How to choose the right power inverter for your campervanWhether it’s a blazing hot day and you need to crank up the fan, or it’s the dead of winter and you’re depending on electric heat, or you just want to watch some Netflix on the laptop, your campervan power inverter needs to be a steady, reliable energy source.
The best power inverter for can make the difference between suffering at the hands of the elements, or relaxing in total comfort.
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, Vans, trailers, trucks, campsites…
Chances are you’ve been Googling like mad, just trying to get a grip on which inverters do what, how much power you need, which type of inverter to get and more.
In this article we’ll get you up to speed on some basics, and then make some recommendations of inverters we’ve researched carefully.
A Word of Caution
This post will not provide you with an education in RV or Campervan electrical. We highly recommend consulting a specialist trained in RV and Campervan electrical systems prior to installing or using electrical equipment in your van. We take no responsibility for the safety of your property or person.
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 an RV electrical professional prior to powering up your installation. Better yet, have the work done by a pro.
Here’s a partial list of safety concerns when installing an inverter. These are beyond the scope of this article, but are nonetheless essential to consider for safety and successful operation of your inverter.
- Cables from battery to inverter: Type/material, quality, gauge, length/distance from battery…
- Inline fuse: Size for your inverter and power usage, location/distance from battery, style of enclosure…
- Grounding: Where to connect ground for safe operation of your inverter, acceptable length…
- Location of inverter in your van: Horizontal or vertical, air circulation for cooling, convenience/ease of access…
- Ring connectors at battery and inverter: Gauge, material/quality, method of crimping to cables…
- AND more! Again, consult an expert, please.
Okay, you get the point. Moving on…
Do you need a Campervan Power Inverter?
Are you planning to spend a lot of time off grid? If your goal is to be as self sufficient as possible, you may already be planning to include a portable generator in your van build.
Did you know that many of the portable generators available have built in, efficient pure sine inverters. You may decide that a modern, quiet, compact generator will be enough for DC to AC power conversion.
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.
“Pure Sine Wave” vs “Modified Sine Wave”
Aside from power output wattage, pure sine vs modified sine might be the biggest point of mystery and confusion when choosing an inverter.
It’s also an issue that’s open to a wide range of opinion. We found some very heated arguments on RV and auto electrical forums, in blog comments and on Facebook pages.
Without getting into the deep electrical science behind these technologies, here’s the main difference:
- Pure sign wave inverters offer the cleanest power source, identical in output to home power, also known as “grid power quality”.
- Modified sign wave inverters offer a less clean stepped or square power output that can cause problems for some devices including audio equipment, LED lights, some TVs, laptops, microwaves, medical equipment and others.
If hard science is your thing, start with this very good article from Altestore.com
Let’s take a look at a video on the subject. (Tip from the impatient, busy Sage: 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’d installed a modified sine wave inverter.
Aside from the safety concern of overheating, nothing puts me off my Breaking Bad or my Steely Dan (the Sage is old, it’s true) like a buzzing sound system.
Our advice: Get a pure sign inverter. Save your pennies, sell your baseball card collection, whatever it takes.
The best power inverter size for your Campervan
How big does your inverter need to be? You’ll want to become familiar with the power usage of the accessories and appliances you’ll be plugging in.
Every appliance has a power usage rated printed on a label or stamped in the plastic.
We’ll be focusing on sustained power output ratings.
It’s important to consider appliances that draw high power levels over longer periods of time such as a heater, fan, hair dryer, microwave…
Our product reviews, below, will include some larger inverters in case you’re running big stuff like a clothes drier air conditioner, heat exchanger…
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 use considerably less power than your 12 Watt 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 “only” 12 Watts, 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 over all 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 should you get?
Minimum 800 Watts. Why am I so confident about that? Here’s why: The list of available appliances, in both AC and DC that an 800 Watt inverter will comfortably power is substantial and will have you covered for nearly every comfort of home, short of a baking oven, clothes drier, any worthwhile microwave, a cocktail or smoothie blender, and a few other power pigs.
So our reviews and recommended products start at 800 Watts and go up from there.
But if, based on total awareness of your power usage requirements, you feel you only need 600 Watts, or (cough) 400, you can use our guide to find the best brands and by carefully reading the reviews and performing your own due diligence.
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.
Power inverter safety features: Minimum requirements
For our recommendations, we only considered inverters that include the following minimum safety features, and so should you.
- High and low voltage 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 for campervan travel recommendations