Generators and inverters are about creating and converting power, but they do different tasks and do them very differently. Traditional portable generators provide power output in the form of AC electricity, created from some form of mechanical energy. On the other hand, an inverter converts one form of electrical power (direct current or DC) into another form of electrical power (alternating current or AC).
Types of Current
There are two types of electrical current, alternating current, which runs most typical devices and fixtures, and direct current. DC is available, for example, in your car but needs to be converted to AC for use by household devices.
Inverters have the advantage of producing stable and clean AC current quietly. In contrast, generators have to run at high speeds to produce electricity, so they are also very noisy. They also nearly always produce “dirtier” power that can cause problems with some electric devices.
Understanding the Differences between generator and inverter
To understand the differences between an inverter and a generator and which might be better, you need to understand some basics about portable generators and how electric power works.
Why Two Kinds of Current?
Direct current, favored by Thomas Edison, flows in only one direction. Nikola Tesla’s preferred power, alternating current, flows in both directions and can readily be converted to higher voltages that lose less energy when traveling long distances. As electrical power distribution grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, AC became recognized as having a clear advantage for heavy power services.
AC Became the Standard
This distance advantage made AC power the current choice for the power grid, quickly sending current from central power stations to electrical devices in homes and offices. Once the AC gets there, it is stepped down to the lower voltages used to operate home and office appliances.
Personal computers, and electronic devices in general, are an exception to using AC power. These devices operate on direct current. However, they use a rectifier in the device’s power supply, which runs on AC.
Tesla and Edison warred about currents for years. Edison even assisted in developing the electric chair using AC, hoping to frighten people off from using AC. In the electrical current wars, Tesla got the long-term win.
How Does an Inverter Work?
A significant difference between a generator and an inverter is that while a generator produces electrical power, an inverter does not. Instead, it receives direct current and turns that DC into alternating current. This is done by sending the current through switches that route the energy back and forth very quickly. The inverter evens out the power waves in the process, producing a very stable frequency. The result is what is sometimes referred to as “clean” power. You use a rectifier to go in the opposite direction, from AC to DC.
A grid-connected inverter can work with your solar panels to allow you to use the power from the panels or the batteries they’ve charged. You can even sell power back to the electrical utility when you have more than you need if set up to do so. Check out our article on the subject if you’re wondering, “What Is A Solar Generator?“.
Power in Your Car
A widespread use of inverters is to run AC-powered devices in your car. Many things you want to plug into your vehicle, a charger, a computer, or a GPS, need AC. But the alternators in cars produce DC, so the power must be converted to AC.
Many vehicles allow for plugging a small inverter into the cigarette lighter outlet, or what used to be the cigarette lighter outlet, allowing the use of a charger or other electrical device. New models have built-in inverters and a standard household-style plug with AC power.
Inverters and Green Power Generation Industry
Inverters are also used on a much larger scale. They allow the use of power generated by solar and wind energy, which is generated as DC and stored in batteries.
How Does a Generator Work?
A conventional generator uses mechanical energy to generate electrical energy. The mechanical energy in large installations may come from turbines run by a fuel source like water power, natural gas, coal, oil, or nuclear energy.
In the Home
In a home-style generator, the generator produces electrical power, usually fueled by natural or liquid propane gas, to replace power during a power outage. Conventional generators can be designed to produce either AC or DC power, with AC being the usual choice since modern household appliances run on AC. These home generators allow you to draw power during a power shutdown.
A portable generator used at construction sites and other similar locations to power tools generally uses gasoline or diesel. The power output of these generators can also be a lifesaver in a power outage. Generators are for power generation but cannot convert current. A transformer or inverter will be required if the power needs to be converted.
Some equipment used in the power generation industry is similar to inverters and generators but performs their tasks somewhat differently. These devices can ease your task when you need to use and generate electricity.
Although many use the terms interchangeably, a converter is not the same as an inverter. A power converter changes voltage levels, not current flow. Various countries use different power levels, making it difficult to, for instance, use your American razor or hairdryer in England.
Small power converters fitted to two or more countries’ systems are commonly available, especially in travel stores. They look similar to the adapter used to put a grounded three-prong plug into an ungrounded two-prong outlet. They allow your devices designed for one power output to use another.
Like all generators, inverter generators generate electricity. However, these generators produce AC power which the generator then converts to DC and back to AC. This process provides a more constant power flow and also allows the generator to be more fuel-efficient, depending on usage. Portable inverter generators often are also quieter than ordinary generators. See “How Does an Inverter Generator Work?” for more information.
Which Is Better – Inverter vs. Generator?
The crucial difference between generator and inverter is that the inverter must have a source of power that it can convert. In contrast, a generator can supply power but cannot change its current. As you can see from the differences between them, the question of which is better, an inverter or a generator, depends on the task you have to perform.
In the end, a generator is a machine that creates power. It uses an external fuel or power source of mechanical energy to convert to electrical energy. Generators vary in scale, as do the power outages that are their most common use case today. If you need to create power, you need a generator.
On the other hand, an inverter does not create power at all. Instead, it transforms DC power into AC. In the home, an inverter will most often be connected to a bank of batteries, charged either by solar power or from the electrical grid, to produce domestically usable AC. So if you need to convert DC power to AC, or if power quality is important to you, you need an inverter.
In other words, the inverter converts electricity while the generator creates electricity. Whether a fully-installed propane-powered generator or a small portable run with gasoline, the generator exists solely to produce power. The inverter converts DC from some external source, such as batteries or a rectifier, to AC power, like what’s used in the power company’s electrical grid.
Generators can be designed in a wide range of production capacities; inverters tend to be of smaller capacity. However, they are ideal for meeting the needs of households that use solar panels. Generators are virtually required in areas that often experience power outages. They can respond quickly to a power failure but will only run so long as external fuel is available.
In the end, it’s clear that whether an inverter or a generator is better for you depends entirely on the task you expect to use it for. If you want to run electrical devices in your home or business from solar panels or wind turbines that require that you convert direct current, then an inverter will be crucial to your power system. On the other hand, if you live in a rural area where power-interrupting storms leading to power outages are frequent, a small, permanently installed home generator with limited fuel consumption may be the best for you.
Ultimately, the difference between generator and inverter depends on whether you want to create or convert power.
If you’re interested in inverter generators, check out the Duromax XP4500iH.