Person operating a yellow portable gasoline generator.
Potashev Aleksandr/

With frequent blackouts in the news, you may be tempted to buy or use a portable gasoline generator to power your computer and electronics. While that’s not inherently a bad idea, you can’t just use any generator and call it a day. Here’s why.

Why a Gas Generator Is a Problem for Electronics

A gas-powered generator makes AC (Alternating Current) power using an internal combustion engine and a device known as an alternator. An alternator is essentially an electric motor in reverse. The engine in the generator spins a magnet that induces an alternating electric current, which you can tap from the generator’s outlet.

An exploded view of a car's alternator.

This is exactly how mains electricity is generated, except the power for those massive alternators comes from steam, most likely generated by coal, nuclear fission, natural gas, or diesel fuel. Unlike a small gas generator, your mains power comes from multiple generators, all feeding into the grid. The quality of the power that comes from your outlets is carefully regulated, and multiple generators can fail without issues on the consumer end of the process.

In contrast, any fluctuations in a gasoline generator can manifest as power dips and surges. If the generator runs out of fuel or starts up, it can cause havoc with any sensitive electronics that are attached to it.

Portable generator power can also exhibit an issue known as harmonic distortion. This is the distortion of the smooth sine wave of AC power, usually due to a nonlinear (i.e. fluctuating) load. If there’s too much harmonic distortion, that can fry sensitive electronics.

For these reasons, you should think twice before connecting an electronic device like a computer to a gas generator unless you’re sure that particular generator is approved for that purpose.

Only Use Generators Rated for Electronics

The cheapest generators are most likely to lack adequate protection for sensitive electronics and should be used with appliances that aren’t as sensitive to “dirty” power. Your vacuum cleaner or power tools will probably be just fine!

Westinghouse WH2200iXLT

With a THD under 3 percent, the WH2200iXLT is safe to use with electronics such as computers. You can combine two units in parallel if you need even more power, and 1.3 gallons of fuel can last up to 13 hours.

If you want to use a gasoline generator with your computer or other sensitive electronics, it needs two things listed in the spec sheet.

First, the THD or total harmonic distortionmust be less than 5%. Anything above that isn’t suitable for electronics and should be avoided. Second, it should have built-in protection features for electronics. At the very least it must have surge protection to prevent excess voltage entering your computer and leaving it as a puff of blue smoke.

Use a Buffer Device Between Your Computer and the Generator

If you’re using a desktop computer, it’s a good idea to use a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) device between your PC and the generator. This gives you the time to refuel the generator or safely shut down your computer if it stops providing power for another reason. If you’re using a laptop, then you essentially have a UPS built into your computer, and it’s not an issue.

You should also be using a surge protector on grid power since, in rare cases, they can also exhibit power fluctuations that can damage electronics, especially with blackouts when the power goes out or comes back on. Using a UPS and surge protector (a UPS usually has surge protection built-in) is good practice, even if you don’t expect regular blackouts.

Consider a Battery Power Station

If you’re in the market for a backup power solution, it may be better to go for a modern lithium battery power station.

These devices charge from grid power while the power is on and then provide AC power to get you through until the blackout is over. Unfortunately, you can’t refuel them like a gasoline generator, but most better models let you connect a compatible solar panel for off-grid charging.

Portable Power Station

Jackery Explorer 240

You can power your smartphone, tablet, laptop, and most other electronic devices with the Jackery Explorer 240.

These devices make almost no noise, have low harmonic distortion, and offer direct DC power. When powering electronics, you don’t waste power converting from DC to AC and back to DC. Some can also act as a UPS, so you can leave them plugged in permanently in case of blackouts.

Once you’re plugged in, learn how to optimize your TV for use with a limited power supply.

RELATED: How to Make Your TV Last Longer on Backup Power

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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