How Do Portable Generators Work

Last updated on: November 28th, 2017

A generator helps you continue your work with your home appliances and other units that require electricity when there is an outage or even if there is no electrical source present in the vicinity. Best portable generator is powered by fuel, which can be gas or liquid based on the type of engine employed in the generator. But how do portable generators work?

There are several different uses to which a generator can be put to use. Also, there are different types of generators appropriate for a different set of requirements and needs.

Types of Generator

Generators can be any of the three types, namely a backup generator, a portable generator, or a standby generator.

  1. Backup Generator – A backup generator is not a complete solution to power up the entire house during an outage. However, it can be used to power up high electrical loads.
  2. Portable Generator – The small-sized generator unit is used to provide power for small to medium-sized home appliances. It can be used as an emergency unit or as a permanent part of your power connection for home appliances.Use in professional field work
  3. Standby Generator – A standby generator is a one stop solution for backing up power for your entire home during a power outage. It requires permanent installation and a lot of space for its setup.

What is a Portable Generator and What Can It Do

A portable generator is a compact form of a conventional generator that can be used to serve a variety of purposes. The small units are easy to carry around and hence can be used on some occasions to be used for several purposes. A portable generator can be used for:

  • Charging your smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc. during an outage
  • Preparing breakfast or coffee while on a camping expedition
  • Serving as a permanent power source, connected to your electricity mains line, to power up devices that are far from sockets
  • Serving as a power source to power various construction tools such as drills at a construction site

In addition to these, there are several other uses for which a portable generator can come in handy.

How does a Portable Generator Work

A portable generator is an engine that takes in some fuel and generates or precisely converts, it into electricity.

To better understand the way a portable generator works, the section is divided into four sub-sections. The first three sections – “What exactly is a portable generator made up of?” b) “What makes the portable generator work?” c) “How the portable generator produces electricity?” The 4th section gives some useful supplementary info about portable generators.

What exactly is a portable generator made up of?

Best Uses Of a Portable GeneratorA portable generator set consists primarily of 4 parts; engine, fuel source, power generator, and power outlet(s).

Collectively, this apparatus is known as an engine-generator set a.k.a. gen-set.

  1. Engine – Carries out the necessary work required for producing electricity
  2. Fuel Source – Produces mechanical energy required to enable the rotation of the engine
  3. Generator Power Head – Produces electricity
  4. Power Outlet – Supplies electricity output for usage

What makes the portable generator work?

A portable generator, like other converter devices, requires something that it can draw power from, known as a power source, and then convert that power into electrical power. For the purpose, a portable generator unit requires fuel. Any of the followings can serve as the fuel:-

  1. Liquid Powered
    • Diesel
    • Gasoline/Petrol
  2. Gas Powered
    • Propane
    • Natural Gas

How the portable generator produces electricity?

To make the entire process more clear and informative, it is defined in 9 sequential steps mentioned below:

  1. Electricity is produced in a generator by means of the generator head
  2. The fuel is used to spin the shaft in order to feed the generator head with the required amount of mechanical energy
  3. A Governor is used to oversee the speed of the spinning shaft
  4. Upon receiving the right amount of mechanical energy, the generator places a magnet close enough to a wire that causes a surge of electrons, known as the electron flow
  5. Thereafter, the engine pushes generator to spin with a specific speed. This rotational spin is measured in RPM (All the electrons in the copper wire, magnets, and the copper wire itself collectively rotate in the generator body produces electricity.)
  6. A single rotation of the engine corresponds to a single sine wave of AC power
  7. Inside the generator, the magnet urges the flow of a specified number of electrons and also puts them under a certain amount of pressure
  8. The hurling electrons in the wire upon coming across a load point, such as an appliance or a light bulb, leaves an electric spark
  9. Finally, the electric power can be drawn from the outlet(s) of the portable generator

Portable Generator Wiki

This section has nothing to do with essentials that one might want to know about a portable generator. Instead, it highlights some interesting info about the device.

  1. A 4-cycle engine is used in a typical portable generator
  2. A portable generator requires some means of lubrication and a cooling system
  3. A portable generator engine needs to run at a steady 36000 RPM for giving out 120 volts of steady voltage
  4. The pressure with which electrons is forced to move inside a portable generator is Voltage
  5. Number of electrons in motion determine the Current/Amperage
  6. Regular three prong generators give out 120 volts and 15/20 amps
  7. With more power being drawn from a generator, more combinations of outlets can be used

How to Use a Portable Generator

Though ACs, dryers, and electric stoves aren’t the conventional devices to juice up from a portable generator, it can be used in an emergency to power up other essential home appliances such as lighting, refrigerator, and TV.

First, You need a Transfer Switch

You require the assistance of a licensed electrician for installing the transfer switch, or you can do it yourself only if you’ve received electrical and mechanical training i.e. you’re an experienced amateur.

The transfer switch needs to be wired into the service panel of the house, and the generator plug needs to be plugged into it. Though a portable generator can be used without a transfer switch, other means of using it might increase the risk for electric shocks and other generator anomalies. A transfer switch ensures the best safety possible while working with a portable generator.

Turning on the transfer switch does 2 things. First, it disconnects the house from the outside grid and second, it transmits power to only the intended circuits. While the former operation ensures no electrical power from the generator backtracks the main power line that carry electricity for your home, the latter saves the portable generator from overloading.

Avoid Backfeeding

Plugging a generator directly into the wall is known as back feeding and it is not a safe thing to do. There are several reasons for back feeding being an avoidable practice. One of the major reasons for avoiding the practice is that in case you forgot to throw the main circuit breaker, for ensuring that the house is electrically isolated from the grid, then the generator can send back the electrical power along the main electricity lines and out to the grid. This could fatally wound or even kill a utility worker who is repairing the grid. Hence, you must not plug the generator into the wall.

Standby Generator vs. Backup Generator

The biggest factor that differentiates a backup generator from a standby generator is based on mobility. While a typical standby generator is permanently installed, a backup generator can be wheeled out and plugged into a transfer switch when its services are required.

The engine of a standby generator requires either natural gas or propane for carrying out its operation and is capable of providing enough juice for all your home appliances. Whereas, a backup generator is a small unit with a gas-based engine that can also be connected to electrical loads with heavy-duty extension cords.

Don’t Use Generator Inside Garage or Other Closed Chambers

A portable generator releases harmful carbon monoxide (CO) as a byproduct of its main process. The gas is labeled harmful because it can make someone inhaling it sick or even suffocate when breathed in vast amounts. Consequently, using a portable generator inside a closed chamber even with the front/back door opened is not safe.

Never operate a portable generator inside the garage, house, on a porch, near a window, under a carport or inside any closed space that has ceiling and walls.

Safety Tips

  • Let the generator completely cool down before refueling it
  • Seek a licensed electrician for getting any advice about the portable generator
  • To lower the risk of CO inhalation and hot muffler of the portable generator melting vinyl siding, keep the portable generator at least 10 feet from your house
  • Use CO and smoke detectors at the place where you’re using the portable generator

We hope we unfolded anything you need to know about using a generator. If you still have any questions leave them in comments below.

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3 Comments
  1. Wow, I have never heard of a portable generator or what it could be used for. That’s cool that it can be used at construction sites for powering up tools. It also seems like it is a good idea for camping trips. Making food in the wilderness can be a challenge, but having a portable generator could probably make things a lot easier.

  2. It is true that portable generators are not ideal for powering your AC unit and dryer, it main use being for emergency to power . But in many third world country almost every house has one for daily use because of regular power outages it like a necessity.

  3. Great post Kenneth. A very thorough job at describing each type of generator!

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