– By Pam Meyer
Equipment Sales Manager, Subaru Industrial Power Products

Whether the backyard of a home, on a worksite or mixed in the local rental yard’s fleet, it’s tough to go far without finding a small portable generator. These units are common in so many arenas because they do one important thing and they do it well – supply power. And power is required in just about every residential and professional setting, from providing backup power during a blackout to supplying an entire worksite’s tools and equipment with a boost.  

But while they do fulfill one main task, the generator itself isn’t quite so simple. Head over to the local rental center, dealership or big box store and you’ll be greeted with a seemingly endless selection of generators. Several different models exist, from the highest priced units with more features than a multiplex movie theater, to the lowest-cost, most basic models – and those that fall in between. So maybe it’s not as simple as “just a power source”. Yes, all generators ultimately achieve this one function, but there is quite a difference between top-of-the-line, expensive units and basic, inexpensive models.

Some units include special features designed to reduce noise, run longer and be more fuel-efficient, while others don’t do much but start up – at least, that’s the hope. For all end-users and rental center operators, this is where the questions begin. Is the most expensive model with all the bells and whistles necessary? Or will a basic unit with next to no features be sufficient in meeting needs? To arrive at the correct and most cost-effective answer, it will be first necessary to examine available features and the latest technology, then take a look at what’s currently offered on the market.

A Brief Overview
When it comes to portable, gas-powered generators, the list of options can be about a mile long, so it’s important to first consider the basic criteria for any unit, regardless of application. While not all generators include every feature and not every end-user requires it all, the following will provide a good, basic list.

The number one consideration for a gas-powered generator has to be the engine. Because the engine is the driving force behind operation, it won’t matter how well the rest of the unit is built if the engine doesn’t live up to the highest expectations. The engine’s components, such as the air cleaner, fuel tank and muffler can vary greatly in quality, and will have a major impact on longevity, productivity and noise emissions. Additionally, the EPA has established four levels for engine emission control standards – Tier I, II, III and IV – with deadlines for each tier of increased standards to be reached, making the engine that much more crucial.

Also important is the generator’s control panel, which can range from basic up to professional-grade. The latter, a professional-grade control panel, includes features designed to increase safety, protect the generator from damage and offer convenience for the operator. Quality generators are built with an all-inclusive, professional-grade panel, while cheap, low-quality units withhold these important items.

Finally, the construction quality and components and features found outside of the engine will be top considerations. And don’t forget the value of one of the most important items that can’t be found anywhere on the generator – a warranty program, backed by a good service network.

Now that the basics are covered, let’s apply the information to distinguish the differences in the three basic classes of generators: industrial, commercial and consumer.

Premium Pick
At the very top of the generator offering tree are units commonly referred to as industrial generators. These premium models offer the entire expanse of features – and come with a higher price tag to match.

Because industrial generators are the cream of the crop, they’re virtually always equipped with a fuel-efficient, EPA-compliant, top-of-the-line engine. Oftentimes, the generator and its engine will be manufactured by the same company, offering the added benefit of providing the customer, whether an end-user or rental center, with one integrated unit and warranty policy covering the whole machine.

In addition to delivering reliability and efficiency, a premium engine incorporates high quality components – most notable being the fuel tank. Typically constructed of steel, good fuel tanks are large in capacity for several hours of uninterrupted run time, eliminating frequent refueling and excessive downtime. Also offered on most industrial units, an easy-to-read fuel gauge allows accurate monitoring, and a fuel strainer ensures no contaminants enter the tank during refueling.

Other engine components include sound-suppressing mufflers to keep noise emissions at bay, and heavy-duty air cleaners to prevent harmful debris from entering and damaging the engine, and further reduce noise. Finally, a low-oil shut-off detects low oil pressure and automatically shuts off the engine, resulting in less maintenance and a longer machine life.

But industrial generators offer more benefits than what are found in just the engine. For example, an auto idle control system conserves even more fuel by lowering the generator’s engine to an idle when power is not being drawn from the system, while a dual-capacitor voltage regulation system protects from power surges. External battery chargers offer added convenience, and a full-power switch allows 120-volt full power connection to one receptacle.

A professional-grade control panel is found on higher quality, OSHA-compliant, industrial units, and includes safety features such as ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacles. GFCIs are regulated by OSHA on all jobsites for generators exceeding 5,000 watts, because they encourage safe operation by helping protect operators from electrocution. To avoid fines or other penalties from OSHA, professional contractors especially must take note of the generator’s control panel. In addition to GFCIs, a professional-grade control panel includes an AC circuit breaker to protect the unit from overload, an hour meter for maintenance tracking, and plenty of 120- and 240-volt outlets, ensuring adequate means to power a full worksite’s equipment or home backup list.

Finally, the generator’s overall construction will indicate a premium unit. Industrial generators often feature high quality construction, including steel frames to protect the unit from damage. And whether standard or optional, industrial generators offer portability-enhancing kits, ensuring easy transport from site to site.

For those who require this caliber of generator, having all the perks is worth the price of admission. Typically professionals such as large construction, building and landscape contractors are the primary audience. Rental center operators will also benefit from including premium, industrial generators in their fleet, as features like hour meters and higher-quality engines allow easier maintenance and serviceability.

While all the technology, features and resulting benefits obviously seem appealing, it’s worth noting that not every contractor or even rental center will require this sophisticated a generator – nor will they have budget allotment. As such, two other classes are offered to meet varying needs.

Basic Buy
Several types of extremely pared down, simple generators are available, all falling into the category of light-duty consumer generators. Manufacturers of these units typically assume most end-users purchase one simply to have on hand in case of a blackout, or to provide the occasional backup power boost on a jobsite. In other words, it’s almost expected that consumer generators will rarely be used and, therefore, they aren’t built for the same longevity, sound reduction and fuel efficiency characteristics of their premium counterparts.

Consumer units will supply power, but because of their simplistic design and construction quality, typically don’t last many hours, nor can most take the abuse of a typical worksite or life in a rental yard. Many skimp on the majors like a good control panel, and overall construction and component quality. And because they’re not looked at as an investment, but rather a disposable item, many consumer generator manufacturers even forgo features that aid in and encourage routine maintenance – most importantly, a warranty program and service network

This isn’t to say consumer generators don’t have a place in the market; they certainly do. They’re a low-cost option for those on a strict budget. And for others, they may only plan on using the generator once or twice, but prefer to own one so it’s available when needed, rather than take the time to rent one when a need arises. Whatever the reason, buyers just must go into the purchase realizing the unit may only last them a short amount of time.

But because most contractors, end-users and especially rental center operators are looking for even a small return on investment, consumer generators may not offer enough to justify the purchase. But at the same time, many end-users and smaller rental centers aren’t able to splurge on an expensive industrial model. To address and fill this gap, some manufacturers provide a high-quality, yet lower-cost alternative to expensive industrial styles. These units give consumers a bit more bang for their buck and potential for quick ROI.

Uncompromising Option
An end-user simply looking for a backup power source – whether a residential or commercial application – is unlikely to require an industrial generator, yet will want something more reliable and long-lasting than a cheap, throw-away unit. Additionally, many contractors, especially smaller ones, may find industrial generators a bit much, both in price and operation complexity. And for rental centers, it’s all about customer needs and ROI. For this large group of customers, commercial generators offer an ideal “middle of the road” option.

In their most general terms, commercial generators are a less expensive generator choice compared to industrial models. They still fulfill the basic requirement – supplying power – however don’t include all the bells and whistles like their industrial counterparts. But the key is, they’re able to trim out features without sacrificing quality, advanced technology and reliable performance of expensive models.

For starters, a quality engine is key to a high-performance generator. While some consumer generator manufacturers skimp on the engine, commercial units incorporate a high quality engine. Some also provide a premium-grade warranty that covers the entire unit.

In addition to the engine itself, many commercial generators include quality components like a good muffler to suppress noise and air cleaner to protect the engine. Metal fuel tanks provide excellent durability and the capacity to provide long run time without refueling. And many styles of commercial generators still offer the small, yet valuable add-ins like a fuel tank gauge and strainer.

Automatic Voltage Regulator (AVR) systems are left out of cheap consumer models, but are often found on commercial units. An AVR system is somewhat unique in that it provides precise voltage control and output, making the generator appropriate for sensitive electronic equipment like computers – a valuable benefit most premium industrial units can’t even boast.

As with industrial generators, a professional-grade control panel indicates a better quality machine, and many commercial models don’t skimp. GFCI receptacles, an AC circuit breaker, as well as plenty of standard outlets are provided. Commercial generators often include an hour meter for maintenance tracking and service, as well as a low-oil alert light to signal when the lubrication level drops.

Portability needs are a major factor, particularly for contractors, as lugging equipment from one jobsite to the next is often part of the daily routine. Many consumer generators don’t address this consideration, but commercial units go above and beyond. Some offer wheel kits and wheelbarrow handles to aid in portability ease around the jobsite; many include these as standard features.

Who knew there was so much to small portable generators? While many tend to associate price with quality, it’s more important to consider what the unit has to offer. Knowing just the basics will help all end-users and rental centers place each unit into one of the three main classes, and help guide the selection process. In many cases, it will be necessary to make the investment and go with an industrial generator. However, a high-quality commercial unit can pack a big punch, and provide reliability, durability and continuous power that homeowners and contractors demand, without blowing up a budget.

Pam Meyer is Equipment Sales Manager for Subaru Industrial Power Products. With nearly 30 years experience in power equipment sales, she is an expert on proper pump and generator selection for disaster preparedness and emergency management situations. For more information, contact Meyer at 847-847-2963 or [email protected].


Whether a major firm or small company, professionals requiring a quality generator on a budget will find a Commercial unit meets their needs.


Like their industrial counterparts, Commercial units often have a professional-grade control panel.


Industrial units offer all the features including durable construction, high-quality components and portability attributes.


Many mid-range industrial units use sophisticated electronics to continuously monitor voltage output to ensure steady power flow.


Small-range industrial units provide high-quality features and reliability in a smaller package.


Large metal fuel tanks provide generators with extended run times between refuels, and fuel strainers prevent debris from entering tanks.


Photos courtesy of Subaru Industrial Power Products.