When you're buying a generator, it helps if you know some of the technicalities - otherwise there's a high chance you'll choose the wrong generator for your needs. So let's start by revealing one of the greatest mysteries of them all: the difference between single phase and three phase power.
Here it is:
"A phase is the factional part of the period of a sinusoidal wave, usually expressed in electrical degrees. A single-phase circuit is an alternating-current using only one, sine wave type, current flow. A three phase circuit consists of three different sine wave current flows, different in phase by 120 degrees from each other."
In English? Okay then...
An electrical generator converts mechanical power into a set of alternating electric currents (AC), one from each electromagnetic coil or winding of the power generator. The currents are sinusoidal functions of time, all at the same frequency but with different phases.
In a single-phase motor, the voltages of the supply all vary in unison. Whereas in a three phase system, the phases are spaced equally, giving a phase separation of 120°. In other words, the currents reach their peak in sequence, rather than at the same time. In each cycle of power frequency, first one, then the second and then the third current reaches its maximum value.
Imagine pushing a car uphill. Using a single-phase supply is like one strong man pushing the car. At some point, it will simply become too tough for one guy. But a three-phase supply is like having three equally strong men pushing the car in a relay system - one after another. Because each man is doing one third of the work, together, the three of them push the car further and they will not be as worn out.
It's no surprise, then, that three-phase power has the advantage of being more efficient than single-phase power in certain applications - especially when it comes to motors; a three-phase motor is much more powerful than its single-phase counterpart. A three-phase induction motor has a simple design, high starting torque, and high efficiency. It's also more compact than a single-phase motor - making it perfect for three-phase generators, industrial fans, compressors, and pumps.
So which do you choose? Largely it depends on the type of power your appliances need. Most commonly, three-phase power is used in larger, commercial applications. A three-phase generator allows for greater electrical loads - it distributes the total load in a way that ensures that the current in each phase is lower. Big electric motors, such as those found in large worksite or workshop equipment, will require three-phase power and often large standby three-phase generators are required to back up office buildings and events.
There are certain three-phase generators that also provide some single-phase power outlets. However, these outlets are added predominantly for convenience to run additional smaller appliances and typically cannot draw as much power as the 3 phase outlets, i.e. it's primarily a three-phase unit with some capacity to run single phase appliances at a lower draw. Many quality 3 phase portable generators will have this flexible outlet configuration and in 3 phase stationary sets outlets can be arranged to fit the required application on request.
There is a whole range of 3 phase generators that are designed and engineered especially for industrial, commercial and rental applications. Check the Three Phase Petrol Generator options, or Three Phase Diesel Generator Range at My Generator.
DISCLAIMER* Please note, this advice is general in nature and we strongly recommend consulting the product manual and where relevant, a professional installer.