Updated: January 6, 2021

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

by Charles Jasper

Many people extoll the virtues of portable generators. They can be lightweight, ultra-quiet, and easy to transport, but they also require keeping fuel on hand. In addition, they can only provide a limited amount of power. Other people argue that the reliability of a standby generator makes them a more useful machine. These generators typically have a built-in fuel source, and they can provide enough power to keep your whole house running, even throughout an extended power outage.

Both of these groups make valid points. Each style of generator brings its own benefits to the table, but how can you know which one is the right choice for you? Are you better off with a small unit or do you need something larger and more powerful? Does it need to be portable? Is the versatility of a smaller generator worth setting up two units to run in parallel when necessary?

Best Portable Generator

Portable Generators

Pros

Portable

As it says in their name these generators can go wherever you do. Some can even be as light as 45 pounds and are built to be carried in just one hand. Others may way as much as a couple of hundred pounds but are still meant to be transported. To achieve this portability, they use fuel that is also portable. Some burn diesel while others use unleaded gasoline.

Generators like this can be brought along on camping trips, used at job sites, and can provide power for outdoor parties. They are built to provide power for motorhomes or to run power tools that may be needed for construction. Portable generators are great for running music equipment like amplifiers, speakers, and microphones, too.

Fuel-Efficient

Portable generators include a specific category called inverter generators. These generators are incredibly fuel-efficient. They typically run on regular, unleaded gasoline, and some of them can keep running for up to 12 hours on a single tank of gas. Even better, those tanks can be as small as just 1 gallon. It is important to note that the 1-gallon tanks will typically only run for 4-6 hours, but even still, that’s a long time with just a little fuel.

Quiet

This benefit is not true for all portable generators. The larger and heavier model, especially those that run on diesel, can be incredibly noisy. That said, the smaller inverter generators often register noise outputs that are around the same level as a normal conversation. Many of them top out at just 50-60 decibels.

Versatile

Many portable generators are designed to be easily set up to run in parallel. This means that it often takes just one cord to connect two generators and drastically increase the amount of power that you can generate. If you are only running one generator, you will only need to supply fuel for one generator. You can customize your set-up to meet your needs.

When you are spending a longer period of time in one location and want extra power, you can set up two units together. When the time comes to take the show on the road, you can decide if you need both or if you are happier traveling with just one. On the other hand, if you’re about to host a party that needs more juice, bring the second generator along, as well.

This also allows you to start with investing in one generator and add a second one at a later date if you decide that you need it. This kind of versatility isn’t available with a standby generator.

Easy Installation and Maintenance

Portable generators can simply be put on location, fired-up, and plugged in. Some even include remote starters. The only maintenance that they require is a regular oil change and proper preparation should you choose to store it for a long time.

Best Portable Generator

Cons

Portable

Because you can take the generator with you, you’ll also have to take fuel along for the ride. There is no way to connect a portable generator to a permanent power source. It also means that you have to start it manually. This isn’t a big deal if you are using it while traveling, but if you are trying to use your portable generator as a back-up for any household appliances it will only work if you are home when the power goes out.

Limited Power

While a portable generator can be set up in parallel with a second unit, it will not be able to power your entire house. Even the largest diesel generators can’t run all of your household appliances at the same time. You will need to prioritize which appliances are most important to run.

This can be an even bigger concern if you are only operating one of the smaller, inverter generators. They can typically power some lights or a fan, but often won’t be able to meet the demands of larger appliances like refrigerators, air conditioners, or furnaces. If your main goal is back-up power for your home, a portable generator may not be your best choice.

Best Whole House Generator Reviews

Standby Generators

Pros

Reliable

Standby generators are permanently installed and connected to a built-in power supply. You will need to hire a professional to handle the installation and a plumber to connect a natural gas line or tank of propane. Once that’s done, though, your standby generator will always be there for you. You’ll never need to feed it fuel or haul it around.

Even better, it can be set up to turn on automatically when the power goes out. This means that if your house loses power, your refrigerator and freezer will keep your food safe, even when you aren't home. It also allows you to return to a comfortable environment since a standby generator will keep your air conditioner or furnace running smoothly.

Powerful

Even a standby generator may not be able to run every single appliance in your home, especially at the same time. It will, however, be able to run your large appliances and will carry a much heavier load than a portable generator. If the power outage is short, you're unlikely to notice many limitations to the standby generator.

Even if the outage goes on for a longer period of time, you’ll still be able to live comfortably. It might just mean that you need to pick and choose which appliance to run at any given time. Turning off one will allow you to turn on another.

When you go to purchase your standby generator, be sure to discuss what needs you may have and your goals for the generator. Much like portable generators, standby units are available in a range of sizes and provide different amounts of power. An expert can help you choose the right unit to meet your needs.

Whole House Generator Reviews

Cons

Single Function

Your standby generator will do a fantastic job supplying power to your home in the event of an outage, but that’s the only job it can do. Once installed standby generators become a part of the home and typically convey when the house is sold. This does mean that they can increase the value of your home, but don’t plan to take your standby generator along on your next camping trip.

Maintenance

Standby generators require a bit more maintenance than portable units. They typically have run for 15 minutes on a regular schedule, though this can be set to happen while you aren't home. They are also more likely to require a professional to come out and provide service in the event than anything goes wrong or breaks down. This can add a bit more expensive than the maintenance required for a portable unit.

So Which is Right for You?

Both portable and standby generators have their strengths and weakness. Choosing the right one for your needs will ensure that you are happy for years to come. As you consider your options, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want your home to maintain power in the event of an outage, even if you aren’t home?
  • Do you or anyone in your family have a medical condition that requires a reliable power source?
  • Do you ONLY plan to use your generator as a back-up for your home’s electricity?
  • Is it important for you to always have fuel for your generator without having to store gasoline or diesel?
  • Are you willing to make the generator a permanent part of the property?
  • Are you willing to hire professionals to install and maintain your generator?

If you answered yes to most or all of the questions above, a standby generator may be the right choice for you. If, however, you are looking for a unit that can be used while camping, at a job site, or for outdoor parties, you may want to consider a portable generator. If you fall somewhere in between, consider a larger portable generator that can power some of your smaller home appliances or perhaps set up two portable generators to run in parallel.