There’s been quite a bit of discussion about small generators in several Usenet newsgroups of recent. These two little generators have been the focus of most of the the discussion.
At the top we have the Universal ChiCom 1000 watt 2-stroke generator, here represented the one sold by Northern tools  who supplied the photo. This generator is currently on sale for $99.95.
On bottom we have the venerable Honda EU-1000 . MSRP on this little plastic blob is $789.95 with a street price of something in the high $600 range. A third candidate is this unit:
The Yamaha EF-1000iS  with an MSRP of $689.00. The street price is considerably lower, though I don’t have any handy to quote.
All three of these units are rated at 1000 watts nominal output. That’s about all they have in common. The Honda has formed almost a cult following whose members act like scientologists – literally exploding at the mere mention of any fault or any other negative opinion. They show about as much rationality as scientologists.
I get asked the question quite often, “which small generator would you buy?” My answer is 1) not Honda because they price fix by prohibiting the advertising of prices on the internet. Dealers will not even provide prices via email. Otherwise, my answer is “It depends“.
The Yamaha is a superb little blue blob and equal to or surpasses the Honda. The ChiCom special is also a fine little unit, especially when the $100 price is figured in. The two units, however, are as different as night and day.
If your main application is casual – let’s say, a tailgate party at a football game where you run the big screen TV in the back of your pickup truck and maybe a drink blender then the Yamaha is the one for you – if you can afford it. At light load it is almost silent and barely sips gas. Because the ChiCom special is not an inverter generator, the engine has to run at a constant 3600 RPM regardless of load. It is very significantly noisier than the Yamaha at light load.
Now let’s suppose you have a big load, say, an electric chain saw or lawnmower or you’re in an emergency situation and need some heat during a blackout. Most often than not, those loads will momentarily exceed the 1000 watt rating and will cause the inverter to toss up its hands, light the red “fault” light and turn off. The generator engine must be stopped and re-started to clear the fault. The bottom line is that the load will not be operated, even though it might draw less than 1000 watts once started.
Or let’s consider the situation where you have a load that will overload the generator. Let’s say a 1400 watt heater. The Yamaha (and Honda) will not even attempt to run this load. The $100 ChiCom special will. Read on.
Last night about midnight it was 14 degrees outside and rising. I had to go outside for something and noticed the ChiCom special that I carry in the trunk of my car. Questions has arisen about the cold starting ability of the ChiCom special. I decided that a test at 14 degrees with a couple of days of cold soak when it was even colder would be a good test.
I hauled the generator up on the front porch of my cabin and sat it on a table. I needed a load for the generator and the first load that came to hand was a 1400 watt heater. Hmm, two tests in one. Cold starting and overload ability.
I turned on the gas (I always let the generator run out of gas before storage), allowed a few seconds for the float bowl to fill, held the choke fully on (it doesn’t get there in the “choke” position” and pulled. It takes awhile to coat all the internal surfaces of a 2-stroke engine with gasoline before a flammable mix can reach the combustion chamber so I was not surprised that it took 8 pulls. On that 8th pull, however, it fired right off and ran fine. I let it warm a bit and then plugged in the heater through a Kill-A-Watt power meter.
L’il Generator that Could
Here is a photo of the setup. You’ll notice that this generator is red. That’s because I bought it in the 2001 time frame from a ChiCom tool vendor at the Daytona Turkey Rod Run’s flea market. This was long before Northern Tool picked up the generator and had it painted their blue company color. the front panel trim is also slightly different. The generator itself, as verified by tear-downs, is the same as the Northern one. I paid $129 for that generator back then.
In this photo the generator is running and is powering the 1400 watt heater. Here’s a natural light photo of the setup that shows the heater in operation (and shows off the image stabilization of my nifty little Canon PowerShot A590is)
This photo was taken using only the light of two porch lights. Impressive.
Now you may ask, “How is that 1000 watt generator running a 1400 watt load?”
The answer is, “it isn’t“. If you zoom in on the photo above you’ll see that the K-A-W is reading 93 volts. The generator has loaded down until its power output matched the demand of the heater at the reduced voltage. That is the key benefit of this generator, the ability to adapt to the load. Here is the full set of data:
True, this power output is wildly out of spec and your computer or an induction motor operated appliance probably would not like it very much. BUT! For loads where the frequency and voltage don’t matter, this is the little generator that could. To summarize:
|Honda or Yamaha||No heat|
The same holds true for my chainsaw and my electric lawnmower. Though I haven’t done any detailed measurements, I can hear the engine lug down when either are started, and with the chainsaw, I can hear it lug down when I really feed the wood to the saw. BUT! Both run and run well.
The next obvious question is, “How long will the generator run overloaded like that?” The answer is “Til the gas runs out.”
During this test I ran the generator about an hour. After maybe 15 minutes the circuit breaker tripped. I let it cool a minute (simple thermal type), reset it and the generator ran the heater for another 15 minutes. I repeated this procedure for the rest of the hour. The important thing is, the generator housing remained barely warm to the touch! I didn’t have my infrared pyrometer handy so I couldn’t shoot the windings but they were obviously not overheating.
Granted, the generator was running in 14 deg air but I know from experience that even in summer heat, the generator head does not overheat. This generator is engine limited. I’ll probably bypass the circuit breaker or install a larger one, since the engine is simply incapable of overheating the windings.
Someone is bound to ask “What happens if the output is shorted?” Answer: “nothing”. Literally. The field de-excites, the output drops to zero and the engine returns to idling at 3600 RPM. When the short is removed, the generator re-excites within a second or two and the output returns to normal.
This little ChiCom rig really is the “Generator that could”. It takes just about any abuse that I toss at it and just keeps on ticking. Not bad for the cost of a nice meal at a fine restaurant. Note that Northern normally runs its price back up to $149 after Christmas. It doesn’t take too much googling to find the generator offered for $99 year round. One final note, some companies fraudulently advertise this generator as a 1200 watt unit. No way, no how, no time! It can surge that much or more momentarily, as in starting a motor but it just barely meets its legitimate 1000 watt spec. Good enough for me.