Understanding the Functionality and Versatility of Power Generators

With the recent spate of wild weather and frequent power outages, many Aussies are turning to generators to bring the lights back on. Generators are the standard backup equipment in essential industries and facilities like schools, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. Smaller and portable variants are increasingly being snapped up by people going off-grid, as well as tradies and builders relying on off-grid power in new construction sites, and campers and off-roading enthusiasts to complement solar setups. 

What Are Generators and Why Do You Need One? 

A generator is any device that converts mechanical or chemical energy into electricity. Most are essentially small internal combustion engines, running on petrol, diesel, or other fuels. This is a simple and hassle-free way to restore power during power outages, downed power lines in freak wildfires or storms, or have electricity in any other emergency. While they will spare you the minor inconvenience of being left without electricity, reliable power generators can save you money from food spoiling in the fridge or expensive appliances or devices being damaged because of the abrupt cut in power supply. But for anyone relying on medical devices, such as oxygen tanks or dialysis machines, a generator can literally save lives. 

power generators
source: gudstory.com

These are rare cases and generators see constant use elsewhere. If you depend on corded tools to bring home the bacon, then you’ll know that not all building sites and workplaces have a connection to the grid or one that can be reached even with the longest extension cords. Here generators have enough juice to run all tools and for extended periods, so you get the job done. 

And if you’re an avid camper, or have an RV with solar, you’ll know the worth of a generator in prolonged periods of overcast weather when panels just won’t supply enough power to secondary batteries. Running generators means you’ll meet all your power requirements regardless of the weather and you can enjoy your trip. They should be high up on anyone’s essential camping gear list, besides other basics like tents and sleeping bags. 

Different Generators – Different Uses

There are several types of power generators to choose from, so determining your needs will impact which one you buy: 

  • Standby generators – these are large and often fixed units that supply enough power for homes and commercial or industrial facilities during a power outage. The benefit is that they use electronic wizardry to constantly monitor the power supply from the grid and automatically switch on to generate electricity when they sense imminent power outages. Once grid power is restored and running normally, standby generators turn off. Most are complex, multiple piston designs much like bigger car engines, running on your home’s gas connection or alternatively use diesel as their fuel source and can generate large quantities of power, with some home units going beyond 50kW or 70hp. Larger units are seen in factories, hospitals, and industrial sites, often in a three-phase connection.
standby generators
source: briggsandstratton.com
  • Portable generators – these are much smaller, can be moved around, and can power different tools and appliances. They’re the generators most of us think of. Portable generators can use different types of fuel, from petrol, diesel, or natural gas, are quite efficient when running and some can produce large quantities of power. More expensive models (those used in farming, irrigation, and flood water removal) can reach over 20kW or 26hp, while smaller and more accessible generators hover around 8 to 10hp and enough for most uses. Compared to standby types, these are quite cheaper, more versatile in different jobs, and cheaper to operate and maintain. 
  • Inverter generators – these can be both portable or standby generators, but work differently. They create a more stable energy supply, essentially an inverted three-phase AC supply with Pure Sine Wave Modulation, meaning cleaner energy suitable for powering sensitive electronics like phones and laptops or gear that requires large initial surges like corded power tools. The generators also run much quieter, so are preferred in packed-out campsites, especially at night. Their only downside is the lower power output, averaging around 1800W, but they make up for this with the smaller footprint, low weight, and run times of 7 to 8 hours. 

What to Look For

A few key factors will impact your buying decision. These include overall power output, fuel type, size and weight, safety and operational features, and price. What you choose may also be impacted by run times and noise levels. 

reliable power generator
source: bobvila.com

Power output in watts is possibly the main thing to go by when considering power generators. This will determine how many and what type of appliances, tools or devices the generator can power in a single go. Of course, you’ll always want some leeway (especially with power tools) so going for the highest-powered unit your budget allows is often the best option. Standard petrol and diesel generators are cheap for what they offer and still put out high power figures, albeit in generators that are a bit larger and heavier.

The more powerful the generator the bigger it will be. Size and weight though can become an issue in portable units, so look for features that allow for easier handling and transportation, such as wheeled generators.

In terms of fuel, petrol units are often the cheapest, followed by diesel-powered generators, and those running on natural gas tend to be slightly costlier. Always factor in integrated fuel tank capacities as this is one feature that determines overall run times. Newer types, like solar and inverter variants, go for a premium but make up for this with advanced features, higher efficiency, less noise, and smaller sizes. 

Features that determine the usability, like one-touch electric starts, or multiple outlets to connect more appliances or tools at once, and those that affect safety, such as auto-off, and carbon monoxide detection are worth every cent. Factor the features you need and balance this against the power output to get a generator that ticks all the boxes. Lastly, consider quieter units (generally, below 70dB) if you’ll be using the unit in crowded spaces.