To anyone familiar with portable generators, the very idea of a “quiet portable generator” seems like quite an oxymoron. With decibel levels akin to the roar of an approaching freight train, portable generators have very deservedly received a bad rap for being noisy.
Of course, no one runs a portable generator for the ambiance; we have very good reasons, usually unavoidable, to run them, so when circumstances dictate, the best we can do is look for the quieter ones among the group.
How noise is measured
To understand how we measure generators’ noise output, it’s important that we first understand a little about how noise is quantified in the first place.
Sound travels in waves, and the measure of the strength of those waves is referred to as amplitude. Decibels are the unit in which amplitude is expressed. Decibels are sometimes abbreviated as dB or dBA. Every sound can be measured in a number of decibels, from 0, which is the softest sound the human ear can detect, through 65 dBA, which is about the level of normal spoken conversation, all the way up through 135 dBA, the level of a jet plane as heard from 100 feet away, and on through any sound possible.
The danger a loud noise poses to your hearing increases exponentially. In other words, a sound of 100 dBA not twice as damaging, but many times more damaging to the hearing than 50 dBA. To illustrate, 8 hours of continuous exposure to sound levels of above 85dBA (approximately the level of a busy city street) can permanently damage a person’s hearing, while a sound of 100 dBA may take as little as 30 minutes to inflict the equivalent amount of damage.
Above 85 dBA, for every 3 decibels that the noise increases, the safe time span of exposure is halved. So whereas it is safe to listen to a 97 dBA sound for half an hour, one should avoid listening to a 100 dBA sound for more than 15 minutes.
A standard converter generator often produces in the mid- to upper-60s decibels, while an inverter may be in the 50s.
When a quiet portable generator is important
Because portable generators are generally so noisy, you will definitely pay a premium for a quieter machine. Consider your intended usage carefully so as to decide realistically when quiet portable generators are worth the expense. For example, at a worksite where protective gear is readily available and workers are used to protecting their ears, it may not be worth prioritizing a quieter generator. If you are camping, though, and want to power your coffeemaker or portable fridge, it may make sense to spend a bit more for a machine that won’t totally spoil the idyllic mountain setting.
Which are the best quiet portable generators?
In general, people who choose to prioritize quiet operation are looking for an inverter generator. Inverter-generators convert DC power to AC power. They tend to operate much more quietly than comparable converters. However, they are often double or triple the price of standard generators, and also tend to have shorter runtimes because of their smaller fuel tanks. (For more information, see our Converter vs. Inverter section.) If the quiet operation or any of inverters other features are your priority, here are some top-performing inverter generators to check out.