Know Your Backup Power: Portable Generators vs. Power Stations

Jackery Solar Generator 1000
Courtesy of Jackery

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When it comes to backup energy, two of the most common portable power solutions are generators and power stations.

In a nutshell, both generators and power stations achieve the same deliverable: Off-grid electricity that you can use to charge and power various electronic gear, including mobile tech, certain appliances, and even elements of our HVAC systems. While the end result is the same (electricity for you and yours), there are several notable differences between portable generators and power stations.

If you’ve been thinking about purchasing one or the other, we’ve put together this comparison to help you understand what piece of backup power hardware is right for you.

Jackery Explorer 1500 Portable Power Station Courtesy of Jackery

  

Portable Generators: The Fuel-Fed Workhorse

Unmatched in strength, runtime, and noise level (they tend to be on the louder side), portable generators provide off-the-grid power for many residential and commercial applications.

Portable generators require fuel to create the electricity to charge or power our appliances, lighting and other necessities. Similar to the car we drive to work each day, these generators use gasoline to power an internal engine. When the engine is running, energy gets pushed through an alternator, which delivers electricity (measured in wattage) to the generator’s many connections.

While portable generators require a manual start (usually a pull-cord or ignition switch), as long as there’s fuel in the tank, the generator will run for as long as you need it.

Typically, portable generators deliver between 1,000 to 20,000 watts of total power. This energy is directly transferred to the various power outputs that you’ll find on the generator body. Portable generators will often feature a range of sockets from 15 up to 50 amps.

For most generators, the total wattage usually translates to how big or small the generator is, how many connections it has, and how loud the engine will be when the generator is running.

  

What To Use a Portable Generator For

Unlike standby generators that can be industrially sized and require professional installation, portable generators are mobile enough to be carted around by one or two people and a good dolly.

A common use for portable generators is a backup solution during a significant power outage. A portable generator can be a saving grace for homeowners living in areas prone to weather events such as heavy blizzards and severe thunderstorms.

In the event of a power failure, you can use a portable generator to power home appliances like refrigerators, lighting, and various HVAC components.

While emergency power is one of the primary uses of a portable generator, you can also use them for recreational purposes. Certain campsites and tailgating spots will allow generators to run on-site, providing mobile electricity for parts of your RV, mobile cooking gear, and other powered hardware.

Portable generators are also useful for construction sites where grid-power may not be in place yet. Even if electricity is available, heavy-duty power tools will often trip breakers in a regular home or business, on top of drawing massive amounts of power (which means a sky-high electric bill).

WGen7500 generator Courtesy of Amazon

  

What Not To Use a Portable Generator For

Unlike a mobile power station, you should never place portable generators inside a home or business. Generators produce CO, a harmful airborne pollutant that, if inhaled, can be fatal in a relatively short time. No ifs, ands, or buts, you’ll always need to keep your generator outdoors regardless of its size.

Depending on the equipment you need power for, this may translate to running some relatively long extension cords between the generator and the part of the home requiring power.

It’s also not good to power or charge sensitive electronics through a portable generator’s onboard sockets, including phones, tablets, and laptops. While these connections do provide the AC power that our handheld gear requires, the total harmonic distortion (THD) generated by these inputs can be damaging to some tech.

Powering sensitive electronics is a better-suited job for either a power station (more on that next) or a portable inverter generator.

  

Portable Power Stations: Quiet, Portable, Limited

If noise, fuel, and the aches and pains of carting around a heavy generator are not ideal for you and yours, then a portable power station may be a more suitable backup solution.

Unlike a generator, power stations require no gasoline or propane to operate. Instead, a massive built-in battery is what runs the show. Similar to a portable power bank, a power station stores a certain amount of power (usually up to 1,000 watts) that, once depleted, can be recharged by plugging the power station into an electrical outlet.

Like portable generators, you’ll find several connections on a power station’s control panel. Typically, units with higher wattage capacity will include more power outputs, with some models even featuring USB ports and DC carports. You can even use some high-wattage power stations to power small appliances like mini-fridges and certain air conditioners.

Compared to generators, most power stations are lightweight and truly portable, with many models capable of being lugged by a single person, making them ideal for day trips, long car drives, and certain wilderness excursions.

  

What To Use a Power Station For

You can use a portable power station both indoors and outdoors. Unlike generators that emit harmful CO, there’s no fuel-to-electricity conversion inside a power station, which means there are no airborne pollutants to worry about. And because there’s no engine to power, you won’t have to worry about topping your power station off with gas or doing any routine maintenance on the machine (like oil and filter changes).

Like a portable inverter generator (sometimes referred to as a power station), power stations convert all internal battery energy (DC) into AC currents, allowing you to connect just about any electronic gear, including sensitive tech like phones, tablets, and laptops.

Many power stations are even equipped with multiple power inlets, allowing you to safely and conveniently connect to various low- and high-wattage sources, from certain appliances to a set of solar panels.

Power stations run silent in terms of noise, making them ideal for any outdoor location where a generator’s sound production would generally be an issue.

Jackery Explorer 1000 Courtesy of Amazon

  

What Not To Use a Power Station For

While you can find some power stations that top out around 3,500 watts, that’s still nothing compared to the most robust portable generators on the market (with ratings up to 20,000 watts).

If you’re planning on using a portable power station to provide electricity for your entire home or business in the event of a grid failure, think again. Most power stations should only be used to power or charge a few components at once (think two mobile devices or one medium-sized appliance).

Unlike a generator, a power station’s runtime is limited to how much charge the internal battery has left. The more components connected, the bigger the draw on the battery will be, which means you’ll need to recharge your power station sooner. Doing this can be especially tricky if you’re planning on being somewhere with no grid-provided electricity.

Remember: As long as a portable generator has fuel, it can run for unlimited time, sans some basic maintenance.

  

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