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

If you’re new to the market and looking to buy a generator, you’ll quickly notice that there are two primary categories to choose from when shopping online or at your local hardware store.  There are the tried and true “conventional generators”, and the newer “inverter generators” (referred to sometimes by people as simply “inverters”).

But just what is the difference between a conventional and an inverter generator?

A conventional generator’s engine uses fuel to produce raw AC power that is supplied to the user by an alternator and is ideal for lights and power tools.  An inverter generator’s engine burns fuel to produce raw AC power, converted then to DC, and then back to a refined AC power ideal for devices with microprocessors.

That’s the quick and easy answer, but you probably still have a few questions.  

Let me cover some of the things I learned along the way when shopping for my first generator to save you some time!

Inverter Generators

What is the power output of an inverter generator?

Typically, you will find inverter generators ranging from 1000kw up to a little over 3,000kw.  The power received from the unit is a refined form of AC power and is on par with the quality of power that you would receive from a normal wall outlet and is ideal for any of your appliances that have microprocessors.

Laptops, smartphones, tablets, refrigerators, and televisions all have microprocessors.  That’s not to say that these cannot be operated while using a conventional generator, but that they were designed and engineered to operate using clean and consistent power source like that supplied by a wall outlet or an inverter generator.

What are the advantages of an inverter generator?

Inverter generators really shine in several categories. When compared to their conventional generator counterparts, inverter generators are smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient, offer cleaner and more consistent electricity, and can often be hooked up in parallel with each other.

They are the ideal choice for camping, tailgating, farmer’s markets, or when noise levels need to be kept to a minimum.  They generally run between 47 and 58 decibels, which is the noise level of a calm conversation. You won’t find yourself screaming at your friends around the campfire as you reminisce about the glory days even if this unit is in between both of you.  

As noted before, they are also the ideal candidate for producing pure sine wave AC power which is desired by your most expensive devices.  

You won’t break your back trying to lift or move one of these, as they are typically smaller in size and weigh in around the 50lb mark.  That is 50-150lbs less than a given conventional generator!

What are the disadvantages of an inverter generator?

The lack of power, when compared to most conventional generator models, is one of the primary disadvantages of an inverter generator.  This reduced power capability becomes very apparent when you are trying to run air conditioning. Unless you get a 3000kw model, an inverter generator is not well suited for AC duty.

Even at 3000kw, you’re probably only going to be using it for RV air conditioning or a home window unit and little else. Using an inverter generator for a well pump may or may not be possible depending on the energy requirements of your well pump and the size of generator that you purchase.

Though all generators can and will break down in time, it could be argued that inverter generators have more to go wrong with all of the electrical components involved in and around the microprocessor.  If something goes wrong, it is likely not something that the average person will be able to fix like a new spark plug.

How much do inverter generators cost?

For a quality inverter generator from a reputable brand, you will be looking to pay 3-5 times what you would normally pay for a conventional generator with the same kilowatt output.  Price ranges typically fall between the $400 and $2,100 dollar mark for a quality 1,000-3,000kw inverter generator.

The brands that I feel are the most reputable in the inverter generator field are Honda, Yamaha, Champion, and Generac.  

I am personally partial to the Champion generators even though I don’t personally own one.  I have seen them used by many people and haven’t heard a single complaint yet, except that people wonder why they ever paid so much for a Honda in the past when they could have saved half of a grand by purchasing a Champion.

You can check out the latest price and reviews of my favorite inverter generator by Champion here on Amazon.

Conventional Generators

What is the power output of a conventional generator?

Typically, you will find conventional generators ranging from 1000kw up to 12,000+kw.  The user receives raw AC power from the alternator (better than modified sine wave but not as refined as pure sine wave like that of an inverter generator) and it is best suited for powering lights, pumps, and power tools.

Due to the range of power outputs that you can select from, it is easy to find a conventional generator that will meet most (if not all) of your household’s needs during a power outage.  Though it may be able to power everything in the home, it might not be the best option for everything that needs power if you’re going to be relying on generator power for a long-term solution to your power needs.  

Items with microprocessors were designed and engineered to function with pure sine wave AC power, and the raw AC current supplied by a conventional generator will stress them out. The degree of that stress is going to be on a case by case basis with your applicable devices and appliances.  

They may never be affected, or they might experience a shorter lifespan in the long run.  In rare cases, your device might fail entirely.  This, however, is extremely unlikely. I have never been able to trace the failure of a device or appliance directly, or indirectly, to the use of my conventional generator.  I include the warning only as something to consider since the quality of the power outputs of the two types of generators is not the same.

What are the advantages of a conventional generator?

The primary advantage of conventional generators over an inverter generator is that they are available in far greater kilowatt output ratings to power larger activities or entire households.  Central air, well water pumps, and handling many high energy tasks are more easily handled by a conventional generator.

You could also argue that conventional generators have less to go wrong with them since they lack the massive amount of electronics that an inverter generator possesses and that if something were to go wrong it would only be mechanical in nature and easier for the average person to repair.

What are the disadvantages of a conventional generator?

Conventional generators come with several disadvantages over their inverter generator counterparts.  Though they are available in greater kilowatt outputs, this comes with a price. Conventional generators are up to 15-25+ dB louder, 50-150 lbs heavier, are less fuel efficient, and produce unrefined AC power.  

Like I mentioned above, the unrefined AC power produced by a conventional generator may or may not affect your devices with microprocessors.  You’ll have to weigh the risks for yourself before powering your high priced devices with one.

You certainly won’t be slinging a conventional generator around like you would a Honda EU2000i inverter generator.  They are larger, bulkier, and have 2-4 times the weight. If you’re lucky you will get a conventional generator with a built-in wheel kit, but most can still be mounted on a custom platform with wheels for easier transport.  The transport might be easier in a lateral fashion, but lifting it vertically into the bed of a truck will likely be a two-person operation at a minimum.

How much does a conventional generator cost?

The price range for a conventional generator is very broad and is typically dependent upon the brand and power output.  The cost of a 1,000kw to 3,000kw generator can range from $200 to $1,500. 4,000kw to 7,500kw generators can range from $400 to $2,500.  7,500kw – 12,000kw generators can range from $800 to $3,100.

You can always find generators below the minimum price listed but I based the price on reputable brands and Amazon reviews.  Of course, the top end number is so high due to one brand in particular, namely, Honda. At such a high price, the Honda actually is the best quality generator on the market for a conventional or inverter generator.  This is truly a case where you get what you pay for.

However, as I mentioned above, Champion generators are my personal favorite based on their price point and the quality that they deliver.  If you read the reviews, most Honda owners only sing the praises of Champion’s quality and do not view it as an inferior product.

You can check out my favorite “all-around” Champion generator on Amazon here if you’d like.

Robert Van Nuck

Robert lives in central Michigan and enjoys running, woodworking, and fixing up small engines.

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