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If you’re relatively new to the camper van or RV life, there’s every chance you’ve heard people talk about the need for a power inverter and wondered what the heck they’re talking about.
If you’ve taken your first long trip in a camper van or RV with a solar electrical system, there’s every chance you’ve found out for yourself.
A power inverter is a piece of equipment that acts as a translator between your solar power system and the likes of a standard 2- or 3-prong power socket. It’s the little piece of genius that lets you use standard 120V appliances.
That’s your microwave, your coffee maker, your laptop charger, and quite a lot of the rest of the 21st century’s essential gadgetry.
Obviously, given the relative ease of carting a 12V battery with you in your RV or campervan, whenever you’re looking for appliances, the 12V versions will be your immediate go-to.
But sometimes, 12V is just not going to cut it, and then you’re going to need a reliable power inverter.
Here, we’ll take a lot of the guesswork out of finding the right inverter for your needs, and give you recommendations on the models that work best in given situations. If that’s all you need, feel free to skip the science and go straight to the meat of the reviews.
If you need to understand what’s what before you click the “Buy” button though, stick with us and we’ll clue you in.
How Powerful Do You Need Your Inverter To Be?
Inverters come with ratings, that are based on the amount of power in Watts they can consistently, continuously supply.
To find out the power you need your inverter to supply (and therefore the rating you need to look for), you need to compile an initial power draw inventory of your campervan or RV.
Add up the power draws of all the appliances in your RV that will need to continuously draw power from your solar system – or, that you could need to have plodded in and drawing power all at the same time.
That will give you your ballpark inverter wattage rating. It’ll also give you a probably surprising insight into how many appliances you have in your RV drawing power, about which you may never have previously given a thought.
The Inefficiency Of Inverting DC To AC
Ballpark figure. Remember we said it was a ballpark figure. The truth is, you’re gonna need a bigger ballpark.
Because the process of translating DC power to AC carries a cost in terms of the inefficiency of the process. In other words, you lose power in translation.
OK, so how much gets lost? Just for the sake of additional complexity, this differs from inverter to inverter, as a result of the materials and the processes used in their construction.
They tend to average out by translating around 85% of the DC into AC, meaning you lose a full 15% of the power that’s technically available to you.
So, as a rule of thumb, once you’ve made your appliance power draw inventory, add in another 15% to the final figure you come up with, and you’ll have a much more realistic idea of the kind of inverter you need to get.
Continuous Watts Vs Peak Surge Watts
Think you now have the go-to equation for picking the perfect inverter for your RB needs?
Yyyyeah. Sorry about this – we were just breaking you in gently.
Because yes, continuous power draw is the main thing to take into consideration – because obviously, if you’re drawing more power than you can invert, you’re going to be drawing it for a spectacularly short amount of time before everything goes dark and cold, and your coffee is ruined.
But it’s not the whole picture. Some appliances need a pretty severe surge when they first wake up. It’s like you needing a double espresso to get your eyes to open.
In the case of some appliances, that can mean they draw between three times and a hefty, gulping seven times their constant draw rate when they’re starting up.
Those are what we call “surge watts” and some of your favorite appliances need them – including the microwave, and your pumps, compressors, and heaters.
To be sure you’re safe in those peak moments, check the surge requirement of your appliance, and then compare that with the peak watts of your inverter. While it’s not necessarily a given, most inverters will handle peak watts up to double the level of their stated continuous watt capacity.
Pure Vs Modified Sine Wave Inverters
We swear, we’re not going out of our way to throw obstacles in your way. But there are also two types of power inverter: modified sine wave inverters and pure sine wave inverters.
With modified sine wave inverters, you get an uneven, “unrefined” signal, that’s subject to rises, falls, sudden plummets and occasionally sitting at zero.
Pure sine wave inverters, you get a clean wave form, pulled from a main electricity grid. That means consistent current, which opens up any AC device you care to name. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the modified sine wave inverters will cost you around 60% of an equivalent pure sine wave inverter.
That makes sense because a whole handful of RV devices may not work properly with modified sine wave inverters. Devices like:
- Modern LED TVs and computer monitors
- Audio equipment, etc
will need the consistent performance of pure sine wave inverters, so if you have them and need to use them, you might as well bite the bullet and go pure from the start. If you don’t have any of these things, you can probably get away with a cheaper, less consistent modified sine wave inverter.
If you have something like an induction cooktop, you’re going to need to have enough capacity to go over the top of your capacity, and you’re going to want to go for a pure sine wave inverter.
Want The Option To Use City Plug-in Power?
Usually, to access city power, you’d install a battery charger into your system, so the city power charged the battery and the battery powered your van life.
You can also get a combo inverter, that will charge the battery from a 120V source, sense when you’re drawing power from a city power source and act as a pass-through, and give you inversion into the bargain.
So what are the best inverters on the market
Available in everything from an 1100W version up to a 4000W version, the KRIËGER inverter is UL certified and comes with a remote switch. That’s an excellent touch – many brands sell their remote switch separately.
For all we’ve said that some devices won’t work with a modified sine wave inverter, most of what you need in a van absolutely will, and will cost you a lot less if you use a modified sine wave inverter.
The KRIËGER inverter works with any 12V battery – again, that puts it ahead of its field, because plenty of modified inverters won’t work with Lithium batteries.
If you can work with a modified inverter, you should work with the KRIËGER inverter – it will give you more than you’re expecting, at a highly attractive price point.
- 1100 watts continuous power, 2200 watts peak power, KR1100 Modified Sine Wave Car Inverter converts 12V DC to 120V AC Power, Connect DC battery cables directly to your vehicles battery and you have power on the go
- Our version of an all-inclusive! Wired Remote control included - ANL Fuse kit + 3 ft Battery Cables Included
- We have your back – This inverter has all the protections that you will need, Overload, Temperature, short circuit and all of these protections are displayed on the LCD, the LCD Display also shows you the Input Voltage, Output Wattage and Battery Level
- Don’t just take our word for this inverter’s rating, this item has been tested, validated and approved by METLAB for both its safety and performance. MET Approved under UL std 458 and CSA std C22.2
- You can’t go wrong with Krieger! We believe in our product and quality and we offer the warranty that proves it – “3 Years parts and labor warranty”
AIMS Power has spent 20 years building a strong reputation in mobile energy, and if your RV is full of those pure sine wave inverter-only devices, this would be our first choice.
Another inverter that comes with versions all the way up to 4000W to cover the waterfront of vans available with a gadget-heavy lifestyle, it’s available at a “Shut up and take my money” price point that – combined with the reputation, the range and the performance – puts the AIMS right at the top of our pure sine wave heap.
Extremely efficient inversion with reliable surge output, AIMS inverters are rapidly stealing march after march on the more expensive players in the market, like Xantrex. If you want high reliability on a reasonable budget, the AIMS inverter might well be your best first choice.
- POWERFUL: 1000W max continuous power, 2000W surge, clean pure sine power, soft start technology, compact design, lightweight.
- PROTECTIONS: overload, over temp, high voltage, low voltage, short circuit, internally fused, low and high voltage alarm, cooling fan, and isolated ground neutral.
- FEATURES: Works with small electronics, tools and appliances and much more. Includes USB port, LED indicators, ground terminal and optional remote switch.
- FEATURES: Works with small electronics, tools and appliances and much more. Includes USB port, LED indicators, ground terminal and optional remote switch.
- APPLICATIONS: Ideal for back-up or off grid power system using a 12V battery(s) in trucks, homes, boats, cabins, solar, vans, bus, and vehicle outfitters and other OEM type applications that prefer a UL 458 & CSA listing. 2 Year warranty. Use high quality copper cables in your system.
Speak of the devil, and the Xantrex ProWatt SW pure sine wave inverter shows up. If you’re new to RV life and you want to go the simplest route, the Xantrex is probably your easiest reach, because it’s a solid piece of equipment with a rock hard reputation behind it.
Known for imposing a minimal draw on your batteries, Xantrex inverters have been rocking the RV world for decades now.
And despite some interesting new challenges from the likes of AIMS, the company’s not likely to be going anywhere any time soon, because it keeps doing what it knows, and doing it better than most companies in the marketplace.
One of the advantages Xantrex has over some of the newer players is that it’s had the time – and, to be fair, it’s put in the effort – to develop a first class customer service offering.
If anything goes wrong with your inverter within the first 24 months you own it, give the company a call, and you’re likely to receive a replacement within 24 hours (assuming, of course, the US Mail can find you!).
That’s one of those elements that makes the Xantrex offering an immediate go-to for lots of relatively new van people – it means you can invert without the worry of what happens if and when something goes wrong.
If there’s something to complain about with the Xantrex ProWatt inverter, it’s that the surge ratings are oddly lower than some on the market, and also, you need to beware some of the labeling. The ProWatt 1000 is actually only rated for 900 watts of continuous power, and so on.
But if you want a reassuring experience with your inverter, you can’t really do better than Xantrex, and the ProWatt 2000 is as much as many van owners will need on any given trip.
- COMPACT: Lightweight and small, the PROwatt SW true sine wave inverter is efficiently designed for 12V battery banks and provides clean consistent power for sensitive electronics. It is an affordable alternative to modified sine wave inverters.
- QUALITY POWER: Delivers optimal continuous power, making it ideal for large single loads, intermittent loads, or multiple smaller loads. Ability to reliably power CPAP machines, electronics, coffee machines, small power tools, microwaves, and is perfect for boats, RVs, work trucks, or commercial vehicles.
- EASY-TO-USE: The built-in digital display offers system performance information such as input voltage and output power. The PROwatt SW features dual GFCI outlets and a USB port, for easy use of modern electronics.
- SAFE: Approved to UL458 with marine supplement, CSA, and FCC requirements. For easier troubleshooting, the PROwatt SW has power and fault signals to indicate potential line voltage, overheating, or overloading.
- EASY-TO-INSTALL: DC connectors conveniently located in the back of the inverter. Bolts and nuts included. Minimal tools are needed for the installation.
The Renogy 1000W brings an unusual feature to the pure sine wave inverter market with its Eco Mode – yes, that does exactly what you think it does.
It allows you to conserve your system’s energy without compromising the action of the inverter. An additional extra that comes out of left field is a switch that lets you change the frequency between 50Hz/60hz.
As you’d expect of a pure sine wave inverter, it gives you consistent power to draw, meaning you can get your RV exploring hat on, without necessarily sacrificing some of the 21st century’s better and more life-enhancing conveniences.
It also comes with some high-speed ventilation fans, to keep the inverter running at lower, safer temperatures, and a wired remote, so you can control your inverter’s power from a distance, with no fuss and no fiddling.
It may not have as much robustness or reputation as some of the bigger players in the market, but the Renogy brings handy features to your pure sine wave inverter shortlist.
- 【POWERFUL DC-AC】1000W continuous, 2000W peak surge during load start-up, 12V to 120VAC pure sine wave with conversion efficiency >90%, reduces conversion loss.
- 【SAFE FOR USE】LED indicators for under-voltage and over-voltage protection, over-temperature protection, over-load protection, and short circuit indication. Cooling funs and ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection.
- 【PROTECT YOUR ELECTRONICS】Advanced pure sine wave technology provides quality AC equivalent to grid power which will protect and extend the life of your electronics and appliances. With its quiet and high inductive loads, there are no strange buzzing sounds when your electronics are turned on and allow them to run smoother, cooler, and quieter.
- 【POWER-SAVING MODE】Conserving your system's energy. If the output power is 50W or less, the inverter will not work. And it will automatically power the load when higher power device is connected.
- 【EASY-TO-USE】 Offers 1 AC Outlets and 1 AC Terminal Block, along with 4AWG Cables and a 16.4ft Wired Remote Control.
Feel like you need more than a standard inverter? The AIMS PICOGLF may well have your name on it. It’s a combo inverter, and it lets you draw city power, all in one unit. That makes your system a lot simpler in a single stroke.
It’s also simpler and easier to install than both units individually. Granted, it’s going to cost you more than you’d pay for both units if you bought them separately, but think of the convenience factor.
It’s pretty feature-packed, too. Low-voltage battery alarm, GFCI outlets, and a 3x surge capability are handy dandy add-ons to have, plus – in case this hasn’t sunk in yet – you get to use city power as and when you can by choosing this combo inverter over single-use versions.
If there’s an issue here, it’s that the AIMS PICOGLF is not UL certified. You can get UL certified inverter/chargers from AIMS, but you’re going to be paying more again for that peace of mind.
Of all the double-duty combo inverters we’ve seen, the AIMS has the most to recommend it, so if you want that convenience, this is a strong way to go.
- POWERFUL: 1250W continuous, 3750W surge for 20 seconds, 12VDC, 120 VAC output, pure sine clean power, low frequency, auto transfer switch and 35A smart battery charger for 8 different battery technologies including lithium.
- PROTECTIONS: Overload, over temp, high voltage, low voltage, short circuit, internally fused, low and high voltage alarm, cooling fan, and isolated ground neutral.
- FEATURES: GFCI outlets, charge current control dial, auto gen start, conformal coated, power save mode. Only one set of cables needed. Optional remote available.
- APPLICATIONS: Ideal for applications going back and forth from shore/generator and inverter power automatically. Homes, boats, RVs, solar, mobile business & work trucks.
- TRUST AIMS: Buy with confidence. In business for over 20 years. All tech and warranty support in Nevada.
Installing And Using Your Power Inverter
OK, so you have your inverter. What the heck do you actually do with it?
First thing’s first. Loose connections in a power inverter will kill your game. You need firm, perfect, tight connections between your battery and your inverter. So, keep that in mind as we go.
This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it turns out not to be. Make sure your battery’s discharge rate can support your inverter. How will you know if it can or not? It should be printed on the specification sheet of your battery.
You need to put your inverter as close as possible to your battery, to minimize the wire run – and the chance for degradation in the power.
Make sure you have the right sized cables and fuses, or you’re essentially speaking German in Tennessee. Your inverter won’t be able to get a thing done if you give it the wrong sized cables or fuses.
The bigger the electrical current, or the further it has to travel, the larger the wire you’re going to need to get the job.
Make sure you have a fuse on the positive cable. That’s to protect your system from spectacular surging.
Hopefully, you’ve now got more of an idea about power inverters – the differences between them, the way you determine the ones you need, and what to do with them when you get them. Happy power inverting – and happy trails!