Pros and Cons of Inverter Generators

These machines come at a premium price, but they run longer, quieter, and more efficiently than traditional generators

By Paul Hope

Portable gas generators have seen some significant technological advances in recent years, including the introduction of a relatively new category known as inverter generators. If you’re looking for a portable generator with exceptional efficiency, you may want to consider an inverter.

As a group, inverter generators are more expensive than conventional portable models, but they have distinct advantages. An inverter generator electronically throttles the engine up and down to meet demand, instead of running full tilt all the time. The resulting improvement in efficiency means that you won’t have to fill up the gas tank as often. Inverter generators also produce lower emissions—and less noise.

“Inverter generators are generally quiet enough not to drown out nearby conversation,” says Misha Kollontai, who oversees CR’s generator testing.

To reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, some new portable generators feature a built-in sensor that triggers an automatic shutoff if CO builds up to dangerous levels in an enclosed space. And some also have engines that emit less CO in the first place. The best generators come with both features.

About half of the inverter generators in our ratings have the automatic CO shutoff. Only those with it can earn our recommendation, regardless of how well the models perform otherwise. In 2020, CR expanded its safety tests to distinguish between generators that simply have these safety features and those we’ve found to be demonstrably safer in various scenarios.

A New Class of Generator

To help you make better sense of your options, we break our inverter generator ratings into three groups:

1. Large Inverter Generators
With very few exceptions, the large inverter generators in our ratings weigh around 250 pounds or more (wheels included). That’s too big to haul along to a tailgate party but big enough to power your house. They generate 5,000 watts of power or more (at 220 volts).

This category of inverter generator can be connected directly to your electrical panel with a safety device called a transfer switch, which CR strongly recommends. That allows them to power entire circuits in your home rather than having to plug in individual electronics with extension cords.

2. Midsized Inverter Generators
These weigh 80 pounds or more and might come with wheels. They produce 2,500 to 5,000 watts but don’t allow the recommended option of connecting to an electrical panel with a transfer switch. Instead, you plug appliances or electronics directly into the generator, which can be dangerous if you don’t follow certain safety guidelines.

This size is well-suited for users of recreational vehicles. These models produce all the power you need for plug-in appliances like a toaster or microwave, and they’re light enough to unload and carry away to a safe distance from your RV before use.

3. Recreational Inverter Generators
These weigh up to 60 pounds and are designed to be carried with one hand. Most recreational models max out at around 2,500 watts, which should be plenty for tailgating or camping.

“Keep in mind that even a smaller generator can emit hazardous levels of CO in an enclosed space, so make sure you get a unit with CO safety technology and follow placement guidelines,” Kollontai says.

Recreational inverter generators range in capability from the compact type you’d want for tailgating or camping to something that could be a steady source of basic backup power after a storm. Our generator buying guide is a great place to get the lay of the land, and our full generator ratings will let you compare specific models.

CR members can read on for ratings and reviews of three top-performing inverter generators, one each from the three sizes we test.

3 Top Inverter Generators

Generator Tips

Damaging storms can happen anytime. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, host Jack Rico learns from Consumer Reports expert Paul Hope how to avoid being left in the dark during a power outage.

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