My two partners and I have three lifetimes of carpentry and building experience between us. Our company, Ace Carpentry, frames and trims new homes in Northern Virginia. Our framers tilt up about 600 houses, and our trim crews finish close to 2,000 houses a year.

We employ around 200 hourly framers and trimmers, and we have about 100 subs going at any given time. Our local power companies are so busy that juice usually doesn't run to our jobs until they're nearly ready for move-in. Most of our crews use generators 45 to 50 hours a week.

Depending on the size of the house they're building, our typical single-family framing crews consist of four to six men. They'll run 400 feet of 12-gauge cords to power two circ saws and a chop box. Our typical single-family trimming crews consist of four or five workers. They'll run up to 300 feet of 12-gauge cords to light up two chop saws, a 1-1/2-hp electric compressor, and one or two circ saws.

Our generators must be dependable, long-running workhorses that can keep pace with busy crews who often brave the elements, move quickly, and need current on the site in a hurry. Back in the shop, we like generators that are easy to work on and service. Hour meters are nice, and so are durable gauges, switches, and tanks. After paying a hefty gas bill for fill-ups, we had our framers and trimmers take 11, 4,000-to-6,000 watt generators out into the field and let them go at it.

Test Criteria

This tool test was a race. It pitted crews against machines, and the crews were the speedsters. Generators that keep up with the pace are first out of the shop in the morning. Ones that leave them starved or keep them in the pits are the last to go. We tested for power, mobility, ease of use, and maintenance. To get a handle on safety and maintenance issues, Richard Gerber, our tool expert, ran each unit through shop tests before it went into the vans. We found generators that we'd use daily, tools with outstanding features we'd like to see on all models, and generators that might find a better home with different crews.

Power. If a generator has all the bells and whistles but doesn't have enough power to do the big stuff, someone on the crew will probably throw something at it –especially if the unthinkable happens and the breaker kicks while the radio's plugged into it. That won't happen to the great big Winco unit. This 250-pounder gives full power to the 120–and 240-volt receptacles simultaneously without switching or splitting circuits. Although the unit has seven outlets, it still only has 5,500 watts of power, so you have to watch how much you load it.

The 11-hp Honda machine provided ample power for our framers, as did the Desa and 11-hp Generac units. Two other strong contenders were the Robin and the Makita units. With the idle-control off, we used both circuits and kept the crews happy all day. The Nac unit lies at the other end of the watt spectrum. It has an 8-hp motor and delivers 3,800 sustained watts. Our framers outran this smaller unit, but it had no problem keeping our trimmers, their chop saws, and their compressors moving.

We performed this tool test in the spring, so we weren't able to test the generators' cold weather performance and ability to crank up other tools with thick oil. Although we ran the test in warm weather, we had no problem running big-draw tools like chop saws or compressors from any of the units.

Mobility. We don't leave too much on our jobsites, as expensive items will unfortunately find their way out of even the finest neighborhoods. We pack all our tools away in our vans and bring them back to the shop for storage or maintenance each day. The ease of lifting, wheeling, packing, and maneuvering these units onto the jobsite or into a van with all our other tools is crucial. Frame strength, wheel kit, size, and weight affect the crew's willingness to move a unit; they won't be happy if the thing is a bear-and-a-half to truck around.

We liked the Honda unit with its wheel kit. It rolls around easily, and its size and weight make it simple to move around. Its rugged, well-built frame takes jobsite punishment well, and it stands up to the pounding of being constantly lifted in and out of our trucks. The Yamaha has a nice wheel kit and a tough, durable frame. The Robin and Makita units have inflatable tires, a little smaller than the Generac's, but good for the job site's rough terrain. Another good mover is the Mitsubishi machine. It resembles the Honda unit in looks and performance and in the way it moves, stores, and snugs away its battery.

Everything –including oil changes –is harder to do without wheel kits. You can count on a wheel-less generator being the last one out the door in the morning just as easily as you can count on it being the most beat-up when it comes back. Without wheels, it's too hard to move a unit around gently. Generac's 12-inch tires make this unit highly mobile. They take up space, but they're worth it: if you have to move your generator frequently or if you work on muddy sites, get the wheels.

Ease of Use. This encompasses a generator's weight, frame, control panel accessibility, and ease of storage. If it's too heavy to be mobile, of course, it's not easy to use. The frame must be durable and solid, and the whole unit should be compact. Thin tubing seems bound for trouble over the long haul. We liked the Honda, Yamaha, and Mitsubishi frames because their thick tubes and beefy construction held up well on our sites.

Yamaha's unit has our favorite control panel. Everything is laid out in a nice line towards the top of the machine. The receptacles and switches are well-spaced for quick and easy access. And the frame sufficiently protects the switches so they won't be broken by a falling shovel in the van, a snag while carrying the unit, or any of the other million things that have broken switches on my jobsite generators. All of these machines vibrate enough to work their receptacle and switch screws loose, so they can use any protection designers can give them.

Compact stature is important for mobility, storage, and quick access. We liked the compact Honda, Yamaha, and Mitsubishi units the best. They fit in vans with the rest of the crews' tools, they're easy to move around, and you don't have to reach around their frames to get at switches and receptacles –or to dislodge that shovel handle.

Maintenance. Most people won't check a generator's oil, or they'll think someone else has done it. A low-oil shutoff saves the life of a jobsite generator; all the units we tested have this feature. Air filters that can be cleaned on site with compressed air –like those on the Generac, Desa, Campbell-Hausfeld, and Winco models –are also great for keeping these power plants running smoothly. The other units we tested require solvent to clean debris from their filters, which has to be done in the shop to avoid spilling solvents. Generac makes a highly serviceable unit. We especially liked the automotive-type oil and air filters, and the hour meter is great for monitoring tune-ups. Even better, we could easily reach the drain plug to change the unit's oil. Many of the other units have inaccessible spark plugs and oil fill tubes.

Safety. At Ace Carpentry, we only run generators with ground fault interrupter (GFI) receptacles. That's specified in our local OSHA regulations, and safety is a big deal for us. Except for the Campbell-Hausfeld and the Coleman models, all the generators we tested have GFI receptacles.

Favorites

We liked the generators that treated us right in the field, in transit, and in the shop. Those units are powerful, compact, and dependable. They're also quiet and fairly easy to service. Here's the run-down, starting with our favorite: Honda EB5000, Yamaha YG4600, Mitsubishi MGE5800, Generac MC5500, Robin RGV6101, Makita G6101R, Nac NGK4300h; Desa MGH5000CIE, Campbell-Hausfeld GN5037-02, Winco NC6000H, and Coleman Progen 5000.

Wish List

If I could gather all the generator manufacturers in one room, I'd tell them to make the following features standard on all units. After that, I'd probably ask for profit-sharing from the companies that got it right first. In no particular order, I'd ask for:

  • Wheel kits; they make everything easier to do.
  • Inflatable wheels like Generac's.
  • Hour meters like Generac's and Desa's; they're essential for staying on top of regular maintenance.
  • A truly disappearing handle that doesn't sacrifice toughness.
  • Coleman's cord-keeper, which prevents the cord from being pulled out of plugs.
  • We like metal gas tanks and gauges. Plastic ones can freeze and crack in the winter, and summer's heat can expand them greatly.
  • A few of the units we tested have skyhooks. You could equip a forklift with a chain around the fork to shift the tool around –or up –if necessary.
  • Easily accessible parts –sparkplugs, air filters, oil fill tubes, oil drain bolts –would make our maintenance guys faster and cleaner.
  • I really wish someone would make a better receptacle. I can't say how many times I've had to take a control panel apart because the screws vibrated loose and the plug fell out. Or the plug cracked for some reason –maybe the cord pulled out –and shorted out the whole unit. Tougher receptacles would be welcomed on our sites.
  • Some sort of leveling device would save a lot of time and money. I've had to rebuild several generator motors because they were set up on a hill. The tool had plenty of oil in it, but none of it reached the piston and the motor seized.

–Kenneth Shifflett is vice president of Ace Carpentry in Manassas, Va.