Portable, Standby, and Backup Generators: What’s the Difference?

Published On: January 19, 20230 Comments on Portable, Standby, and Backup Generators: What’s the Difference?Tags: Last Updated: January 29, 20245.2 min read

Generators are an essential addition to homes and facilities prone to natural disasters or bad weather. Generators are what can power the electricity in your house when your main power source goes out. This means you will continue to have lights, heat, ac, and running appliances all throughout a power outage, providing safety and comfort, even for days at a time.


There are two kinds of generators to consider when it comes to picking out the right fit for your house. There are portable, or backup, generators, and standby, or stationary, generators.

Portable/Backup Generators

A portable, or backup generator, is perhaps what most people think of when they think of a generator. These generators primarily run on gasoline, but some models also use propane, diesel, or natural gas. Portable generators are set up outdoors, at least 20 feet from the house, and have to be manually set up and turned on and off.

Standby/Stationary Generators

Standby or stationary generators are permanent additions to your house. These large generators sit on a concrete pad outside your house and don’t need to be moved or set up. They run on diesel or natural gas. For diesel generators, there is a fuel tank attached to the side of the generator all ready to use when the generator needs to be used. Standby generators that utilize natural gas are hooked up to the main natural gas line and will switch on as soon as a power outage is detected. They have an automatic transfer switch, or ATS, which ensures they turn on and off safely without the danger of back-feeding electricity back into the main power grid. Standby generators can run reliably for days to weeks provided enough diesel is available and the supply of natural gas isn’t turned off for safety reasons.

Benefits of a Portable Generator

The benefits of having a portable generator over a standby generator are primarily the cost to install and upkeep. Portable generators are nearly just as effective as powering a home as any other generator and can be stored away when not in use. They come in a number of configurations giving you multiple fuel options. Many types of portable generators also have safety features like an automatic off if it senses a build-up of carbon monoxide or a gas leak.


The cons of a portable generator are the inconvenience of having to manually set up and run. They require that you have the necessary fuel source on hand in storage to ensure you are able to run it when you need it. They go through 12-20 gallons of gas a day and tend to be noisier. Portable generators have strict rules about where and how they need to be set up to run safely. They cannot be run in an enclosed space, closer than 20 feet to the house, and the exhaust pipe has to be facing away from the house.

portable generator

Benefits of a Standby Generator

There are many benefits to having a standby generator. For one, it is a permanent addition to your home. Because of this, you can rest more easily in the event of a power outage since these generators kick on and off automatically without any additional setup. Diesel standby generators have large fuel tanks that can run for days and standby generators hooked up to a gas line can run indefinitely. The automatic transfer switch ensures that the generator kicks on safely and can safely disconnect when power is restored so as not to feed electricity back into the main power grid which can lead to fires and which can create a lot of hazards for utility workers. They are safer than portable generators and usually run much quieter as well. They are weatherproof, run themselves automatically, and do not need to be stored when not in use.


The biggest con of standby generators is their initial cost. Standby generators are expensive running $10,000 or more just to install. They are also more costly to repair and maintain. Fuel storage is limited if they run on diesel and will have to be refilled to continually run. Another consideration for standby generators that run on natural gas is the possibility of main gas lines being shut off in the event of a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado. This prevents fires and explosions from happening in the event of natural disasters, but would also affect your generator’s ability to run.

How to Know Which Choice is Right for You

So how do you decide what kind of generator is best for your needs? First, you will need to weigh the overall cost and what makes the most sense for you from a money standpoint. If you can afford it, a standby generator is almost always going to be the better choice due to its efficiency, dependability, and convenience. If you live somewhere where power outages are common or have a long duration, it may well be worth the investment to install a standby generator.

However, if you don’t anticipate needing a generator that often, if you live somewhere with a temperate climate, with few natural disasters, it may make more sense to get a portable generator for the rare emergency. For example, the need for generators in Canada is quite common, especially in the winter. However in mild climates in the midwest US, where weather is mild and natural disasters few, a portable generator should more than suffice.

Final Thoughts

Having a generator on hand, whether it is portable or a standby generator can help give you a lot of peace of mind. It ensures that you can relax in safety and comfort while you wait, maybe even for days or weeks, for power to the main grid to be restored. Whether you have a portable or standby generator always be sure to practice safety first. Have your generator’s maintenance done regularly to ensure that your generator will run dependably when you need it most. You can rest easy knowing that should the power be cut off unexpectedly that you have a way to keep your house running smoothly.

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