What is an inverter in a campervan?
The purpose of your campervan power inverter is to convert DC battery power to AC power, and provide a consistent, reliable energy source directly to your appliances.
An RV or campervan power inverter converts 12 volt or 24 volt DC battery power to 110 volt or 240 volt AC power.
This converted power can be used to run appliances, medical devices and other electronics that require 110 volt or 240 volt power normally supplied by grid power supply.
Campervan Power Inverters help to provide consistent AC power in your van
The best power inverter can make the difference between suffering at the hands of the elements, or relaxing in total comfort.
- Maybe it’s a blazing hot day and you need to crank up a powerful fan or AC system.
- Or perhaps it’s the dead of winter and you’re depending on 110/240 volt electric heat.
- Or maybe you just want to watch some Netflix on your flat screen.
- Do you have medical equipment on board that needs consistent, grid quality power?
The world of power inverters is vast, to say the least. And it should be, considering all that these magic boxes perform out there in the world of RVs, campervans, trailers, trucks, boats…
Which inverter is best? What size do you need? What type of inverter should you get? How should it be installed?
In this article we’ll get you up to speed on some basics, some advanced inverter concepts, and then make recommendations of inverters we’ve researched carefully.
Do I need an inverter in my campervan?
A few important factors go into deciding if you need a power inverter in your van.
The popularity of RV’s and campervans has given rise to more 12/24 volt appliances, and it’s now possible to outfit a van almost entirely with low voltage appliances and gear.
But higher voltage will likely always be necessary for some electronics, medical equipment, tools and other gear.
How to decide if you need a campervan power inverter
- If you have 110/240 volt gear on board, you will need an inverter in your van, especially if you want the convenience of a smoothie blender, a powerful AC system or other items that require higher voltage.
- Will you be mostly connected to shore power at campgrounds and RV sites? If you’re rarely off grid, a low wattage inverter for occasional use may be enough for you. Still, it can be good to have a more powerful one for the occasional need.
- I love van builds with low voltage house power systems. If you can avoid the added expense and complications of a 110/240V system, go for it! But again, an inverter will provide for the option of using the odd higher voltage item.
- Do I have sensitive medical equipment that requires consistent, stable, “grid quality” high voltage power? In this case, you need a high quality ‘Pure Sine’ (more on that later) camper power inverter.
That should help you get started with answering the question of whether or not you need a camper inverter.
Please read on for more info…
Another source of on board power for your campervan: Quiet Portable Generators
Did you know that many of the portable generators available have built in, efficient pure sine inverters?
We wrote at length about quiet campervan generators. Please take a moment to read up on them.
Of course many vanlifers install both power inverters and quiet generators, depending on their power needs.
You may decide that a modern, quiet, compact generator will be what you need for DC to AC power conversion.
What is the best inverter for a campervan?
The answer to this question depends on the appliances and other electrical devices you have in your van.
Since every campervan owner has different power needs, and there are so many variables between inverters, how they’re used and the details of campervan electrical systems, it’s impossible to answer in a few words.
So, the best campervan inverter is the one that suits your unique power needs.
This post is designed to help you decide the best inverter for your unique campervan and power needs.
What are “Pure Sine Wave” and “Modified Sine Wave” inverters?
This is among the biggest points of mystery and confusion in the world of power inverters.
Without getting into the deep electrical science behind these technologies, here’s the main difference:
- Pure sine wave inverters offer the cleanest power output. They can even provide power that’s identical in quality to home power, also known as “grid power quality”.
- Modified sine wave inverters offer a less clean, “stepped” or “square” (less consistent flow of electricity) power output that can cause problems for some devices including audio equipment, LED lights, some TVs, laptops, microwaves, motors, medical equipment and others.
If hard science is your thing, start with this very good article from Altestore.com
Should you get a modified sine wave, or a pure sine wave camper power inverter?
While some vanlifers will dispute the issue of pure vs modified sine wave inverters, there are some facts that are not up for debate.
Mostly, that pure sine wave camper power inverters output higher quality power, and if you have 110/240 volt appliances requiring that, you should stick to pure sine inverter.
Let’s take a look at a video on the subject.
Tip for the busy, or impatient: Click the gear icon on the video to watch at 1.5 speed.
Overheating? Buzzing? Inefficient operation? No thanks. At least not in my van.
And yes, I’ve experienced all of these things when I installed modified sine wave inverters and even some low quality purse sine units.
Aside from the safety concern of overheating, nothing puts me off my Letterkenny or my Steely Dan like a buzzing sound system.
Our advice is to save your pennies, sell the baseball card collection, whatever it takes, but get high quality, pure sine inverters for your van.
What can you power with a Modified Sine Wave inverter?
When considering what can be powered by a Modified Wave inverter, the rule of thumb is; only the most simple electrical items should be powered with a modified sine inverter.
One common use of a Modified Wave inverter is simple heaters such as the following:
- Water boiler
- Coffee or tea pot
- Hair Iron
- Space Heater
- Toaster or Toaster oven
But even these can run into problems if your power supply puts out a square sine wave, depending on the nature of their electronics.
Incandescent Light bulbs can be powered by this type of inverter, but dimmer switches and other power controls attached to those lights will likely struggle.
LED’s and florescent lights may buzz, overheat and otherwise malfunction.
Some simple fan motors can be driven by a Modified Sine Wave inverter, but any AC powered motor will suffer a shorter life span and possible malfunction.
What can you power with a Pure Sine Wave inverter?
In theory, Pure Sine Wave inverters produce identical power as “Grid Quality” power.
But the process of changing a power supply from DC to AC is complicated, so even some Pure Sine inverters can cause problems for appliances.
We recommend that you very carefully choose the best size of Pure Sine inverter for your needs, read reviews and watch any test YouTube videos for the particular inverter you’re considering.
Once you’ve purchased an inverter, test it with your particular gear as soon as it arrives so that it can be returned or exchanged if necessary.
One very valuable investment is a True RMS electrical tester, which will accurately read the output of both modified and pure sine inverters.
This will allow you to assess the accuracy of your inverter before plugging in sensitive equipment.
What do “Peak” power and “continuous” power mean?
You’ll sometimes see an inverters power output will include 2 numbers, like “200/400”.
The 200 represents 200 watts of continuous or “running” power. .
The 400 represents the “peak” power output, or the short burst of higher wattage needed, to start an appliance or briefly (as in a fraction of a second) output a higher wattage.
Safety considerations regarding Peak and Continuous power
Any inverter you purchase, whether Pure or Modified sine wave, should clearly state both peak and continuous power output.
Furthermore, it’s important to know the “peak” power burst required to start or cycle your major appliances, so you can choose an appropriate inverter.
How to calculate peak power needs of appliances
My Googling lead me to a cool company called Solarstik. They provide high capacity mobile power storage, generation and management systems.
While their products are probably not relevant for campervans, their knowledge and experience definitely is!
Here’s a quote from their site:
When determining the peak load of an appliance, experience has taught us that a general rule of thumb is to take the rated power consumption and multiply it by three to get a good estimate of the appliance
Therefore, if an appliance is rated for 300 W continuous usage, then it is reasonable that the start-up load may be 900 W.”
A word of caution: This is a general guideline and if your appliances don’t clearly state their peak output, you should contact the manufacturers of your appliances to determine their surge power needs.
- Any quality power inverter will clearly state the continuous and peak power output
- Take the time to learn about your appliances so you know the outputs you need
The best power inverter wattage for your Campervan
Should you get a 300 watt, 800 watt or 3000 watt inverter for your campervan?
To answer this, you’ll want to become familiar with the power usage of the appliances you’ll be plugging in to your power supply.
Most appliances have power usage printed on a label or stamped in the plastic.
We’ll be focusing on sustained or continuous power output ratings.
For example, does your appliance draw power over longer periods of time such as a heater, fan or hair dryer? Or does it use power for a short time, as in a microwave (for normal, 1 to 5 minute use), water boiler or fridge freezer?
Our inverter product recommendations include some larger inverters in case you’re running big stuff like an air conditioner or electric heater…
Wattage rating and power use cycles
How wattage relates to power use can be deceiving. For example, your 12 volt fridge freezer might actually use considerably less power than your 12 volt, low wattage fan.
Let’s use the Dometic CFX-40US Refrigerator/Freezer as a fairly typical example of 12 volt fridge freezer power usage. This machine draws 60 Watts of power, when it’s running.
That last part; “when it’s running” is a very important distinction because in order to keep your food cold, these fridges only need to turn on for a few seconds every hour, so they tend to use a very small amount of power, especially if they’re not opened very often.
Compare that to a 12 volt portable fan drawing low wattage, but for hours on end, and you’ll start to see the fridge for the bargain of power usage that it is.
All that to say that higher wattage often has less to do with total power usage than common sense might suggest.
So it’s important to take cycling of appliances into consideration when designing a power system, and when choosing the best inverter for your campervan.
What size inverter do you need for your campervan?
For the typical campervan build, using as many 12 volt appliances as possible and only needing occasional 110/240 with low wattage appliances, a power inverter in the range of 800 to 1500 watts will do the trick.
The list of available appliances that an 1000 Watt pure sine inverter will comfortably power is substantial and will have you covered for nearly every comfort of home.
I have a DC hot water kettle that uses 1000 Watts and boils water very fast. You can even get a low wattage heater (for smaller vans) that should run nicely on an 1000 Watt inverter without any issues.
And if you’ve got a bigger rig with more creature comforts like a big heater or AC unit, you might want to go up to 3000 Watts or more. We’ve got you covered in reviews, below.
What are low wattage power inverters best for?
Smaller inverters are typically for charging cell phones and other small electronics when you don’t have a dedicated DC charger for them, or you need to plug multiple low wattage items in to one charger.
For example cell phones, tablets, Bluetooth devices… can all be charged using a basic auxiliary power port (cigarette lighter socket for us old timers) USB charger.
But some of the low wattage inverters offer more sophisticated “smart” charging features. Please see our product recommendations for low wattage inverters, below.
As you can see by our Under 300 Watt Inverter Top Picks, there are some highly rated low wattage options.
These can be useful for low wattage appliances and for charging laptops, tablets and phones.
It’s important to point out that none of these inverters output “Pure Sign” power, so you’ll want to be careful about what you plug in to them.
Keep in mind that just because an inverter includes a 110/240 style socket, doesn’t mean it can power your higher wattage devices, and some sensitive appliances can be damaged by attempting to power them with too little wattage.
How to install a power inverter in your campervan
Since every van is different and we don’t know the details of your unique build, the best we can do is provide principles and general knowledge to consider for power inverter installation.
A word of caution about camper power inverter installation
This post will not provide you with an education in RV or Campervan electrical.
We take no responsibility for the safety of your property or person.
We highly recommend consulting a specialist trained in RV, marine and Campervan electrical systems prior to installing or using electrical equipment in your van.
Virtually every campervan electrical horror story we’ve heard (or, uh… lived) could have been avoided by simply hiring an expert to install, or at least guide, the installation of the electrical system in question.
Therefore, we strongly suggest that at the very least you consult a relevant electrical professional prior to powering up your installation. Better yet, have the work done by a pro.
Inverter cable gauge, connectors and fusing
- Quality and type of cable are vital to safe, efficient performance.
- The gauge of your inverter cables are determined by the wattage output of the unit, the system voltage, the length of the cables from battery to inverter and other factors. This article is good start for understanding inverter cable sizing.
- Ring connectors vs U connectors are advised in campervans and boats so that, should the mounting nut loosen, the cable won’t easily slide off, causing unit shorting or other fault.
- An inline fuse of proper size for your system must be installed.
Camper inverter location and mounting
- For both convenience and safety, it’s important to mount the inverter where it can be quickly and easily accessed.
- Some inverters include mounting instructions such as horizontal orientation.
- Because your inverter generates heat as a byproduct of normal operation, it’s vital to mount the unit in a spot that provides adequate air circulation and does not block built in fans,
- Mount on non-flammable surfaces such as aluminum or steel.
- The unit should be mounted firmly and securely with brackets and/or straps so as not to move or vibrate while driving.
Grounding for Campervan Power Inverter installation
- It’s often advised to ground an inverter directly to the frame of the vehicle using a short run of properly sized cable (see above), vs grounding at the battery.
- Follow camper inverter manufacturer recommendations.
Minimum power inverter safety features
For our recommendations, we only considered inverters that include the following minimum safety features, and so should you.
- High and low voltage shutdown
- Over wattage warning and/or shutdown
- Short circuit protection
- Thermal (overheating) protection
- Cooling fan
- We also like to see a digital read out showing current voltage output and wattage use, though there are some decent units without this feature.
Our power inverter recommendations
How to use ratings and reviews to find the best inverter for your van build
I’ve yet to see a high volume, five star rating for a power inverter. In fact, the highest ratings tend to be in the 3.8 to 4.2 star range. Why is that?
I believe this is due to the vast range of uses for power inverters, and the infinite number and style of campervan power system designs.
The truth is, no inverter will be perfect for everyone. With this in mind, you should take the time to find the right one for your campervan and your needs.
How to choose the best campervan inverter for your specific van build
While it’s always good to take a few minutes to read reviews for any product, this is especially true of any item with potentially high impact on the health and well being of you and your loved ones.
I like to use my browser search function to find keywords in Amazon reviews that apply to my specific needs for a product.
For example, if I need an inverter that will power a blender, I’ll open the reviews section for the inverter I’m considering, hit control + F (On mobile or tablet, use “find in page”) and search for words like “blender”, “mixer”, “smoothie”…
This allows me to assess the quality and usefulness of a product relative to my specific needs, and substantially reduces the need for a return.
Campervan Power Inverter Top Pics below 300 Watts
|Inerter brand, model||BESTEK 200W Power Inverter
|Sine wave type & wattage||
|Rating & price||
Campervan Power Inverter Top Pics 300 to 500 Watts
|Inerter brand, model||VertaMax PURE SINE 500 Watt|
|Sine wave type & wattage||
|Rating & price|
Campervan Power Inverter Top Pics 500 to 1500 Watts
|Inerter brand, model||Ampeak 1000W Power Inverter||GoWISE 1500w Pure SINE|
|Sine wave type & wattage||
|Rating & price||
Campervan Power Inverter Top Pics Over 1500 Watts
|Inerter brand, model||GIANDEL 4000W Power Inverter|
|Sine wave type & wattage||
|Rating & price|
- Inverters provide consistent AC power.
- Do you need a camper van inverter? If you have important 110/240 gear on board, yes. If you’re all 12/24 volt, no.
- The best inverters serve your specific power needs. One size does NOT fit all.
- Modified sine wave inverters will cause problems. Pure sine inverters are best for “grid quality” power.
- It’s important to know the peak power needs of your campervan appliances.
- Power inverter installation requires some careful consideration, skill and knowledge. Hire or consult an expert.
- Cable size, fusing, grounding, location, mounting and more are vital for safe, functional inverter installation.
- Campervan Hack: Use customer ratings and reviews to find the best inverter for your van build.