move air, liquid, or gas by mechanical means

Cost to install a portable or a standby generator varies greatly by region (and even by zip code). To get free estimates from local contractors, please indicate yours.

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Labor cost by city and zip code

Compared to national average
Arlington, TX
+6%
Asheboro, NC
-22%
Athens, GA
-9%
Atlanta, GA
+24%
Aurora, CO
+10%
Austin, TX
+13%
Bangor, ME
-25%
Belmont, NC
-18%
Birmingham, AL
+6%
Blauvelt, NY
+27%
Bronx, NY
+32%
Brooklyn, NY
+16%
Charleston, WV
+6%
Charlotte, NC
+6%
Chicago, IL
+40%
Cincinnati, OH
+6%
Clayton, NC
-31%
Cleveland, OH
+7%
Conway, SC
-24%
Cypress, TX
+8%
Dallas, TX
+10%
Denver, CO
+1%
Detroit, MI
+16%
Durham, NC
-1%
Fayetteville, NC
-20%
Flemington, NJ
+26%
Fond Du Lac, WI
+1%
Fort Mill, SC
-13%
Fort Worth, TX
+6%
Frisco, TX
+23%
Gainesville, FL
-12%
Greensboro, NC
-9%
Halifax, VA
-27%
Henrico, VA
+6%
Houston, TX
+24%
Indianapolis, IN
+6%
Jacksonville, FL
-1%
Kansas City, MO
+4%
Las Vegas, NV
+7%
Lawrenceville, GA
+16%
Lexington, SC
-10%
Los Angeles, CA
+11%
Louisville, KY
-7%
Manning, SC
-38%
Memphis, TN
+11%
Mentor, OH
-15%
Miami, FL
+1%
Minneapolis, MN
+25%
Mount Pleasant, SC
-6%
New York, NY
+77%

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