Pros and Cons of Inverter Generators

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

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An inverter generator with a pattern of electric bolts surrounding it. Photo Illustration: Consumer Reports, iStock

The portable gas generator has had some technological makeovers in recent years. One is critical to safety, and one significantly boosts the level of performance for a certain breed known as inverter generators. If you’re looking into getting a portable generator, you may want to consider an inverter.

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.

More on Generators

Many inverters now offer a CO safety shutoff as well as improved performance in the way of fuel efficiency and reduced noise. 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 are generally very quiet.

“You can carry on a conversation next to an inverter generator,” says Dave Trezza, who oversees CR’s generator testing.

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 4,500 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 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 2,000 watts, which should be plenty for tailgating or camping.

“Don’t let the size lull you into a false sense of security,” Trezza says. “Even though they’re about as big as a gym bag, our tests show that these models emit carbon monoxide at a rate that can quickly build up to unsafe levels in an enclosed space.”

How to Run a Generator Safely

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.

They 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 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

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Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.