The inverter generator is one of the most popular generator types. Users hail it as the most efficient of the lot and consistently mention its quiet operation as a massive bonus. Compact size is another feature that distinguishes an inverter generator.
But are they worth the hassle? For one, inverter generators are slightly more expensive than traditional generators. Is the extra cost worth it? Let’s find out.
What are Inverter Generators?
Inverter generators are generators that “clean up” the electricity derived from the fuel for higher operating efficiency.
The inverter generator is similar to the traditional generator in nearly every sense. However, it’s a little different because it converts DC power into AC power using electronic circuitry. This way, the resulting electricity can be produced in different voltages and frequencies, depending on the application or user’s needs.
Most inverter generators convert 12V DC power from a DC source into 120V AC power, which most home appliances use.
How Inverter Generators Work
The best way to understand how inverter generators work is to compare them with traditional generators. The traditional generator uses a fuel source, typically fossil fuel such as propane, diesel, or gasoline, to power a motor within the generator. The motor, in turn, rotates a shaft.
The engine shaft is connected to an alternator, which comprises two parts – a stator and rotor. As the engine shaft rotates, it turns the rotor, inducing power (current) in the stator. This power is harnessed using an electromagnetic field and channeled through copper wires to the control panel, from where home appliances can tap it.
However, there’s a small step therein that differentiates traditional from inverter-type generators. In traditional generators, the power produced in the alternator is fed straight to the control panel. Many units pass it through a voltage regulator or other protective devices. However, the power isn’t necessarily cleaned up or stabilized.
For this reason, power from traditional generators has a higher total harmonic distortion (THD). THD is a measure of the level of distortion in an electric current or voltage due to harmonic components. The higher the THD, the less reliable the voltage or current.
This usually means that the traditional engine must constantly rotate the shaft at 3000 rpm to deliver the standard current used in most household applications. If the speed fluctuates, the current output will fluctuate too, a potentially dangerous situation.
The Inverter Difference
Inverter generators work slightly differently. Instead of sending it directly to the control panel, the alternating current generated at the alternator is sent to a unique component, absent in the traditional generator, known as the rectifier.
A generator rectifier is an electrical device that converts an oscillating two-directional alternating current (AC) into a single directional DC power. They can take many different forms, from vacuum tube diodes to modern silicon-based models.
A basic rectifier works by eliminating one side of the AC current, thus allowing only one side of the current to flow. These are known as half-wave rectifiers. However, as you can tell, the approach can be highly inefficient as one-half of the current power goes to waste.
A more efficient rectification solution involves modern full-wave rectifiers that use both sides of the AC waveform.
Whichever the approach, the rectification process produces a stable direct current. The DC is then converted back into AC power. Now you have stable AC power that your devices can use without much distortion. The AC is made available to home appliances and equipment via the generator’s control panel.
Inverter Generator Pros and Cons
Inverter generators are beneficial in many ways. But they also come with a few downsides that you need to consider to make an informed decision.
Inverter Generator Pros
The following are a few reasons why you may want to consider an inverter model when shopping for a generator;
- A higher quality of power
The first main advantage of inverter generators is the higher quality of power. As we’ve seen, traditional generators must run at full speed to produce desired frequency levels, regardless of load. Otherwise, the output is affected. Unfortunately, this often means that the engine must throttle up to deliver a consistent amount of electricity.
Inverter generators solve this problem by using DC capacitors that smooth out the output current to a certain degree before converting it into alternating current at the desired voltage and frequency. This usually results in a consistent and reliable power supply that doesn’t depend on the engine speed. Indeed, the power quality is almost as “clean” as that provided by your electricity supplier.
Why is this important? Because a high THD can damage home devices, such as phones, computers, and televisions.
- A higher fuel efficiency
Another reason you should consider inverter generators is fuel efficiency. Although traditional generators attempt to utilize fuel for maximum output too, efficiency is rarely top of the priority list for these units. Instead, the traditional generator focuses on delivering raw power.
On the other hand, inverter generators are designed to be as fuel-efficient as possible. The units adjust output power to match load requirements, allowing the engine to conserve fuel when operating below maximum capacity. For this reason, inverter engines are about 40% more efficient than traditional generators.
Owing to reduced energy consumption, inverter-type generators also produce reduced emissions, thus are environmentally friendlier.
- A lower noise output
Quietness is top of the list for most people shopping for a power generator. If this applies to you, too, you should consider an inverter model.
Inverter generators are quieter than standard generators because they only produce as much power as is needed at a given time. This means the units don’t have to run as hard as standard units that must consistently run at 3000 rpm to generate stable electric current.
Obviously, the noise output will also depend on the size of the unit. A smaller inverter generator produces even less noise than a bigger one. However, for the same power output, an inverter generator is far quieter than standard generators.
- Smaller, more compact, and more portable
Unless you’re shopping for a permanently installed standby generator, portability will be another propriety when shopping. Inverter generators win here too. They are much smaller than traditional generators because of their compact engine size.
The average inverter generator is also more portable, an important consideration when shopping for a generator for hiking, fishing, or camping. You want a generator that you can bring on the RV or pickup truck easily and store without any issues. Inverter generators even fit into a car.
On the other hand, traditional generators are bulky, heavy, and noisy, qualities that require them to be put on frames and wheels.
- Ability to parallel multiple units
Finally, inverter generators are the perfect choice if you’d wish to connect multiple units for a bigger power source. This is also known as paralleling and involves connecting two or more similar generators (in parallel) to produce the same amount of power produced by one large generator.
Unfortunately, conventional generators don’t have this feature as these generators require special cables to connect them to their output.
Inverter Generator Disadvantages
Despite the many advantages, inverter generators have a few disadvantages worth considering before making the final decision. These include;
- A higher price
Unfortunately, the higher fuel efficiency and more compact design come at a higher price. The average inverter-type generator is at least twice as expensive as a similarly rated conventional model.
Therefore, if you’re on a tight budget, you may have to settle for a smaller inverter generator if you’re completely against conventional-type gens.
- Higher maintenance needs
Maintenance is another crucial challenge for inverter generator owners. Although today’s inverter gens attempt to simplify the construction to make maintenance a little easier and more affordable, traditional units are still way easier to maintain.
The main reason is that whereas conventional generators feature a straightforward design that’s easy to take apart and diagnose, inverter-type models are complex and confusing. Thus, DIY is nearly impossible for inverter generators unless you’re highly skilled.
- Lower maximum power output
Finally, inverter-type generators have a much lower power limit compared to conventional generators. Whereas the conventional, gas-powered generator can produce well over 10,000 watts, even the most potent inverter generator rarely exceeds 6,000 watts.
For this reason, inverter generators are more suited to smaller applications, such as RV trips and boating or fishing. However, if you’re shopping for a sizable standby generator for your home, a conventional portable generator is the only solution.
- What can you power with an inverter generator? It depends on the size. A standard 1000-watt inverter generator can power a TV, charge phones, and run your lights. But a 5,000-watt unit can even run the heater and freezer.
- Can an inverter generator power a house? Unfortunately, it cannot, unless you’re happy to run only the essentials such as lights and the TV.
- Is an inverter generator better than a regular generator? Generally, yes. An inverter generator is more efficient, more compact, and less noisy.
Now that you know the basics of inverter generators, including how they work and the benefits, you can make an informed choice. Generally, most consumers will go for an inverter generator for smaller applications, such as recreational camping, and a regular generator for major applications, such as power backup systems.