1. Look for Removable Consoles
Portable generators have outlets that let you power appliances directly rather than through your home’s wiring. The problem? You then need extension cords to get power into your home, an arrangement that CR strongly advises against because of the risks they pose—creating the potential to become overloaded and arc, or to be punctured if they’re run through open windows or doorways.
Some newer generators in our ratings, such as the Troy-Bilt XP7000 30477A, $800, have the outlets on a removable console, tethered to one long, heavy-gauge power cord, which is less prone to pinching and is designed to carry the entire electrical load that the generator can power. That allows you to take the console indoors to plug in your appliances while operating the generator outdoors.
2. If You Must Use Extension Cords, Buy the Right Ones
Extension cords pose hazards, particularly if they’re used outdoors or to carry the load of high-wattage appliances. But if you have no choice—either because you don't have a generator with a removable console or because the console won’t reach all of the appliances you need to plug in—check the owner’s manual to see what gauge of cord it recommends. Make sure that the cords are rated for indoor and outdoor use.
Don’t run the extension cords under rugs or allow them to become pinched in windows or doors. Use a rubber doorstop to prevent doors from closing all the way and crimping the cords. You’ll need a separate cord for each outlet on the generator you intend to use. Using a splitter or surge protector to plug multiple devices into a single extension cord can cause the cord to overheat and arc. Check the cord label for the maximum wattage it’s safely rated to carry, then use our wattage calculator to make sure whatever device you plan on connecting doesn’t exceed that rating.
3. Calculate Your Power Needs
If you're just buying a generator, plan on getting one rated to produce enough power for every device you want to plug in. Our wattage calculator can quickly help with that task, but keep in mind that using a portable generator’s built-in outlets or power console means you can power only electronics with standard, 110-volt plugs. Hardwired appliances such as a furnace, central air conditioner, or well pump won’t work, nor will those that run on 220 volts, such as electric ranges or dryers.
It may still be worth buying a generator rated to power all of those appliances, because if and when you have an electrician connect the generator to your breaker panel with a transfer switch, you’ll want to know that the model you chose will be able to power your list of essentials.
4. Select a Safe Spot
Generators produce carbon monoxide and can be fatal if used indoors or too close to your home. That includes the garage, even if you leave the door open. And don’t even think about putting a generator in the attic or basement. The only safe spot to operate a generator is outdoors, a minimum of 15 feet from your house—and as far as possible from windows and doors.
Driveways, stone patios, or level patches of grass are all good places to put your generator. And if it’s raining or snowing, you’ll need to shield the generator with a generator tent or cover. You can find model-specific covers online, but it’s fine to grab a generic generator tent at the home center, too.
5. Don’t Forget Fuel
Portable generators run on gasoline, and most can hold a maximum of about 8 gallons. Depending on the power load, that may only last several hours. Stock up on gasoline and store it in ANSI-approved containers, which have special pressure-relieving mechanisms. Mix the gas with fuel stabilizer and store it outside the house.
If you’re shopping for a portable generator, consider a model that can be converted to run continuously on propane or natural gas. You'll need a conversion kit and perhaps the help of a pro to install it, but the next time your need it, either fuel will provide a more continuous source of power than a few gallons of gas.