Chicago Electric 800 Watt Portable Generator
This is my review of the Harbor Freight/Chicago Electric Model 66619 800 Rated Watts/900 Maximum Watts Portable Generator.
My latest Harbor Freight adventure began while preparing for my semi-regular trip to an IndyCar race – usually at the Mid Ohio Sports Car Course for the Honda Indy 200. This year we decided to rent an RV and camp at the track. Mid Ohio’s campground has no hookups or “shore power” so it’s batteries and generators to run whatever you need. And since this event takes place in August, in the middle of a cornfield, in Ohio, during one of the hottest summers on record, air conditioning is one of the things I would like to run. Take a look at the Google Maps satellite of the track. Do you see much shade?
The RV comes with a 4 KW generator, which I am sure we will use to keep the batteries topped up when we can, but the rental company also charges $2 per hour that the generator runs. So, other than running the big generator to run the A/C when we need to cool off the RV we were looking for something else to run a small refrigerator or some lights, etc. The Harbor Freight daily coupons hit my inbox just in time …
This is important to know – I am absolutely, positively, NOT looking for a backup power supply for my home. I have a wonderful 12 KW Kohler standby generator, thank you very much. So I am not looking for something to run full-size refrigerators, air conditioners, etc. You might get lucky with one of these, but I would never trust anything critical, like backup power, to a Harbor Freight tool. What I wanted was something easily portable that could run a few small appliances or lights or tools when I needed them, relatively quietly. That’s all. Other than this trip I will probably start and use this thing once a year when I have a need to run a cutoff saw or angle grinder somewhere that I don’t have power.
So here is a picture of my new generator in my driveway. Actually, this is my second new generator in my driveway. Yup – the Harbor Freight odds caught up with me and the first one I bought seized up completely after only 7 minutes of running.
I’ll spare you any more suspense if you’ve read this far. Based on my first couple of days with this generator, my guess is that if you get one that works, it’ll be a decent 800 watt generator for a couple of years. But like all things Harbor Freight, the chances of getting a decent one are probably no better than 1 in 3.
The One That Died
So I take my e-mail coupons and head to the Harbor Freight store today and picked up a few things in addition to the generator. When I get home, I figured I’d let the new generator run for a bit in the driveway while I unpack all the other stuff. I open the box, unpack the thing, install the handle, check the spark plug, and fill it with 2-cycle premix. The same stuff I use for my Stihl chainsaw and RedMax blower. I point that out so you don’t think I was using some cheap-ass 2-stroke oil.
Following the directions in the manual, I turn on the gas valve, turn on the run switch, close the choke, and yank the starter cord. It fired on the third pull. That was a good sign. I let it idle for about 3 minutes, because that’s what the book said to do. Then to give it a moderate load I plugged in one of my 250 Watt halogen work lamps. The generator sputtered for a split second as it adjusted to the load, but ran fine after that. For another 4 minutes (I was watching the clock). Then it started to sound – well – not right. Like the load was increasing. I was about 25 feet away at this point, and as I walked over to it, it just ground to a halt. A little smoke was coming from under the covers, but I figured that was the usual high-quality Harbor Freight uncured paint and manufacturing grease burning off. But I still feared the worst. And soon my fears were confirmed. I unplugged the load, reached for the starter handle and gently pulled. Sure enough it was seized tight. So … after 30 minutes to cool down, I dumped the remaining fuel in a bucket, put it back in its box (minus the packing Styrofoam), and headed back to the store. It had been such a short time that the same cashier was still at the register and she recognized me.
As always (because it happens so often) they were happy to exchange it for a new one, and I was willing to take a chance on another one. The second time seems to be much better…
The One That Works
I followed a slightly different procedure for number two, and things worked out much better. When I unpacked it, I pulled the spark plug and poured a touch of 2-stroke oil right into the cylinder. I figured that they might be assembled totally dry and this might have contributed to my previous failure. This one also started on the third pull, and once idling, I noticed that this one seemed to idle at a lower speed, which makes me think the first one had a problem with the governor, in addition to whatever caused it to seize. I’ve seen a couple of comments about the governor in the reviews of this thing online.
After letting it warm up I plugged in my 250 W worklight and things ran fine for 30 minutes. Then I tried a 500 W halogen light that I have. It seemed to do fine. After letting it run another hour or so total I shut it down and packed it away.
One of the main concerns people have with generators is noise. If you intend to use this for camping this can be a major issue. I’m not so concerned, because I will be camping at a race track. Where loud race cars will be running all day. Of course this won’t be running at night during quiet hours, but with 600 horsepower (+/-) turbocharged cars flying around the track during practice and qualifying, along with ALMS cars, Formula 1000, USF2000, and Pirelli World Challenge cars all sharing the weekend, I doubt people will notice this running during the day as we top up batteries.
But – just because I am curious, I measured the sound using a sound level meter on my Android phone. I figure that the app is probably reasonably accurate assuming you stay under a level that the phone’s microphone can handle. Anyway, here’s what I ended up measuring.
|3 ft.||92 dB||This is somewhere between truck traffic and a jackhammer 50′ away. At this level, damage to hearing may result after prolonged exposure.|
|25 ft.||65 dB||This is roughly the intensity of normal conversation heard from 3′ away.|
|50 ft.||45 dB||This is mid way between a whisper and normal conversation heard from several feet away.|
What does this tell us? That this isn’t the quietest generator on the market by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not that bad.
There are some comparison videos on YouTube where a jackass insists on comparing this generator to one of the Honda inverter generators. Like this one:
What a surprise: a cheap piece of imported Chinese junk is louder and less sophisticated than something that costs 10 times as much. I’m glad people like this are around to point these things out. Here are some similarly important revelations:
- A $15,000 Toyota Matrix is slower than a $150,000 Porche 911 Carrera GT3
- A $120 Wal-Mart electric guitar sounds worse than a $1200 Fender Stratocaster
- A $400 Victorinox Swiss Army Watch isn’t as waterproof as a $4000 Rolex
Now you know. And you’re a better person for it.
Why Did I Buy This?
I do buy a lot of Harbor Freight tools. And I’ve found a few real bargains among a lot of just so-so stuff and a few true pieces of shit. As I said, I wasn’t looking for backup power for my home; I have that covered. What I wanted was something cheap to make a few things a little more convenient. Like when I need an angle grinder somewhere that’s a few hundred feet from my house. Or when I want to have a decently bright work light somewhere there isn’t an outlet. Or if I want to run my electric chainsaw chain sharpener out in the woods when I’m cutting trees. Or if I need something to run for a few hours to recharge cellphone batteries away from home. Or, and I WILL try this, if I need something to run a Bradley electric smoker when there isn’t an outlet around. Like at a racetrack. So we can let some ribs smoke for 5 or 6 hours while we watch the race (and top up the gas tank periodically).
I don’t intend to use this to run sensitive equipment like a computer. True sine-wave/inverter generators are much better at this, although this isn’t so much a problem in the age of laptops, since most portable computers now have power bricks and batteries that effectively isolate the computer from the dirty power. Most modern laptops (and other equipment) are built with power bricks that are designed for worldwide use with a variety of voltages and frequencies. The Dell laptop I am working on now has a power brick that says for input power: 100-240V 50/60Hz. So I have no qualms about using this little generator to charge it. In fact, that is a great use for this thing – I’m sure it will get a workout charging 4 people’s cellphones and a variety of other devices while at the race.
One useful YouTube video I found showed someone testing the output voltage and frequency of one of these generators with a varying load. It stayed within spec through the 800 Watt range, so I am impressed.
After I saw that this little generator had 323 reviews online, with most being positive, I figured I’d give it a chance. I’ll let you know how it goes at the race.