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Conventional vs. Inverter Portable Generators

By Lucie B. Amundsen
Published: September 9, 2011
Conventional generator
Photo by Generac
When you’re shopping for a portable generator – whether as an insurance policy against power outages or just looking to get electricity to the off-grid bunkhouse – you’ll see two basic types. There are old school conventional generators and newer inverter-style generators.
    Here’s the main difference: The conventional type creates AC power using a mechanical generator. In the plus column, they offer the greatest output, extended run times and are the least expensive. Yeah! But stacked against them is that they run at two speeds: ON and OFF. In order to create electricity, these older types must run at a constant 3,600 RPMs, no matter how little power you need – meaning more fuel and more noise.
Inverter generator
Photo by Generac
Inverter generators (sometimes called I-generators) produce DC power and then convert it to AC current via digital magic. This allows for the on-demand production of the electricity you actually need, meaning a quieter, more efficient operation – all in a lighter, smaller machine. And some come with surge protecting GCFIs, which gives a more stable power stream akin to power lines. The rub comes in the price. Inverter generators cost 3–5 times more than a conventional one.       
    Your choice may boil down to what you’re powering. If you’re only looking to keep the milk fresh in the mini-fridge or need big power for air conditioning until the power’s back up, a cheaper conventional generator may be right for your cabin. But if you need to keep sensitive equipment like computers online during an outage, a smaller inverter generator with surge protection might be better for your needs.
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