Photo illustration of a Honda inverter generator

Portable gas generators have recently undergone a technological makeover that dramatically boosts their level of performance. So if you’re looking into getting one, you’ll want to consider an inverter generator specifically. They may be more expensive than conventional models, but they also have great advantages.

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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 it up 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.

All of this explains why so many new models are popping up at home centers and online.

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
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, and just 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.

2. Midsized
These weigh 80 pounds or more, and may or may not come with wheels. They produce 2,500 to 4,500 watts but don’t allow the recommended option of connecting to your 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. They’ll 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
These weigh 50 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, though. They still emit carbon monoxide, which can kill you at high enough concentrations, and should never be operated inside an enclosed space.

Safety first: To run a generator safely, place it at least 20 feet from the house, with the engine exhaust directed away from windows and doors.

Consumer Reports has tested more than a dozen inverter generators. These machines range in capability from the compact type you’d want for a tailgate or camping trip to something that could be a steady source of basic backup power after a storm. Our buying guide is a great place to get a lay of the land, and our 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 Stellar Inverter Generators From CR's Tests

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