What’s the Difference Between an Inverter and a Generator?

Have questions about the difference between an inverter and a generator? We’ve got all the info you need to distinguish between the two.
Written by Natalie Todoroff
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
Conventional generators produce power from an external source, while inverter generators convert power from one type of electrical current to another. To be specific, an inverter generator converts DC (direct current) into AC (alternating current) while a generator runs solely on AC electricity. 
You don’t need a PhD in engineering to understand the differences between inverters and generators. Although they can both function as backup power sources and are the most common technologies used in power generation, they have different internal mechanisms that influence both the amount of power they produce and how they produce it. 
So, if you’re scratching your head trying to figure out the differences between the two, you’ve come to the right place!
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What’s an inverter?

Let’s begin with inverters. An inverter is an electronic device that converts direct current power into alternating current. Inverters draw from a DC power source, like the battery in your car or a solar panel, and run the DC current through an electronic circuit (sometimes called a microprocessor) to transform it into AC current. Compared to conventional generators, inverters are relatively newer technology. 
Don’t get inverters confused with power converters. Power converters have nothing to do with changing electric current: all they do is change the volts from one level to another. 
Unlike generators (which we’ll dive into later on), inverters require an external power supply, like a battery. They convert stored power into a standard current that you can use to power things that run on AC current.
You'll need to use an inverter if you have something that runs on AC power, but only DC power is available. 

AC current vs DC current

If seeing the terms “AC current” and “DC current” gives you a flashback to high school science class: don’t panic! Although they sound very jargon-y, the differences between alternating current and direct current are easy to understand. 
Alternating current and direct current are both kinds of electrical current. In an alternating current, the electrons flow back and forth. In a direct current, the electrons only flow in one direction
Many of your household appliances, like your lights, refrigerator, and television, are all powered by AC power. That’s because AC power can withstand higher voltage levels and maintains its energy level better over longer distances, which makes it more advantageous in homes and buildings.
You’re more likely to find DC current in your laptop, cellphone, car battery, and even in solar panels. 

What’s a generator?

Even if you’re not super tech-savvy, you’re probably familiar with generators. In fact, if you’re a homeowner, it’s likely that there’s already one in your home.
Conventional generators convert mechanical energy into electrical energy through the process of electromagnetic induction. This mechanical energy can come from a variety of places: natural gas, coal, or another fossil fuel, or from burning gasoline, diesel fuel, or propane. 
Compared to inverters, generators can crank out much more electricity—so much so, they can power entire factories and homes. Portable generators tend to produce a little less power and run on gasoline.
We’ve had the technology to create conventional generators for quite some time, which is why they tend to be more widely used than inverters. 

Inverter vs generator: pros and cons

Now that we know a little bit about how each generator works, let’s look at the pros and cons of each type of generator. Although they both have the same bottom line—produce power so you’re not left with a dead cell phone battery or other electronic device—it’s important to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each. 

Pros and cons of an inverter generator 

When the power goes out, an inverter will automatically start up, which makes it an attractive choice for those who live in areas prone to shorter power cuts. They also generally require much less maintenance than conventional generators. 
Because they use a battery or other external source for power instead of burning natural gas, inverters produce clean power—a great selling point for those looking to be more eco-conscious. Not only do they have a smaller carbon footprint, but inverters also are generally smaller, operate at low noise levels, and are more fuel efficient than conventional generators. 
But, all of these benefits come at a significant price hike. Inverters are wildly expensive—much more so than conventional generators (even portable ones!) at $1,000 to $1,500 each. While inverters are great for short spurts of power, they cannot rival the power output of a conventional generator. 

Pros and cons of a traditional generator 

If you live somewhere where you experience a lot of prolonged power cuts, a generator is probably a more sound option for your home. Conventional generators produce much more power than inverter generators and are more tolerant to extreme power outages. A generator has a larger fuel tank than an inverter and can produce enough power for your entire home. 
However, portable generators run off of propane or gasoline, and also have higher power output than portable inverter generators. That said, they are cheaper at around $300 to $500 each. So, if you’re looking to bring something along to charge up power tools and a job site, a portable generator is probably best.
Most generators run at a constant engine speed of 3600 rpm, which also means that on top of producing more power, a generator produces more noise. Unlike an inverter, a generator will not turn on automatically in the event of a power outage—you’ll need to trek down to your basement with a flashlight and turn it on yourself. 
Because they’re so powerful, generators (not unlike your car) need routine maintenance, which can sometimes make them more expensive to own over time. 
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Which should you buy for your home?

We can’t definitively tell you which one you should purchase, because each homeowner’s electricity needs are unique. But we can certainly help point you in the right direction! 
Inverter generators are excellent choices for homeowners who live in areas with frequent short outages. They’re much more low-maintenance than conventional generators, but they have a much lower energy output. If a particularly brutal storm hits and you’re without power for longer than a few hours, an inverter generator may not have what it takes to power your entire home.
While conventional generators are louder and require some maintenance, they’re the best you can get if you live somewhere where you experience frequent, prolonged outages. Although they do require routine maintenance and you’ll need to manually turn them on in the event of a power outage, they’ve got enough muscle to power your whole home without a hitch.  

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When it comes to home emergencies, like a major power outage or a burst pipe, being prepared is key. While you can’t predict when disaster will strike, you can help prepare and protect your home with a top-of-the-line
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The main difference between a generator and an inverter is that a generator creates electrical power, while an inverter changes one type of electrical current into another.
There’s no answer as to which is objectively better; it really depends on your specific needs. But, it’s important to note that while inverters typically produce less power than conventional generators, they are more efficient at doing so.
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