Canada Markets open in 7 hrs 45 mins

Portable vs. Standby Generators: Which Is Right for Your Home?

Paul Hope

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Portable generators and home standby generators perform the same basic tasks. But the two types couldn’t be farther apart when it comes to cost and convenience. 

All of the portable generators in our ratings run on gasoline. They burn through 12 to 20 gallons per day depending on the output of the generator and the load it’s powering.

Manufacturers also make portable generators that can run on liquid propane, natural gas, or diesel fuel, but Consumer Reports doesn't test these models because they represent a small percentage of the market. (It's worth noting that in the aftermath of a storm, it may be more difficult to find portable cylinders of liquid propane, natural gas, or diesel fuel.)  

All portable models tend to be noisier and produce less power than standby models, and they need to be wheeled out of storage, connected to your home’s circuit-breaker panel, and manually fired up in the event of an outage. If you use one during inclement weather, such as a rainstorm—likely during a power outage—you’ll need to protect your generator from the elements with a model-specific cover or a freestanding canopy. 

Home standby generators, also called stationary generators, are permanently installed by a pro and have insulated weatherproof housing that keeps them relatively quiet.

The big advantages are that they kick on automatically when the lights go out and they can power everything in your home at once.

Plus they run on natural gas or propane, which means they can operate for days or weeks on a full whole-house propane tank, or indefinitely in the case of natural-gas versions.

“Home standby generators are expensive, but they’re the gold standard in backup power, and they outperform all other types of generators in our ratings,” says Dave Trezza, who oversees generator testing for Consumer Reports. “If you can afford it, I’d tell you to pick a home standby generator every time.”

Despite all of that, far more people choose portable generators for one simple reason: price. Here, we catalog the pros and cons of each type of generator. Our buying guide also offers insights on the merits of each. CR members can read on for ratings and reviews of the top three models in each of the two categories. Or for more choices, browse our ratings of 40 models.

Portable Generators

Power output: 3,000 to 8,500 watts
Price range: $400 to $1,500
Fuel needs: 12 to 20 gallons of gasoline per day

Pros: Portable generators are cheaper to buy and install than home standby models. When connected to your home’s circuit-breaker panel with a transfer switch, they can power almost as much as a home standby generator. They have built-in outlets for directly connecting suitable extension cords if you haven’t installed a transfer switch. 

Cons: You’ll need to wheel your generator out of storage, connect it to your transfer switch, and fire it up each time you experience an outage. Portable models also require you to store large quantities of gasoline, mixed with fuel stabilizer, to get through a prolonged outage. They tend to be noisier and have lower output than home standby models. 

New Portable Generator Safety Features

From 2005 to 2017 more than 900 people died of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning while using portable generators, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

To reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, some new generators feature a built-in sensor that triggers an automatic shutoff if CO builds up to dangerous levels in an enclosed space. Some also have engines that emit less CO in the first place. Recent test data from CR shows that these safety features will probably save lives.

Consumer Reports now only recommends portable generators that pass our new CO Safety Technology test.

But our findings also reveal potentially life-threatening gaps that the automatic shutoff fails to address, reinforcing why it’s critical for consumers to follow safety guidelines. Never operate a generator indoors. Position a portable generator at least 20 feet from your house with the exhaust directed away from it as well as any windows, doors, AC units, or other structures.

How to Run a Generator Safely

Home Standby Generators

Power output: 8,000 to 20,000 watts
Price range: $2,000 to $5,000
Fuel needs: 13 to 48 gallons of liquid propane or natural gas per day

Pros: Home standby generators are largely worry-free. They’re typically sized to power an entire house in the event of an outage, and they come on automatically. They can run for days or weeks without refueling, they tend to be very quiet, and you don’t need to fuss with weather covers. 

Cons: Home standby generators are pricier to buy, and installation costs can range from a few thousand dollars to $10,000 or more. 

Generator Tips

Damaging storms can happen at any time. On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, host Jack Rico learns from Consumer Reports' expert, Paul Hope, how to avoid being left in the dark during a power outage.

Generator Tips

Damaging storms can happen at any time. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, host Jack Rico learns from Paul Hope, a Consumer Reports expert, how to avoid being left in the dark during a power outage. 

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2019, Consumer Reports, Inc.