By Louis DeNicola, Cheapism.com
Losing power when a storm strikes is frustrating and potentially downright dangerous in the cold winter months. The storm bearing down on the Northeast no doubt has many thinking of investing in a backup power source, rather than risk waiting out the electric company and prevailing on family or friends for a hot shower. To help frugal homeowners keep the lights and the heat on if the power goes out, Cheapism recommends well-reviewed portable generators with convenient features and price tags of less than $500. Here are the top picks:Be ready for Nemo with a cheap generator.
- The Champion Power Equipment 46539 (starting at $493) runs for 12 hours on a tank of unleaded gas, according to the specs, which assume the generator is operating at a 50 percent load, or half its 3,500 watts. In total it provides enough power to keep several appliances, including a refrigerator and boiler, running at once. Reviewers call this a reliable machine with a number of extras rarely seen on budget models. It comes with wireless remote start and a wheel kit for easy mobility -- an important consideration, given that the generator weighs 140 pounds.
- The Champion Power Equipment 46533 (starting at $362) forgoes frills such as push-button electric start for the purpose of keeping the price low. Users must rely on the recoil or pull-start method to get the engine rumbling. Still, reviewers have found the generator easy to start and useful for camping trips and emergencies alike. One consumer used this 3,500-watt model to keep a variety of appliances running for a week and a half after Hurricane Sandy. A full tank of unleaded fuel can keep the lights and other essentials on for up to 12 hours at half-load.
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- The Gentron GG3500 (starting at $429) has a lower output than the other two generators, with 3,000 watts -- still enough power to keep critical appliances going. The running time is 11 hours at 50 percent load. Reviewers say the electric start is appealing and easy to use and the included wheel kit also comes in handy.
If you aren't sure of the wattage you'll need to keep necessary appliances running, a number of guides exist to help you make an educated guess. This Consumer Reports calculator, for example, tallies up the wattage requirements of many common appliances. The generators listed above can all increase their output by 500 watts in order to provide new devices the extra power they need to cycle on. You'll see this specified under "starting watts," as opposed to "running watts."
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The fuel tanks on these portable generators hold about four gallons of unleaded gas. If you're wary of storing gasoline -- a necessity in case an emergency creates a shortage -- propane generators are also available. Unfortunately they often come with higher price tags than comparable gas generators. For the models with electric starting, recoil or pull-start can be used as a backup. Be sure to move a generator outside and away from the house before you power it up, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
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