What is an Inverter Generator?

When someone talks about using a generator to power their devices, they're usually talking about a conventional generator. As most of us know, those can be heavy, loud gas guzzlers. What if we told you there's a different type of generator that runs quietly, uses less fuel and is easy to carry? While conventional generators certainly have their place, an inverter generator can be an excellent choice for many power generation environments. If you're using them for smaller, personal electronic devices, these clean-running generators are practically a must.

So which generator type is right for you? Let's take a closer look at the differences between inverter and conventional generators and how to choose the best one for your application.

How Does an Inverter Generator Work?

In a conventional generator, power is drawn from the fuel tank and can typically be used as AC power. An inverter generator converts the incoming DC power source — whether from an engine powered by fossil fuel, a solar generator or a car battery — into AC power with the help of a battery, alternator and inverter. Its mechanisms are more complex, but these generators can still run on fossil fuels like gasoline and propane. The difference comes from the type of electricity the generators produce.

It all starts with the inverter generator's engine producing a high-frequency alternating current (AC). An alternator turns the alternating current into a direct current (DC), which then gets converted back to AC through the inverter. This 3-part process creates an electrical current with much less harmonic distortion. In other words, it's more stable. Harmonic distortion is essentially a measure of the quality of the electricity that's coming out of the generator. A generator with low harmonic distortion is one that produces electricity similar to what comes from your electricity provider — clean and steady.

Conventional generators create a lot of harmonic distortion, which is fine when you're working with bigger electronics, like appliances and construction tools. But if you're powering smaller devices, like laptops, cameras and phones, a signal with a lot of harmonic distortion can damage the sensitive microprocessors inside. An inverter generator is much more suitable for these types of devices.

One of the benefits of inverter generators is that they have much greater control over the frequency of the current, creating a very stable sine wave. This control also adds to the energy-efficiency of the system. An inverter generator can adjust its voltage based on what the load demands while maintaining a steady number of revolutions per minute (RPM), typically 3,600 RPM. A conventional generator can't do this, which is what makes them so loud. Inverter generators are known for being very quiet.

How Are Inverter Generators Different From Conventional Generators?

Though they both accomplish the same basic task — delivering electricity to devices — there are many differences between inverter and conventional generators:

  • Current: One of the most significant differences between the two generators is the type of electricity they produce. Conventional generators do not produce "clean" electricity, meaning they're not the best choice for sensitive devices, like personal electronics. An inverter generator produces electricity with the steady sine wave and low harmonic distortion needed for these devices. If you're using a generator to power devices during an outage or on a camping trip, you'll want this clean electricity on your side.
  • Portability: Conventional generators use a lot more fuel, so they need larger tanks and often require wheeled and handled designs to make them moveable. Since they're much more fuel efficient, inverter generators require smaller tanks, so they're often more portable and usually weigh less than 100 pounds. Most come in handheld designs that can be easily carried or even hooked up to a car battery. This portability also comes from the fact that size and power output are often related, and inverter generators don't provide as much power as conventional generators.
  • Power: Conventional generators can produce much more power with the help of their larger tanks. Inverters can offer similar run times on smaller tanks due to their energy efficiency. These size differences mean that conventional generators offer larger power outputs and can often reach wattages as high as 10,000 watts. Inverter generators usually max out at around 6,000-7,000 watts. For especially high-powered applications, conventional generators are usually the best choice.
  • Fuel efficiency: Inverter generators are much more fuel efficient, making them better for the environment and easier on your wallet.
  • Noise: One of the biggest downsides to a conventional generator is the noise. A 65-decibel engine running just outside a campsite can ruin a serene, natural getaway in no time. It could also lead to some angry neighbors if you're using it for your home. Inverter generators run much quieter thanks to their steady, consistent RPM.
  • Emissions: If you're using a conventional generator, you'll have to make sure it meets your state and local emission requirements. Usually, this just requires a generator that is Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliant. Some states require additional approvals, such as those from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Inverter generators create fewer emissions, making it easier to find one that meets environmental requirements. Plus, the fuel efficiency makes them more eco-friendly.
  • Parallel connections: Parallel connections refer to the ability to link up multiple inverter generators of the same type to deliver double the power. Since inverter generators offer less power output, this is a good way to get more power if you need it. Conventional generators do not have this feature.
  • Price: Conventional generators have been around for quite a while, so manufacturers have had plenty of time to come up with cheaper production methods. Combined with the simpler mechanism, these generators are typically cheaper than newer inverter generators. With a more complex design, inverter generators cost a bit more, but they also address many of the problems that come with traditional generators. Whether an inverter generator is worth the cost comes down to what you're looking for.
  • Ruggedness: While inverter generators certainly aren't flimsy, conventional generators are available with tougher wheels and rugged builds, making them a good choice for heavy-duty applications, like on a construction site or for yard work. These applications usually need more power as well, so a conventional generator might be a better fit.

It's tough to say which is "better," because the generator that's right for you will depend on the application. Be sure to consider the above characteristics when deciding which kind to get.

Is an Inverter Generator Right for You?

Deciding on a generator mainly comes down to the devices you're looking to use it with. Inverter generators are best for smaller, sensitive devices and occasional use. Some examples include camping, tailgating, backup during a power outage and other moderate off-grid applications. This is due to an invertor's superior performance with clean electricity and devices with sensitive microprocessors. Other qualities that come in handy for these smaller uses include the inverter generator's portability, reduced noise and reduced emissions.

Situations in which you might not want an inverter generator include those where you need a lot of power. Conventional generators can offer greater power output, but they're bulkier, heavier, louder and produce more emissions. If you need a lot of power, these downsides might not matter as much as supporting your devices. Plus, conventional generators tend to be quite a bit cheaper, so if you're on a budget, they might be more appropriate. They're a good choice if you want to power major appliances or an entire home or recreational vehicle.

If you're considering an inverter generator, determine what's most important to you. When you want all the bells and whistles, don't need a ton of power and aren't worried about the cost, inverter generators are a good choice. If you need more power, won't be moving the generator much and don't mind a bit of noise or heavier fuel use, a conventional generator might be a good option.

How Do You Buy the Right Size of Inverter Generator?

If you've decided on an inverter generator, think about the devices you need to power. Go through your setup and take stock of each device you would want to plug in. If the generator is being used for home power backup, are you wanting to plug in larger items like a sump pump, fridge or heater, or smaller items such as a TV, phone, computer or lights? Tailgating or camping may call for a crockpot, speaker or space heater. Make a list of all these devices and jot down the wattage requirements for each one. Remember to get the running and starting watts.

Once you've collected that information, simply add the wattages together. It's a good idea to give yourself some wiggle room for starting wattages and fluctuations to make sure everything stays safely powered. Add about 50% more than what you've calculated from your devices. Different situations will call for different generator sizes, but taking stock provides a great guideline.

If you're working with a handful of small items, such as phones, lights and computers during a power outage, you can typically get by with less than 1 kilowatt (kW). As you plug in more items, that need will go up. Things like a small TV and a space heater will need around 2,000 watts. Once you get into larger appliances, you're looking at 3,000-4,000 watts or higher. Be sure to perform the calculations mentioned above before buying a generator. When in doubt, size up. It's better to have more power on hand than to come up short.

How Do You Safely Operate an Inverter Generator?

Regardless of which type of generator you're working with, safety is essential. Both types of generator can produce harmful exhaust with carbon monoxide (CO), so you'll need to take care to keep them away from any people or pets. Any time you work with electricity, there are electrical hazards to look out for, too. Here are a few safety tips for operating an inverter generator, which is similar to running a conventional generator:

  • Always run the generator outside: Ventilation is key to allowing a generator's fumes to disperse away from populated areas. Although inverter generators produce fewer emissions, ventilation is still incredibly important. The further away you're able to run it, the better — Consumer Reports recommends a distance of 20 feet away. Try to keep the generator away from windows so the emissions can't enter a building, and point the exhaust away from people or pets.
  • Use the right extension cords: Generators work with high amounts of electricity, so make sure your extension cords are up for the task. They should be rated for the appropriate load, with sufficient length and thickness and a grounded, or three-pronged plug. If you're plugging in a 2,000-watt device, you'll need a cord rated for more than 2,000 watts. Keep in mind that cords are often rated in amps. If that's the case, you'll need to grab the voltage of the wire, too, and do a quick conversion — here's a handy calculator to make it easier.
  • Never backfeed: Backfeeding occurs when you connect a generator to an electrical outlet with a modified extension cord that has two male, or pronged, ends. This is a serious risk that energizes the entire circuit through the outlet, creating a fire hazard and a shock hazard to utility workers. If the power is out, they're working under the assumption that there is no additional power source affecting the circuits. If you want to hook up your outlets or hardwired appliances, you'll need a manual transfer switch installed by a licensed electrician.
  • Make sure the inverter generator is turned off before adding fuel: A hot engine and gasoline are never a good combination. Keep fire risks to a minimum by turning off the motor and cooling it down before refueling.
  • Consider a model with an automatic CO shut-off switch: If CO starts to build up, these generators can alert you and immediately turn off the engine, preventing further damage and safety concerns.
  • Read the manual thoroughly: Read the manual carefully so you're familiar with the intricacies of your equipment.

Shop Inverter Generators From IWAE

At Ingram's Water & Air, we have a range of inverter generators available at affordable prices from reputable brands you can trust. We know that picking a generator isn't always straightforward, which is why our knowledgeable team is happy to help you find the right one.

With competitive pricing, a wealth of technical information and an attentive team, IWAE is your trusted source for inverter generators. We also offer free freight shipping with lift gate service on most of our products, along with lifetime tech support on everything. Browse our inverter generators today and learn more about each model!

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