How Do Portable Generators Work?

The idea behind them might seem simple, but how do portable generators work in terms of their internal parts? How exactly do they generate power, and what makes them so different from a regular generator (apart from the size, of course)? Well, the answer’s not that complicated, but it is best to start with the simple parts.

A portable generator uses three major components: the generator head, the engine, and the source of fuel it uses. These all work together to produce electricity, sent through a fourth component – the power outlet, cable, or other connection to something separate from the generator. Almost every portable generator uses this setup, regardless of its fuel source.

The ‘generator head’ is an essential part since it is what creates electricity. The engine runs it, and the engine’s run by the power source, meaning that each generator works on a step-by-step system. There are other components, too – the ‘governor’ (or ‘regulator’) controls how fast the engine can create energy, and the cooling system (which can even be ventilation holes) stops the generator from overheating or exploding from overuse. Sometimes, there also needs to be a way to stay lubricated, mainly to stop mechanical failures.

Inverter generators are slightly different since they “invert” the power they produce, but the results are generally the same.

But how do they produce power?

Portable Generator Full Guide

How They Work

The technical side of generators can be confusing, but there are a few easy ways to explain it without taking up hours. Portable generators are essentially smaller, easier-to-move versions of bigger generators, although the exterior designs are wildly different due to the difference in scale.

The first part of looking at the internal combustion engine, which converts force into energy. It doesn’t ‘create’ energy since you can’t get it if there is nothing. Most generators are designed in ways that take energy from motion, such as with a spinning shaft that the generator head uses to convert electrons into usable electricity. Not all generators use the same design, but the idea is almost always the same, whether done with a spinning shaft, moving pistons, or rotating wheels.

In most cases, this is done with magnetism – the magnets are moved close to a copper wire, both moving inside the engine. This motion creates electricity, with a single “rotation” being one sine wave of AC power. To put that into perspective, 120 volts of electricity would require around 3,6000 RPM or revolutions per minute.

Generator Types

As mentioned earlier, Inverter generators convert AC power into DC, then back into AC. They are similar in terms of purpose, but the output is supposed to be more constant, making them better for long periods of use or in emergencies where power failures are dangerous. They are a recent development and often cost more as a result. They are also supposed to be less noisy than a regular model.

Silenced generators are self-explanatory and are a re-designed version of existing portable generators that use an enclosed, sound-proof casing to reduce their noise level. Other than that, they are usually just standard generators in a different frame, other than being slightly heavier, thanks to the extra materials they are covered in. It can be louder or quieter than an Inverter generator, depending on its internal parts’ design.

A Deeper Explanation

Let’s say you have a small magnet, like the kind you can stick to a refrigerator. You can use it to pick up small metal objects, like a screw or bolt, and it will stay attached to the magnet thanks to its magnetic field instead of just falling off. When this happens, the magnet moves the electrons on the metal of the other objects, drawing them into the magnetic field it’s producing. When electrons move, they take a basic form of electricity with them.

However, that’s not all – a screw you pick up with a magnet will also become magnetic and attract even more screws. When you move the electrons in a metal object, it becomes magnetic too. That thought process goes into portable generators: if you can set up a moving or spinning part that takes the electrons from some coiled copper wires, you can “steal” them from the original objects and make them into electricity.

That’s how they gather electricity, at least in most designs. The components will differ depending on each portable generator’s size, manufacturer, and general design. Still, they have the same functionality behind them and sometimes might even use the same parts.

Electricity Types

AC power is one of two types of electricity a generator can produce. It’s also known as Alternating Current power, in contrast to Direct Current (DC) power. As you might expect, AC power changes direction independently (like how waves seem to move up and down), while DC goes in a single direction and never reverses.

To most people, they’ll be more or less the same. Most people will use both since batteries are generally DC-powered, while appliances, buildings, and plugged-in items will use AC instead. Most portable generators will create AC power, but you can convert it into DC using a ‘rectifier.’ Some portable models might come with these as optional extras. Still, AC is generally more desirable than DC unless you’re trying to fill up a battery or power a smaller appliance.

Outlets and Wattage/Voltage/Amperage

The outlet used by your generator can vary, but it’ll often be a power cord or cable you can connect to another inlet/outlet. The three-pronged outlets you usually see inside modern buildings are the most common and can support about 15-20 amps of power. Other prongs will be able to handle larger or smaller amounts of electricity, but this shouldn’t usually be a problem for most users since there aren’t many times when you’ll need to rig up a connection to something all by yourself.

However, knowing your generator’s overall wattage and voltage can be important, especially since amps, watts, and volts are all part of the same calculation. As long as you know two, you can work out the third, and it’ll save you from buying a more significant generator that supplies more power than you need.

The basic calculation is Watts = Amps x Volts. Suppose your generator can manage 33 amps and 4000 watts of power. In that case, you can easily calculate an output of 120 volts, so it’s not hard to compare different generators with varying power output levels. Like batteries, a larger voltage means more power but requires a larger or more intricate engine to gather.

In a way, the output of your generator is similar to the force of a garden hose. If you have too much, you’ll overwhelm the device you’re trying to power or charge, but having too little will mean it doesn’t have enough power to function correctly. It’s a good idea to work out how much you’ll need beforehand since it’s not easy to alter a fully-built generator if you find it too strong or weak for a particular task.

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