These pricey battery-powered devices are the only type of generator that can be used indoors safely
Since generators emit carbon monoxide, they require that you take critical safety measures, including running the device outside, at least 20 feet away from any structure.
But in an age when we can charge our smartphones with a battery pack that fits inside a pants pocket, shouldn't there be a simpler way to restore power in the wake of a storm? Or, say, power a campsite without the constant hum of a gas-fueled generator?
Such is the promise of portable power stations, also known as battery-powered inverter generators. Essentially, they're oversized rechargeable batteries—about the size of a countertop microwave oven—that you plug into a typical 110-volt outlet to top off.
When duty calls, you can safely run a portable power station inside, since it doesn't generate any emissions. They have enough capacity to power a few small appliances for a short time. With a host of different outlets (standard 120v outlets, USB ports, and DC chargers), you can use the station to charge electronics, too. And the units often come with portable solar panels, to add more charging capabilities and extend runtime.
“These generators have no fumes and all of the models we tested made virtually no noise,” says test engineer Dave Trezza, who oversees generator testing at Consumer Reports. “But, if these power stations go dead and you’re unable to use your solar panels, you can’t recharge them. You can’t just use another gallon of gas.”
We see models from brands, including Goal Zero, Humless, K2, and Kohler in our portable power station ratings. Some companies, like Goal Zero, market these portable power stations as perfect for apartment preparedness during storms (as opposed to single-family homes with a yard that can accommodate a generator).
How We Test Portable Power Stations
In our labs, CR test engineers evaluate five key measures to rate portable outdoor power stations: runtime, power delivery, power quality, ease of use, and noise.
To test runtime, we run a constant 300-watt load to simulate powering a TV and a few lights. We also hook each battery up to a side-by-side refrigerator to see how long it lasts. The best model in our tests powered the fridge for 44 hours on one charge (the worst only managed for 13 hours). For power delivery, or how well a model can maintain voltage when tasked with different loads, we use a variety of devices, including a 1⁄2-horsepower submersible pump and a 10,000-BTU air conditioners.
We also judge noise output and found that, as a category, these batteries run quietly: All the models we tested earned an Excellent score for noise.
Below, our experts share some pros and cons on using portable power stations. See how the most popular models fared in our ratings, and check our generator buying guide to compare portable power stations to other types of generators.
1. They Can’t Deliver Nearly as Much Power as Gas Generators
As with their gasoline-fueled counterparts, portable power stations require a transfer switch should you wish to power bank things such as your furnace, overhead lights, or any thing else in your home that’s hardwired.
But while a recreational inverter generator would probably keep the TV and a few lights on for 8 to 13 hours on one tank of gas, you'd see anywhere from 3 to 9 hours of power, under the same circumstances, with a portable power station.
And you won't be able to run, for instance, your power-guzzling well pump.
2. They Take Awhile to Charge
In our tests, most of these models require hours of charging (typically overnight) to provide you with a full battery and max runtime.
So—assuming you fully charged the battery before a predicted weather event—a portable power beauty device station could give you hours of electricity to run a refrigerator or another essential appliance.
But Trezza notes that once the battery is dead, if you’re without power and minimal sun, there’s no way to recharge.
3. Charging With Solar Panels Can Be Iffy and Lengthy
If you're dealing with an outage or you're otherwise off the grid, charging the power station via solar panels is your only option—and that's provided you have good sun and no obstructions.
In our tests, we found that the solar panels can add to the runtime, but that might only amount to an extra hour or two of power with larger appliances.
4. They’re Not All That Portable
Portable power stations are about the size of an average microwave oven, but they're fairly heavy—most in our tests weigh more than 80 pounds.
That means you'll likely need an extra pair of hands to lift one into the trunk of your car. Some of the models come with wheels, but not all wheels are large in size, which makes rolling them across a lawn difficult.
5. They Don’t Come Cheap
The portable power stations we tested cost between $1,500 and $3,500. And our best portable gas generator costs less than the worst portable power station.
Before buying one of these power stations, consider if you might be better served by a portable generator. In the event of a outage, you can continue to add fuel, and portable generators typically provide enough power to keep larger appliances running. Check out our buying guide on generators to learn which type might best suit your needs.
Damaging storms can happen at any time. On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, host Jack Rico learns from Consumer Reports’ expert, Paul Hope, how to avoid being left in the dark during a power outage.