Durability and Maintenance
If something can break, it will – so look for a generator with a beefy wraparound metal frame. Some of the better units could probably fall off the back of a truck without being damaged. Others have minimal frames that provide less protection. You can tell by looking which manufacturers are the most serious about protecting the machine.
I'd recommend getting a metal gas tank. Plastic tanks are cheaper, but they can become brittle in extreme cold. If I'm choosing between comparable models and only one has a steel tank, I'll choose the steel tank every time.
To make it easier to keep track of scheduled maintenance, some generators are equipped with hour meters.
If the unit does not have this feature and you track your crew's hours, figure the machine runs about 80 percent of the time your crew is working. If you have to change oil every 100 hours and you're working 40-hour weeks, you'd probably be safe changing the oil every three weeks. Should you ever lose track, dump it out. A few quarts of oil are a whole lot cheaper than a new engine.
If you work in California, your choices will be limited to models that have been emissions-certified by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). These units tend to be more expensive.
Wheel kits are worth the extra expense because rolling a generator is a lot easier than carrying it. Four wheels are fine for use on smooth, flat surfaces, but two wheels (right) are better on rough terrain. The four-wheel model at left has folding handles that make it possible to lift one end of the unit and roll it like a wheelbarrow.
A heavy metal roll cage and shielding protect this generator's engine, alternator, and control panel from the beating they'll receive on the job site. The piece across the top is a lifting hook.
Contributing editor Michael Davis owns Framing Square in Conifer, Colo.
Interactive Specification Charts
Below are two versions of our portable generator specifications. Chart 1 uses Scribd and allows for "zoomable" viewing of a PDF version. Chart 2 uses Google Spreadsheet technology, allowing you click links and to scroll up, down, left, and right through the data.
With Google Spreadsheet, you may also...