A portable generator might seem like something only necessary for people who experience frequent blackouts. A backup power source may not seem essential if you don’t regularly suffer power outages. But it absolutely is.
A portable generator could mean the difference between fighting for your life in an emergency and relaxing until power gets restored. It’s not just for home backup, either. It lets you travel off-grid, reduce your electricity bill, and — depending on the type of portable generator you choose — lower your carbon footprint.
Some people get scared away by the sticker price of portable generators, but there are affordable and cost-effective options. Here we’ll explain what different types of generators cost and why.
What Are the Different Types of Portable Generators?
The cost of a portable generator is primarily determined by its energy source. The manufacturing process, materials, design, and other factors also impact the overall cost.
But when it comes to choosing the right portable generator, the buying process isn’t as easy as finding the right size and cheapest price and going for it. Some generators might cost a bit more upfront but offer more cost savings in the long run.
There are many different types of generators, each with distinct advantages and disadvantages. We go over the cost-benefits below.
Diesel Portable Generator
Portable diesel generators aren’t the most common and mainly serve commercial applications. Construction workers use them to run drilling machines and other heavy equipment. It’s not to say that they don’t have residential uses, but most homeowners don’t like them for a few reasons that we’ll cover below.
The $3,000 – $7,000 price range for these machines is not indicative of the average price of all portable generators. Diesel generators are more expensive for many reasons: they’re more powerful than other gas/oil-based generators and more efficient in terms of how much power they generate.
If you invest in a diesel generator, you’ll be able to power your home for far longer and more efficiently than if you had a gas generator.
There are some distinct downsides to diesel that we should get into, however.
First of all, diesel is a highly unclean power source. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, one liter releases around 13% more CO2 than one liter of gasoline fuel.
In addition, they’re noisy, have to be kept away from the house due to toxic emissions, and diesel fuel costs more than regular gasoline.
Gasoline Portable Generator
The most popular generators in America are gasoline generators, which probably has to do with the prevalence of gasoline and how easy it is to access.
The average cost between $500 – $2000 is more reasonable for the average consumer. Using it is easier too. Most gasoline generators come with an electric start feature, so you don’t have to crank it up and get your hands dirty.
Simply being so popular gives gas generators one advantage. If yours breaks down and needs repairs, most local shops will know how to tune it back up. The cost of gasoline is also typically lower than propane and diesel but can fluctuate dramatically based on supply and geopolitical factors beyond your control.
The big disadvantage of gasoline generators is how dirty and loud they are. You’ll have to fill it with oil continually, sometimes twice a day in heavy use periods. You also have to operate a gas generator at least 20 feet away from the house to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Propane Portable Generator
There’s a distinct appeal to propane generators, given that they are almost as powerful as diesel generators, but they don’t cost nearly as much. The average cost of a propane generator ranges from $500 – $5,000.
Propane generators are widely available and easy to find, and liquid propane can be safely stored unused for years without spoiling or worrying about corrosion. The advantages to liquid propane portable generators are that they pack a punch for a relatively low cost, and you can stock up on propane fuel without having to think twice.
On that same note, there is a downside to propane. Yes, you can store propane canisters for longer than gas or diesel, but they are large, cumbersome containers. The generators also have less durability and longevity than the other generators on this list, so you won’t necessarily be making a great long-term investment.
Inverter Portable Generator
Inverter generators are an improvement on traditional models like gas, propane, and diesel when it comes to fuel economy and efficiency. Rather than running on all cylinders, inverter generators throttle the engine up and down to conserve fuel and meet demand.
The average cost is between $500 – $2,000. The cost-savings extend beyond the lower purchasing cost, too, since you don’t have to pay for as much fuel. These machines are also quieter and cleaner.
The downside is that they are still fossil fuel-reliant. You still have to regularly pay for fuel and keep the generator far away from your house, but it’s a significant improvement from traditional gas generators.
Bi-Fuel Portable Generator
Bi-fuel generators combine diesel and gas to get all the power with more durability. What’s great about these generators is that if diesel is too expensive or in short supply, you can use gas, and vice versa. They don’t use both sources simultaneously but alternate them. These will cost you between $800 – $2,5000.
You get the best of both worlds: cleaner burning and robust power. It’s not as clean as an inverter or solar generator, but it’s a small step in the right direction.
That said, if you’re going for a bi-fuel generator for a cleaner backup energy source, you may as well go solar. The price point is the same, and solar is 100% renewable and clean.
Solar Portable Generator
Finally, we have moved on from dirty energy sources to clean, renewable ones. PEW reported recently that residential solar power installations rose by 34% from 2020. Solar is on the rise, and portable solar generators offer a lower entry point for consumers who don’t want to shell out for an entire home solar installation.
The two generators below highlight the best of what portable solar generators offer.
River Max Solar Generator
The River Max Solar Generator delivers 576Wh of energy. With the removable battery and foldable 220-W bifacial solar panel, it’s the most portable solution for camping or even emergency use. This small but mighty machine can charge from 0-80% within an hour using AC Power and power ten devices simultaneously. If you want to recharge using only solar power, it will take between 4 – 8 hours, based on environmental conditions.
The River Max has a list price of $1250 but is frequently heavily discounted at the EcoFlow shop. At the time of writing, the River Max with 220-W bifacial solar panel is available for under $900.
DELTA Pro Solar Generator
If you want a more robust home backup solution, the DELTA Pro is it. It has a 3.6kWh capacity that you can expand up to 25kWh to power multiple large appliances, heat, AC, and more. Despite its high capacity, it remains portable, weighing less than 100lbs. Thanks to its 400W solar panel and clean lithium iron phosphate battery, you can also run it indoors, fume-free. You can power your whole home for a list price of $4799. At the time of writing, you can purchase the DELTA Pro + 400W Portable Solar Panel for as low as $4599 at the EcoFlow shop.
A dual fuel generator is similar to a bi-fuel generator, only it mixes its fuel sources rather than alternates between them. The combined use of propane and gas means better efficiency, less carbon output, and easier usability.
The EcoFlow Smart Generator (Dual Fuel) offers dependability by drawing from two fuel sources instead of just one. It’s a good backup solution if you’re waiting for your solar generator to charge. The advantages pile up with this generator’s remote control capabilities and built-in carbon monoxide sensor. You can get reliable backup power for just $1599.*
If there is a downside to a dual-fuel generator, it’s that it’s not as clean as solar, but that’s no different from any of the gas generators on this list. Propane is by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels, and you can choose to make that your primary fuel source if you wish.
What Size Portable Generator Do I Need?
The bigger the generator you get, the more you can power, which means it’ll also be pricier to keep up and will need to be kept further from your home (unless it’s solar).
To determine what size you need, add up the wattage of all your appliances and multiply by the number of hours you expect to run each device in a 24-hour period. The sum will tell you your daily energy use in watt-hours and indicate the capacity you need in a generator.
Additional Costs to Consider When Buying a Portable Generator
The costs of a portable generator go beyond the generator itself. Here are additional costs to consider:
- Fuel Costs: If you invest in a generator powered by gas, propane, diesel, or some combination of the three, you will end up paying a lot over time for fuel.
- Maintenance: Diesel and gasoline produce fumes, which can build up and create residue. You’ll have to pay for cleanup and maintenance to expand the generator’s lifespan.
- Permit Fees: Some campgrounds and state parks require you to purchase a permit to run a fossil fuel generator, mainly because of the noise and pollution. A solar generator gets around those issues since they are quieter and fume-free.
No matter which generator you choose, you’re investing wisely in the safety of your home and family in uncertain times. Unpredictable climate and aging infrastructure make power outages and blackouts more common than ever.
If you invest in a solar generator, you’re also investing in the future of your family — and the planet.
*Prices current as of November 2022.