Generators are one of the most critical appliances you have in your home, and there are various types of generators to choose from. Electrical failures can happen at any time due to several reasons, including load shedding, natural disasters, infrastructure breakdowns, and system failures. Without knowing what types of generators are out there, you can easily buy the wrong machine to suit your needs, and you’ll go without if the time ever comes.
In this post, we’ll talk about what a generator is, the 12 most popular types of generators, how to use them, and a brief history. This way, you can browse through the various types of generators to narrow down your choice to the one that is going to serve your needs the best, should you ever need one.
Generators come in a huge range of sizes, shapes, and power levels, and this is why doing your research when you shop is critical to getting the correct type of generator for your needs.
Defining a Generator
Generators provide you with electrical power by working to convert mechanical energy, and they get used in an external circuit. Different mechanical energy sources like steam turbines, wind turbines, gas turbines, and internal combustion engines are critical in viding a source for this conversion to happen. There are many types of generators on the market, and each gets tailored to match a specific need.
The modern-day or present generator has roots dating back hundreds of years, and the original design came about in 1831 by Michael Faraday. He was a British scientist, physicist, and chemist. The thing he used was very simple in the design, and it has a coil of wire, bar magnet, and a tube that he made out of a neutral material.
Michael Faraday connected the equipment he designed and built to a galvanometer, and this helped to detect electrical currents. Once the physicist and scientist attached the galvanometer to the crude generator, he noticed that each time he moved the magnet back and forth through the wire coil, the galvometer’s needle would move with it. It moved even when he had the magnet stationary in place.
This key observation led him to believe that there was an electrical current flowing through the coil of wire. A few years later, after he came to this conclusion, he invented what was known as the Faraday Disc. This was considered to be the very first electromagnetic generator.
Soon after this invention, a lot of other scientists followed suit and they built various electrical devices that ran on electrical power and remained useful in times of power outages. During the 1980s, General Electric and several other companies popped up, and they were at the front of generator production, design, and manufacturing. Today, many of these companies still exist and are producing different types of generators.
12 Different Types of Generators
No matter if you need a temporary fix for a power failure or you want backup power for an entire company, there is a generator suitable for your specific want, need, and power level.
Even though there are many types of generators available, some are much more commonly used in residential applications than others.
Generators by Application
First, we’re going to go over types of generators by application. This will give you a good idea from the start whether or not this one will be a good fit for your intended needs. You may need something more powerful than a specific generator can offer, and this is why it’s essential that you know what’s available on the market.
Induction types of generators have two types, including self-excited generators and externally-excited generators. Externally excited generators are popular for use with regenerative braking applications that cranes, hoists, electrical locomotives, and elevators all rely on. Self-excited generators are popular for use in windmills to help convert the non-traditional source of energy, wind, into electrical power.
Compact and lightweight, this type of generator technically falls into the portable generator family. However, they get a category of their own. Powering electronics using any type of generator can be tricky, but this is where inverter generators shine. They do have dozens of applications, but they’re extremely useful for microwaves, computers, cell phones, and any other sensitive electronic equipment that need certain values when it comes to frequencies and voltages.
But, how does this type of generator work? The mechanics are different from other portable generators, and this is why it doesn’t fit into the portable category. In terms of currents, the power the engine puts out is a high-frequency AC. The alternator takes it and converts it to DC, and this generator comes with an inverter that converts the current back to AC too.
These extra steps the generator takes to product electricity, and the fact that it uses an initial high frequency AC, means that the end current is much more stable, and you get less harmonic distortion. So, the electricity you get is on par with what you get from a traditional electric supplier. They also work very quickly, and this makes them very energy-efficient while it works to adjust the voltage to exactly what the connected load requires, no less and no more.
This is a very popular type of generator to have around the home, but you can also purchase industrial-grade inverter generators to use on construction sites or in more demanding environments.
This type of generator uses diesel or gas as the fuel source. Just like the standby type of generator, this one has a combustion engine to help it produce electricity. They’re a nice pick if you need temporary electrical power or for use in more remote sites for powering lights and tools. They can get wired to a sub-panel for residential uses to power a television or refrigerator, so you can use them by plugging your electrical appliances into the portable generator’s power sockets.
Portable generators are very useful for several different applications. They come in a range of power configurations that are suitable for different uses. They’re nice to have on-hand for natural disasters or should the power grid break down. They are more suited for residential use and smaller commercial buildings like shops or retail outlets, camping, on construction sites to power hand tools, outdoor events, weddings, or to power agricultural equipment like drip irrigation systems or bore wells.
If you’re looking for different types of generators that work well for your home or office, consider this one. They are not only great for helping to provide temporary electricity, but they also work well without breaking the bank. However, keep in mind that you can’t install this type of generator inside a garage or home. They also need to be protected from diverse weather conditions.
This is one of the most popular types of generators on the market today, and they are also called backup generators. They are usually considered to be an emergency source of power, and they can use diesel or gas as the fuel source. They will work for up to 48 hours due to the larger external tank. When there is a power outbreak, the generators will activate the automatic transfer switch to power up the device.
The internal combustion engine it uses, combined with the automatic operation, and the ability to deliver permanent power protection make them one of the most popular types on the market. Only a few seconds after the power goes out, they will kick on and start supplying electricity to you. This makes them a great choice for medical support equipment and for use in hospitals. It’s also a very common pick for hotels, residential apartments, hospitals, and commercial establishments that connect to grid power. However, this all comes at a price as these generators are not only very expensive, but they also require regular maintenance.
Generators by Energy Source
Common energy sources for different types of generators are either a fossil fuel that gets combusted in an engine to create a rotary motion inside the generator, or a natural energy source that gets captured and turned into motion.
Using clean energy sources to power your generators is a very common want for many people, especially those that are eco-friendly.
Fossil-Fuel Energy Source Generators
There are a few types of generators that use fossil fuel as the main energy source. They include but are not limited to:
Biodiesel fuel is made by mixing a biological source like animal fat or vegetable oil with diesel fuel. The benefits and drawbacks of this fuel type are very similar to the same ones you’d get with traditional diesel fuel, but it does offer more environmental benefits. Biodiesel uses much less non-renewable energy sources, and it burns with much lower emissions and produces less energy waste.
This makes it a very environmentally-friendly option when you compare it to traditional diesel fuel. All diesel fuels are less flammable than other gasses and liquids on the list, but it is also much noisier. Like diesel options, biodiesel will last for two years or less in storage, and it can be unavailable during a power outage since you can’t pump it.
Diesel Fuel Generators
Diesel is the least flammable option of all of the fuel sources available, and it’s almost as easy to get as gasoline is. These engines come with a longer lifespan and perform much more efficiently while lasting longer with rigorous, heavy usage as long as you maintain them correctly. This generator is a very affordable choice to operate, and it starts easier in cold conditions. So, you can use them in the dead of winter too!
However, diesel will only last 24 months in storage, and storing bigger quantities of it can be expensive. Like gas, it can be impossible to pump diesel during a power outage. Because the emissions from diesel engines are higher, some areas have a limit on the number of hours you can run them per day to help avoid environmental problems. It’s also not advised to use this type of generator in wet conditions because should the moisture manage to get into the fuel, it can damage the engine.
Emulsified Diesel Generators
Emulsified diesel is a mixture of water and diesel fuel with a mixing agent blended in. It shares the benefits and drawbacks of biodiesel and diesel fuels. As with biodiesel, this one produces fewer emissions than full diesel, and it needs fewer fossil fuels as it burns. It has a two-year shelf life, and keeping the correct ratio of water to diesel can be challenging in hectic work areas.
Out of every option on the list, gasoline types of generators are the most common, and this is due to the fact that gasoline is so readily available that the prices are much lower on the cost scale. However, you usually can’t get gasoline during power outages because it needs electricity to pump it. You can get gasoline types of generators in smaller sizes, and this is ideal for portable models, but it’s highly flammable. You can use them for commercial or residential uses. However, if you want to keep them in your office or home, make note that they are loud and can produce noises that can disturb you in the long run.
Gasoline also lasts less than a year stored, and gas prices can be comparatively higher than diesel, natural gas, or propane. They also produce slightly higher emissions, have a shorter lifespan than other types of generators on the list, and they don’t start very well in colder planting zones.
Natural Energy Source Generators
Finally, there are other types of generators available on the market that use natural energy sources to power them. They include:
Natural energy sources are popular for more short-term use when it comes to generators in some instances. However, hydrogen is very popular in industrial applications due to the constant supply of power.
Hydrogen is very abundant, clean, non-toxic, and it produces more energy per pound than any other fuel source out there. It’s not nearly as readily available as some other generator types, but hydrogen generators tend to be portable and useful in a variety of different environments, including labs. When they get equipped with the proper safety features, they are portable and safe.
Natural Gas Generators
Natural gas is readily available in almost every area, and the newer shale reserved fracking techniques opened mean you have a limitless supply. Since natural gas lines run to the operation site, these generators will never run out of fuel or need to be refilled, no matter how much you use them. However, this also means that the generators aren’t portable.
Natural gas types of generators burn very cleanly with little waste products. The gas is also readily available, even without a power supply like electricity. These are also affordable units when you compare them to other options. Natural gas runs quietly, and it starts well in colder temperatures. However, even though they’re inexpensive, they come with very high installation costs since they have to connect to running gas lines. They also don’t last as long as diesel generators.
Propane Gas Generators
Propane has a longer shelf life than diesel or gasoline, and it burns much cleaner. It’s easy for you to store in any quantity, and it’s readily available at all times, even during power outages. Propane also produces lower emissions, and it doesn’t have an issue with wet stacking that is common in diesel types of generators. This is usually a very affordable and long-lasting choice. Propane will also start very easily in colder temperatures, and it runs quietly.
As a drawback, propane gets kept under pressure and it’s very flammable, and it can explode. Propane generators are much more expensive to buy and run, and they will burn roughly three times the amount of fuel as diesel engines do.
Solar generators harness the sun’s energy as the fuel source. They use solar panels to help capture the energy from the sun and charge the battery in the generator. This charge then gets used to produce electricity, which is the generator’s final goal. It also has an inverter to change the power to an alternating current since many appliances require AC. These types of generators are great for lower electrical needs. Plus, they run very quietly. One of the drawbacks of this type of generator is that it’s more expensive, and they run very slowly when they charge the batteries.
10 Important Generator Parts
Now that you know 12 popular types of generators, it’s important that you know the most important parts to maintain to keep your generator running in top shape. The biggest parts include:
The alternator is the part of the generator that is responsible for creating power output. This is where the concept of electromagnetic induction comes in. An alternator has several complex components in it, but the rotor is one of the most critical ones. This is the shaft that rotates and mechanical energy drives it that the engine supplies. There are several permanent magnets fixed around this shaft, and it works to create a magnetic field.
This magnetic field will rotate around another part on a continuous basis called the stator. Simply put, this part is a variation of different electrical conductors that get tightly wound over an iron core. This is where it gets more scientific. If the electrical conductor stays stationary and a magnetic field moves around it, it induces an electrical current, according to the principle of electromagnetic induction.
In short, your alternator is responsible for taking mechanical energy that the engine creates and using it to drive the rotor to create the magnetic field that moves around the starter. In turn, this generates the alternating current.
The battery in different types of generators is a storage device for the energy that battery chargers supply. It stores the energy by converting the electrical energy into chemical energy and then into electrical energy. It lends power to the generator’s cranking motor to start the engine. It also gives the extra power that is needed when the electrical load is higher than the supply from the charging system. It acts like a voltage stabilizer inside the electrical system, and it does this by evening out the voltage spikes and stopping them from damaging other parts of the electrical system.
As the name suggests, this is where you operate and control the generator from. When you have an electrical start generator, you’ll find a range of controls that allow you to check specific figures or do a variety of things. It could include anything from a frequency switch or start button to an engine fuel conductor or a coolant temperature indicator.
Your cooling system prevents that generator from overheating as it runs. There is coolant the generator releases that counters all of the heat energy the alternator and engine produce. The coolant then takes this heat and runs it through a heat exchanger and gets rid of it outside of the generator.
Every machine has an engine, and this engine converts whatever fuel source it uses into usable energy and allows the machine to perform the mechanical function or move. For this reason, the engine is referred to as the machine’s prime mover. In any type of generator, the engine uses the fuel source, be it natural gas, diesel, gasoline, bio-diesel, propane, sewage gas, water, or hydrogen, to create mechanical energy the generator then converts to electricity. Each engine design for the generator works to create the maximum supply of electrical current by running a specific fuel. Some engines commonly used for generators include steam, reciprocating, microturbines, and turbine engines.
The engine is arguably one of the most important pieces of your generator, and you want to keep it in good shape to ensure your generator has a smooth operation each time you fire it up.
The exhaust system works to collect the hot gasses the combustion generates and routes them out of the system. Besides, it also helps to reduce how much noise the high-speed flow of these gasses produce. The air intake system works in conjunction with the exhaust system to pull fresh air through the filter system into the cylinders in turbocharged engines.
Any type of generator that runs on fuel will have a system that stores and pumps it to the engine. This is how lawn mowers work too. The tank works to store enough fuel to power the generator for a set number of hours. The fuel pipe connects the tank to the engine, and there is a return pipe that connects the engine to the fuel tank to return the fuel. The fuel pump will move the fuel from the tank through the pipe into the engine. A fuel filter will remove any debris from the fuel before it goes to the engine. There is also a fuel injector that atomizes the fuel and injects it right into the combustion chamber in your engine.
This generator part attaches right to the engine. It pumps the oil through the engine to help minimize the effects of the metal to metal contact that causes both rolling and sliding types of friction, and it also absorbs a great amount of heat to get a smooth performance level while maximizing the generator’s life. Functionally, the biggest thing this part does it to supply the clean lubrication oil under the required pressure and circulate it inside of the engine.
Main Assembly Frame
Every generator has to have a containment system, and this is what the main assembly frame does. It will house the generator, and this is where all of the different parts get housed too. It keeps everything together, and it can have a closed or open design for added soundproofing and protection. Outdoor types of generators usually get housed in a protective frame that is waterproof to prevent damage.
This is the most complex part of any type of generator. As the name suggests, it will regulate the voltage output. Since this is a complex topic that could take a whole post to adequately explain, we’ll break it down. In simple terms, this part ensures that your generator produces electricity at a steady voltage rate. Without it, you would see huge fluctuations that depended on how fast your engine was working. Every piece of electrical equipment you use couldn’t handle these wild fluctuations without damage, so this part ensures everything stays even.
Common Generator Maintenance
No matter what type of generator you have, there will be some maintenance involved to keep it running. However, every type of generator has a specific maintenance schedule to follow. Typical maintenance across the board usually includes inspecting it to check for possible leaks, checking the battery, terminals, cables, and looking at the oil and coolant levels. Standard maintenance for your generator usually includes:
- Very thoroughly inspecting the cooling system, and this includes keeping an eye on your coolant levels and topping them up as needed.
- Annual filtering and cleaning. You do this because you use your generator every other day, so you need to clean out any clogged fuel lines or filters.
- Check your battery power every now and then since the biggest reason generators malfunction usually ties to battery issues.
- Test the generator periodically to get to understand the battery status, the gravity of your batteries, and their general electrolyte levels.
You now know 12 popular types of generators, what to use them for, maintenance steps, and the most important parts of the machine. You can take this guide to shop for generators with confidence that you’ll pick out the best option to suit your wants and needs so it’s ready to go whenever the power goes out.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.