The difference between an inverter and a generator might not be a massive one. After all, both accomplish the same task: they both burn fuel, which powers a motor that’s attached to an alternator, which then produces electrical power. But there are a few distinctions between the two in how they accomplish that job. Depending on your needs, it’s likely that one will work better for you than the other.
Table of Contents
Size and Weight Differences Between an Inverter and a Generator
Generators, helpful as they are, aren’t necessarily the most sophisticated of portable powering solutions. Essentially, you’ve got a large engine encased in a metal roll cage. Hopefully, you also have wheels attached. Add it all up, and your standard generator can get pretty heavy and cumbersome.
Contrast that with the more recently-popular inverters. Because the inverter’s digital electronic alternator is usually combined with the engine’s flywheel, they have the tendency to weigh a lot less and take up less space. Therefore, the most visible difference between an inverter and a generator is that the former is more easily portable.
Power Quality and Output in Generators
Generators work pretty simply. The motor turns the alternator, which produces raw AC power. This brand of AC power might not be the “cleanest” power in the world, but there is a constant supply of a lot of it, whether you need it all or not.
You see, with a generator, the engine has to run at a constant rpm to generate electricity (typically 3600 RPM). This consistent speed produces consistent sound levels as well. This feels like a roundabout way of saying that your average generator typically runs pretty loud. Because the generator runs at this constant intensity, it’s easy to see where they might not be so fuel efficient.
Having said that, generators have a much larger power output range than an inverter. They can push anywhere between 500W to 50,000W. Also, since they typically have large fuel tanks, generators can run for longer periods of time before needing more fuel.
Power Quality and Output in Inverters
Inverters operate with a bit more sophistication. Rather than running at a constant rate, the inverter can match its speed with the demands of the application. This variable speed results in much better fuel efficiency. With the slower speeds and mufflers in place, the inverter tends to run much more quietly than a generator.
We can also see a difference in power quality. An inverter produces AC power through a digital electronic alternator. This, in turn, gets sent to a rectifier that changes it to DC current. It then travels through an inverter that flips it back to AC current. This produces “cleaner” power with less than 5% harmonic distortion. That kind of power is comparable, if not actually better than, the 120V you get from your wall outlets at home. As a result, your inverter provides better power for charging and powering sensitive electronics like phones and computers.
The problem with your typical inverter, however, is that they don’t output all that much power. A typical range of 1000W – 4,000W will probably power a tool or two, a TV, or a handful of appliances. You probably won’t find too many inverters that can run a jobsite or power your home in an emergency. You can, however, often take two identical units and parallel them together—doubling the watts out.
Inverter vs Generator – Which Costs More?
As a general rule, an inverter carries a higher price tag than a comparable generator. For the many reasons given above, inverters simply use more technology. The compact nature of these devices and their additional capabilities and clean power come at a cost—literally.
As a random example, take the Ryobi 2300-watt digital inverter . You get 1800 running watts with some Bluetooth connectivity and additional tech features for $699. If you just need raw power, you could pick up an All Power generator with 2500 running watts for $449.
More and more manufacturers are adding inverter technology to their generators. This makes them smarter and cleaner—but definitely raises the price somewhat.
Which is right for you, the generator or the inverter? It depends on two things: your budget and your power needs.
Inverters are definitely more expensive due to their high-level electronics. But if you’ve got the funds and you don’t need mass amounts of power, this is the quieter, cleaner option. It’s great for tailgating and some camping applications as it’s highly portable, but most Pros need more power for the job site.
If money is tighter or you need a metric butt-ton of power, stick to your standard, tried-and-true generator. It’s more cumbersome and definitely louder, but it has more raw power. Plus, if you’ve got a big enough generator, you can use it on the job or as emergency power the next time the storm knocks out your power.