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Guide to Choosing the Right Commercial Generator

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The right commercial generator can be a major asset to any business. A generator can provide the electricity you need to keep the lights on, power industrial machinery, and more — even when the power grid fails.

If you're shopping for a generator to power your commercial operations, we're here to help you through the process with our guide to picking a commercial generator. We'll look at some of the key factors for understanding how to buy an industrial generator so you can make an informed decision that helps you keep your operations running smoothly at all times. 

Before you start shopping, the first step is to understand your company's needs. The main consideration is what type of power you need from your generator.

How to Choose a Commercial Generator — Assessing Your Needs

Before you start shopping, the first step is to understand your company's needs. The main consideration is what type of power you need from your generator. Are you looking for a primary source of power or a backup option in case of power outages? If you want a backup option, do you need that power to kick on automatically to minimize the disruption in power? Or maybe you want some supplementary power to help you meet peak demands.

You also want to understand how much power you need to support your operations. Beyond these basic needs, you should consider what sort of setup and features you would prefer in a generator. You can learn more about the options that are available as you compare models.

Finally, you also need to consider your budget. Generators come in a wide range of price points. Keep in mind that a higher upfront price for a generator that requires less maintenance and lasts longer may give you a better return on your investment over time than one with a lower price tag.

Generator Fuel Types

Generator Fuel Types

One of the primary ways of categorizing generators is by the fuel they run on. After all, buying a commercial generator involves more than the upfront cost of the unit — it also includes the ongoing cost of fuel. Each fuel type comes with its own advantages and potential disadvantages. Let's take a look at five different types of generators so you can be one step closer to choosing the right commercial generator for your needs.

1. Diesel

Diesel is an especially popular option for commercial generators. While the price of diesel is generally higher than natural gas or gasoline, diesel offers exceptional fuel efficiency. In other words, you can expect a diesel generator to run longer and generate more electricity than another generator could using the same amount of alternative fuel. Diesel generators are also valued for their ability to fire up quickly, provide dependable performance and offer high power outputs. 

Some companies may forego diesel generators because of the emissions they produce. Diesel generators can also struggle in extreme temperatures. However, diesel generators are reliable and efficient overall, making them a great option to consider.

2. Natural Gas

Natural gas has more recently become a popular option for powering generators. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the availability of natural gas is even more reliable than diesel fuel. Plus, the price tends to fluctuate far less than diesel and gasoline prices. Natural gas is also a more eco-friendly option since it burns cleaner than diesel. Unlike diesel and gasoline, natural gas is not a fuel you store on-site. Instead, you need to hook into a natural gas line.

If your company doesn't have easy access to a natural gas line, it could be a possible downside to owning a natural gas generator. Another downside is that these generators can take a bit longer to start up. If you're using your generator for standby power, this can mean a short gap between losing power and regaining power from your generator.

3. Gasoline

Gasoline generators are another popular option. Similar to natural gas, gasoline prices tend to be lower than diesel, which can be appealing. Gasoline is also relatively clean burning and offers good fuel economy. Gas-powered generators can operate well in extreme temperatures.

While gasoline generators offer some advantages, they may not offer the power output you need for commercial applications. Additionally, gasoline prices have been known to fluctuate dramatically at times. For this reason, you may opt to stock up on gasoline when prices are low. This can be a good strategy, but gasoline is highly flammable, so you must store it carefully. Gasoline also has a limited shelf life, even if you store it properly and use additives.

4. Propane

A less common fuel option for generators is propane. Typically, propane generators are small, so you aren't likely to find propane options when buying a commercial generator. Propane has an unlimited shelf life and is relatively clean burning. Plus, propane generators tend to run quietly. 

Why is propane not a popular option for industrial generators? The answer mainly comes down to cost. Propane is more costly than other fuel options, and it's not as energy efficient as diesel. This poses more of a problem if you're using a generator to meet ongoing needs for electricity rather than using it on occasion when your primary source of power fails.

5. Dual Fuel

Some generators are designed to run on two types of fuel. The two types could be diesel and natural gas or gasoline and propane, for example. The generator will use one fuel type, and if that fuel runs out, it will begin using the other fuel so the generator can stay on. These generators can give you more flexibility since you can choose the fuel type that's more affordable or accessible at a given time. 

These generators can be appealing for their flexibility, but they aren't as common as generators designed specifically for one fuel type. Some prominent generator manufacturers don't produce dual fuel generators.

Generator Sizing

If you know what type of generator you want, your next question is likely, "What size commercial generator do I need?" Let's look at how to size a commercial generator. The word "size" may make you think of the physical footprint of a generator. While physical size is a factor that will matter to some companies with limited space, generally, generator sizing refers to a generator's output. You want to choose a generator that produces the right amount of electrical power to meet your needs. 

There are a few terms related to sizing that are helpful to understand as you compare generators:

  • Maximum power: Generators are capable of a certain maximum power output. It's important to understand the difference in this number and the rated power, which we'll look at next. The key thing to note here is that you should not plan on operating a generator at its maximum power output long term. A generator can only generate that much power for short periods of time when needed. 
  • Rated power: A generator's rated power will be a bit lower than the maximum power output. This rating is also called the "constant load" or "continuous load." It's the amount of power you can actually count on your generator to produce over long periods of time, so it's the better number to pay attention to compared to maximum power.
  • Wattage: Whether maximum or rated power, a generator's output is measured in watts. Manufacturers multiply the generator's voltage by its load capacity in amperage to determine its wattage. In other words, volts multiplied by amps equals watts. The devices you power should indicate on the packaging or in the owner's manual how many watts of electricity they need to operate.
  • Single-phase system: All generators produce electrical power in waves. Single-phase systems produce one wave at a time. The wave swells to peak power and then falls down to zero before starting again. In reality, these dips in power happen so rapidly that they are virtually undetectable. However, single-phase systems are limited in the amount of power they can provide, which makes them less common options for commercial generators.
  • Three-phase system: With a three-phase system, you get a more consistent stream of power because there are three waves going at once. When one wave is falling, another is at its peak, so you never experience a dip in power. These systems are more complex and are capable of a higher power output. Most businesses will need a three-phase system for commercial applications.

So, how can you know how to size a generator for your industrial facility? One method is to create a detailed list of all the devices you need to power along with the starting wattage and running wattage each device requires. Then, you can add these devices' power needs together to determine how much electricity you need for your operations. 

An easier option if you've already been operating in your facility for some time is to look at your past electric bills. Look at bills from the past 12 months, if you can. See if the utility company notes your peak demand, measured in watts, on each month's bill. Find the month with the highest peak demand and use this as an indicator of your power needs. 

It's smart to get a generator that can handle a bit more than your peak demand or the total you came up with so you have some leeway in case your power demands increase.

Stationary vs. Mobile Setups

As we discussed earlier, buying an industrial generator starts with assessing your needs. Do you plan to use the generator for backup power or as a constant power supply? The answer to this question can help you determine whether to choose a stationary generator or a portable one.

If you have a generator on-hand to provide power in emergency situations when your main power source fails, you may be able to get by with a mobile setup. However, even if you're using a generator for standby power, you may still want to choose a stationary generator so it can remain at the ready and automatically switch on as soon as you need it. 

Control Systems and Features

Choosing the right industrial generator also comes down to understanding the specific features you want. There are plenty of features that can distinguish one generator from another, even if they share the same power capacity and fuel type. Various types of control systems, digital features and more can add selling points for different generator brands and models.

For example, some generators allow you to start them remotely. You can also look for generators with remote monitoring, where you can track your generator's performance through software online or through an app and receive notifications when the fuel gets low or there is an issue. You can also look for a generator with an LCD or LED display with a navigable menu or one with an automatic shut-off safety feature.

If there are certain features you're looking for, keep these in mind when picking a commercial generator. 

Sound Levels: For commercial facilities that want to keep noise levels down, a generator stationed outside may not cause much disturbance inside.

Sound Levels

Another factor to consider when you're comparing generators is how noisy they are. Industrial facilities can be noisy places anyway, so it may seem inconsequential if you're getting a generator for your manufacturing facility. For commercial facilities that want to keep noise levels down, a generator stationed outside may not cause much disturbance inside.

However, some facilities may have noise ordinances to contend with. If you're located within a jurisdiction where there are limits on the noise you can legally produce, you'll need to make sure you choose a generator that won't exceed these limits. Fortunately, there are generator models that offer quieter operation.

New, Used and Rental Options

When you start shopping for a generator, you'll find you can buy new or used models, or you can rent generators to meet a temporary need. Even if you're planning to purchase a generator, renting at first can be a good idea so you can test out a particular model and see how you like it before making a purchase.

If you plan to use a generator long term or want to have one hooked up at all times for standby power, you should purchase a model that meets your needs. Recent models may come with better fuel efficiency and more state-of-the-art features than older models, but you may be able to purchase a used generator that is a fairly recent model. Buying a used generator can save you money if you're working within a tight budget. Many companies prefer to purchase a new generator, however, if their budget allows.

Choose Generators From Holt of California

Choose Generators From Holt of California

Hopefully, you have a more solid understanding of how to buy a commercial generator that will deliver on your needs and expectations. At Holt of California, we carry a wide selection of Cat® power systems to help businesses like yours power operations and avoid downtime in a blackout. Caterpillar designs and manufactures generators that can perform consistently in heavy-duty applications. 

We also offer used and rental options for power systems, and our team can even configure a custom solution to meet your specific needs. Contact us online or call 800-452-5888 to speak to our knowledgeable staff today.