Imagine that a storm or blizzard has left your home or business without electricity. Wouldn’t it be great to have a backup option to charge your phone and computer, turn on your lights, watch the news on television, and perhaps (most importantly), keep your refrigerator running? If you run your own business, you may also want to ensure that you can keep things running if you happen to find yourself without power. Cue in the portable generator. It’s a great option to have in case you find yourself without electricity.
Portable Generators: How Do They Create Electricity?
Before you buy anything, you want to make sure you understand how it works. So, the question is: How does a portable generator create electricity? This question is a great primer for anyone interested in physics or the basics of how at-home appliances work.
All generators work by converting mechanical energy obtained from an external source into electric energy using the Faraday principle of electricity generation discovered in the 1830s by Michael Faraday, a British physicist. Faraday discovered that electricity is generated when a wire loop is moved between magnetic poles.
So how does this principle work in a portable generator?
A portable generator creates electricity by using a gas-powered engine; it basically “creates” electricity by converting fuel into electric energy. How does it do that, you may wonder? A portable generator is made up of a power generator head, an engine, a fuel tank, and power outlets. You must supply the engine with fuel, usually in the form of gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or liquid propane. The engine will then spin a shaft, providing the mechanical energy to the power generator head. The generator head then converts this mechanical energy into electric energy, which then supplies the outlets with electricity that may be used to power electric-powered appliances like a light bulb or refrigerator. It also has a cooling system to prevent overheating, a method of lubrication to keep things running smoothly, and a speed regulator to control how fast the shaft spins.
But how exactly is this mechanical energy converted to electricity?
That’s the million-dollar question. While you may need advanced knowledge of physics to truly understand the details, it’s fairly easy to get the big picture of how a portable generator creates electricity. First, let’s make sure we understand the terms. “Mechanical” energy is the energy associated with the movement or position of something. When you pedal your bike with your feet, you’re creating mechanical energy. Electricity is the energy created when charged particles called electrons move through a wire.
So how does it work in the portable generator?
The spinning shaft (aka, mechanical energy) creates a magnetic field in the copper wires in the generator head, causing the electrons in the metal wires to move. This creates an electric charge that powers the outlets. In order to harness this electric power, all you need to do is plug in an electric-powered appliance to the outlets in your portable generator.
Portable Generators: Pros and Cons
A portable generator and a regular standby generator (aka, the kind that is larger, bulkier, and permanently installed in your home or business) both create electricity under essentially the same principles explored above. That said, the portable generator does have some drawbacks compared to a regular standby version. First, you must take certain safety precautions. For example, you must always operate it outside to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Second, the fuel capacity tends to be a maximum of 16 gallons, which depending on what you’re powering, may only last through a single day of a power outage (you can always keep extra fuel on hand, although that takes up space and can be dangerous). Third, portable generators tend to be noisy. Fourth, they can be stolen if you leave them outside. Finally, they do not provide automatic backup power, meaning you must be home to turn the power back on. This may be important if you happen to be traveling when the power goes out and want to make sure your fridge stays on to keep your food fresh.
That said, a portable generator has some great upsides worth considering. It’s considerably cheaper than a regular standby generator, which can cost as much as $4,000-$5,000, compared to $500-$2,000 for most portable generators. It’s also a great option if you need portable electric energy, such as when you go on a camping trip or need backup electricity during a trip.
One thing is clear, though. Portable or not, a generator of any kind is a must-have in an emergency!