What Does An Inverter Do In An RV? A Complete RV Power Guide

Fifth Wheel RV with solar panels staying at a Harvest Hosts location on a Hay Farm in Florida

If you own an RV, you’re probably already aware of the importance of electricity to your comfort and convenience on the road. Electricity powers everything from your lights and refrigerator to your air conditioning and entertainment systems. But did you know that an RV inverter plays a crucial role in providing the electricity you need while you’re off the grid and on the go?

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at what an RV inverter is, how it works, and why it’s an important component of your RV’s electrical system. We’ll also explore different types of inverters, the different electronics and appliances that can run off of an inverter, and how to determine what size battery bank you need to power your RV.

What Is An RV Inverter?

Blue Victron solar components connected by well-organized black and red wires as part of an RV solar set up for off-grid boondocking
Our Victron MultiPlus II Inverter Charge is a core component of our solar setup for off-grid RV boondocking

An RV inverter is an electrical device that converts direct current (DC) power from your RV’s battery bank into alternating current (AC) power, allowing you to power your electronic devices and appliances while you’re off the grid. In other words, an inverter is what allows you to watch TV, use your laptop, or charge your phone even if you’re not plugged into a power source.

There are several popular brands of RV inverters on the market, including:

  • Victron
  • Xantrex
  • Go Power!
  • Magnum Energy
  • Renogy
  • AIMS Power

Inverter Sizes

RV inverters come in a range of sizes, from small, portable units that can power a few small devices to larger inverters, and permanent installations that can power your entire RV. The size of the inverter you need will depend on the amount of power you need and the size of your battery bank, as well as how often you plan to boondock (RVing off-grid, without any hookups).

Pros and Cons

Like any piece of equipment, RV inverters have their pros and cons.

Some of the advantages of using an inverter include:

  • Allows you to use electronic devices and appliances while off the grid
  • Provides backup power in case of a power outage
  • Can help reduce generator use and fuel consumption
  • Can extend the life of your RV’s battery bank by preventing deep discharge

However, there are also some downsides to using an inverter, including:

  • Can be expensive to purchase and install (our Victron Inverter cost around $1400)
  • Some devices and appliances may not work properly with certain types of inverters, such as a modified sine wave inverter
  • Inverter use can drain your RV’s battery bank quickly if not used conservatively

RV Inverter vs. RV Converter

It’s important to understand the difference between an RV inverter and a converter, as they serve different functions in your RV’s electrical system.

A converter is responsible for converting AC power from a shore power source or generator into DC power to charge your RV’s battery bank. It also provides power to your RV’s DC circuits, such as your lights and water pumps.

The primary function of an inverter, on the other hand, is to convert DC power from your RV’s battery bank into AC power to run your electronic devices and appliances. Essentially, a converter takes AC power and turns it into DC power, while an inverter does the opposite, turning DC power into AC power.

This means that if you are not hooked up to shore power and do not have an inverter in your RV, you will find that any of your AC outlets do not work, even if your batteries are fully charged. This becomes a problem if you plan to boondock unless you are running a generator giving off 120V power, which you would need running for any time you need to be using AC power in your RV.

Different Types of Inverters

There are several different types of inverters, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The most common types of inverters are sine wave inverters and inverter chargers:

Pure Sine Wave Inverter

A pure sine wave inverter is the most sophisticated and expensive type of inverter. It produces a clean, smooth wave of power that is identical to the power you would get from a household electrical outlet. This makes it ideal for powering sensitive electronics and appliances, such as laptops, TVs, and medical equipment.

Examples:

RVer's Pick
Renogy 2000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter 12V DC to 120V AC Converter for Home, RV, Truck, Off-Grid Solar Power Inverter 12V to 110V with Built-in 5V/2.1A USB / Hardwire Port, Remote Controller

This power inverter (12V to 110V) provides 2000W continuous DC to AC power, 4000W peak surge during load start-up, 12V to 120VAC pure sine wave with conversion efficiency >90%

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.

Another example:

GoPower Go Power! GP-ISW2000-12 Industrial Pure Sine Wave Inverter
$721.50
Buy Now
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
02/18/2024 02:47 am GMT

Inverter Charger

An inverter charger combines the functions of an inverter and a converter into a single unit. It not only converts DC power into AC power but also charges your RV’s battery bank from a shore power source or generator. This makes it a convenient and space-saving option for RVers who want to power their devices and charge their batteries without having to install separate inverter and converter units.

RV inverter chargers are combination devices that serve two main functions: they can convert DC power from your RV’s battery bank into AC power for your appliances and devices (like a typical inverter), and it can also charge your RV’s battery bank from an external AC power source, like solar panels, a shore power hookup, or a generator.

This combination of functions makes an inverter charger a convenient and versatile choice for RVers who want to have a reliable source of power on the go while also being able to charge their battery bank when they have access to external power.

When connected to an external AC power source, an RV inverter charger can automatically detect the source of power and switch between inverter mode and charging mode as needed. This means that your RV’s battery bank can be charged automatically whenever external power is available, without the need for additional equipment or manual intervention.

In addition to its dual functionality, an RV inverter charger can also offer other features like surge protection, automatic shut-off, and battery monitoring to help you keep your RV’s electrical system running smoothly and efficiently.

Overall, an RV inverter charger is a versatile and convenient device that can provide both AC power and battery charging capabilities in a single package. If you’re planning to spend a lot of time off the grid in your RV or need a reliable backup power source in case of emergencies, an inverter charger may be a good choice for your needs.

Examples:

Our Pick
Victron Energy MultiPlus-II 2X 120V, 3000VA 12-Volt Pure Sine Wave Inverter and 120 amp Battery Charger
$1,196.80

A popular choice among RVers who boondock. This helps invert power to run large appliances off-grid

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
02/18/2024 04:12 pm GMT

Other examples:

Modified Sine Wave Inverter

A modified sine wave inverter is a more affordable option that produces a wave of power that is not as smooth as a pure sine wave. While this is sufficient for most electronics and appliances, some devices (such as an induction oven, for example) may not work properly with a modified sine wave inverter. Devices with motors, such as air conditioners or refrigerators, may make a humming noise when run on a modified sine wave inverter.

Examples:

Square Wave Inverters

A square wave inverter is the simplest and most basic type of inverter. It produces a wave of power that is choppy and not suitable for most electronics or appliances. It is best suited for powering basic tools and devices, such as power tools like drills, or lights. Not a suitable option for RVs.

About RV Electrical Systems & Types of Electricity

Understanding the different types of electricity used in an RV electrical system is crucial to understanding how an inverter works. There are two types of electricity used in RVs: AC power and DC power.

AC Power

AC power is the type of electricity that you get from a standard household electrical outlet. It is used to power most of the appliances and electronics in your RV, such as your air conditioner, TV, and microwave. When you’re plugged into a shore power source or running a generator, your RV is receiving AC power.

 DC Power

DC power is the type of electricity that is stored in your RV’s battery bank. It is used to power your RV’s DC circuits, such as your lights and water pump. When you’re off the grid, your RV is receiving DC power from your battery bank.

Read more on whether you should use 6v or 12v batteries for you RV.

Shore Power

Shore power is AC power that is supplied to your RV from an external power source, such as a campground electrical hookup or a generator. When you’re plugged into shore power, your RV’s converter is responsible for converting the AC power into DC power to charge your battery bank and power your DC circuits.

There are typically three types of shore power that an RV can take in (based on the 120-volt systems prevalent in the US):

  • 20-amp: This is the most basic form of shore power, and it provides a total of 2,400 watts of power. This is usually enough to power a few basic appliances, such as a TV, a few lights, and a small microwave.
  • 30-amp: This is a more powerful option that can provide up to 3,600 watts of power. This is typically enough to power most RVs, including air conditioning units, larger microwaves, and other high-wattage appliances.
  • 50-amp: This is the most powerful option and can provide up to 12,000 watts of power. This is typically used for larger RVs and can power multiple air conditioning units, large appliances, and other high-wattage items.

Take note, that you will need an adapter if the amperage of the shore power does not match the amperage your RV is wired for. For example, we have to use a 50amp-30amp adaptor when our 50amp RV only has access to 30amp service.

Power From Solar Panels

RV fifth wheel camping on Last Dollar Road in Telluride Colorado with sweeping views of the San Juan Mountains
Our RV solar setup has allowed us to camp off-grid in some amazing places, such as Last Dollar Road in Telluride

Many RVers choose to install solar panels on their RV to generate their own electricity while off the grid. Solar panels generate DC power, which is stored in your RV’s battery bank.

An inverter is necessary to convert the DC power into AC power to run your appliances and electronics.

The great thing about utilizing an inverter and running your RV off solar power is that it is a green and renewable resource that helps minimize your ecological footprint. In addition, it is the best solution for RV owners that prefer boondocking and spending time off-grid in nature and don’t want to deal with the hassle, maintenance, or noise that using a portable inverter generator can come with.

We do carry a portable generator with us, as you can never predict the weather and it is important to have a power backup. This being said, we love that our RV solar system typically allows us to spend many days without shore power or the generator, even while using a larger appliance like our residential refrigerator and daily draws from our Starlink and mobile internet routers, laptop chargers, and other electrical appliances while working our remote 9-5 jobs throughout the day.

Generator power is a great backup for days that have been cloudy or stormy, or when you want to use larger appliances, but don’t have quite enough energy stored in your RV’s batteries. 

How Does An Inverter Work?

An inverter works by taking DC power from your RV’s battery bank and converting it into AC power to run your RV appliances and electronics.

Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how it works:

  • DC power is supplied to the inverter from your RV’s battery bank.
  • The inverter converts the DC power into AC power.
  • The AC power is supplied to your RV’s AC circuits, allowing you to power your appliances and electronics.

It’s important to note that the amount of power your inverter can supply is limited by the size of your battery bank. If you try to run too many appliances or electronics at once, you may drain your battery bank quickly.

What is the difference between using an RV inverter and a portable inverter generator?

White Starlink dishy and orange Generac generator sitting beside a large fifth-wheel while boondocking off-grid in South Dakota
Our Generac Inverter Generator helps us top off our batteries or run heavier draw appliances when we need the extra boost

While both an RV inverter and a portable inverter generator are designed to provide AC power to your RV, there are some key differences between the two.

An RV inverter is a permanent installation that converts DC power from your RV’s battery bank into AC power for your appliances and devices. It’s typically wired directly into your RV’s electrical system and designed to provide a consistent and reliable source of power without the need for a separate fuel source or exhaust.

On the other hand, a portable inverter generator is a separate device that’s designed to generate AC power through the combustion of fuel (usually gasoline, propane, or diesel). It’s typically designed to be used outdoors (but some may be built into your RV) and is connected using an extension cord. Portable generators are available in a range of sizes and power capacities, so you can choose one that’s right for your needs.

Difference Between Regular Generators & Inverter Generators

  • A regular generator produces AC (alternating current) power, which is typically used to power larger appliances and tools. These generators are often louder and bulkier than inverter generators, and their power output can fluctuate slightly as the engine speed changes
  • An inverter generator, on the other hand, produces AC power that is then converted into DC (direct current) power and then inverted back into AC power using advanced electronics. This produces a much smoother and more stable output that is better suited for sensitive electronics, such as computers and smartphones. Inverter generators are also typically more fuel-efficient and quieter than regular generators, making them a popular choice for camping and outdoor activities.

One of the main advantages of using a portable inverter generator is that it can provide a much greater amount of power than a typical RV inverter. This can be particularly useful if you have high-power appliances or devices that require a lot of energy. However, portable generators can be noisy, require regular maintenance, and need to be refueled regularly.

In contrast, an RV inverter is a more permanent and reliable solution that doesn’t require any fuel or maintenance beyond occasional battery maintenance. While an RV inverter may not provide as much power as a portable generator, it’s typically sufficient for most RVers’ needs and provides a consistent source of power without the need for a separate device.

Types of Electronics and Appliances that can be run off an inverter

Most electronics and appliances in your RV can be run off an inverter, including:

  • TVs
  • Laptops
  • Cell phones
  • Radios
  • Lighting
  • Blenders
  • Coffee makers
  • Toaster ovens or Air Fryers
  • Hair dryers
  • Fans
  • Starlink Dish & Router

It’s important to note that some devices, such as air conditioners and refrigerators, require a significant amount of power to run (including significant start-up power draw, up to 5000W for some appliances) and may not be able to run for an extended period of time on an inverter and may require shore power to run freely.

How To Determine What Size Battery Bank You Need

2 LifeBlue lithium batteries sitting beneath a Magnum inverter in a fifth wheel RV basement
Our current RV lithium battery bank and the original Magnum inverter that our fridge runs off of

The size of your RV battery bank will determine how much power your inverter can supply. To determine the size of your battery bank, you need to consider your power needs and the length of time you will be off the grid. 

Here’s how to calculate your battery bank size:

Determine your power needs: Calculate the total wattage of the appliances and electronics you plan to run off your inverter. This information can typically be found on the device or in the owner’s manual.

Determine your usage time: Determine how many hours per day you plan to use each device. Multiply the total wattage of each device by the number of hours you plan to use it. This will give you your total watt hours per day.

Multiply by number of days: Multiply your total watt-hours per day by the number of days you plan to be off the grid. This will give you your total watt-hours needed for the entire trip.

Divide by battery voltage: Divide your total watt-hours by the voltage of your battery bank (usually 12 volts for RVs). This will give you the amp hours (Ah) needed for your battery bank.

For example, let’s say you plan to run a TV (100 watts) for 4 hours per day and a coffee maker (800 watts) for 1 hour per day. Your total watt-hours per day would be:

  • (100 watts x 4 hours) + (800 watts x 1 hour) = 1200 watt hours per day

If you plan to be off the grid for 3 days, your total watt-hours needed for the trip would be:

  • 1200 watt hours per day x 3 days = 3600 watt-hours

Assuming a 12-volt battery bank, your amp hours needed would be:

  • 3600 watt hours ÷ 12 volts = 300 Ah

Important Note:

The above math assumes you can drain batteries down to 0%. Keep in mind that flooded (lead acid and AGM) batteries should only be brought down to 50% charge, which would then require 600AH for the same power draw discussed.

Lithium batteries on the other hand can be drawn down to about 20% charge, which would require 375AH of batteries for the same power draw.

Types of RV Batteries & Pros and Cons of Each

Depending on the type of camping you plan to do, it can also be a good idea to think through not only what might be the right size inverter for your specific set-up, but also how your power requirements might differ based on different options in the RV you plan to purchase or build-out. There are pros and cons to everything and there is no perfect setup, but it is worth exploring what might work best for you.

For example, residential refrigerators are known power hogs and cannot be run off propane like other 12V RV fridges that are better at conserving power. This being said, we enjoy the space our residential fridge provides us in that we can prep food ahead of time, and store items when buying in bulk – which comes in handy when spending time in remote areas off-grid and trying to stick to a certain budget. 

Read more on how much solar you need to run your residential or RV fridge.

There are several types of batteries that can be used in an RV battery bank.

Here are the most common battery types and their pros and cons:

Lead Acid Batteries: Lead acid batteries are the most common type of RV battery. They are affordable and readily available, but they have a relatively short lifespan and require regular maintenance.

Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) Batteries: AGM batteries are a type of lead acid battery that is maintenance-free and has a longer lifespan than traditional lead acid batteries. They are more expensive, but their convenience and durability make them a popular choice for RVers.

Lithium Ion Batteries: Lithium-ion batteries are a newer technology that is becoming increasingly popular in the RV industry. They have a longer lifespan, are more lightweight, and can be discharged to a lower depth of discharge without damaging the battery. They also charge faster than the batteries mentioned above. However, they are significantly more expensive than lead-acid batteries.

RV Battery Charger

An RV battery charger is a device that’s specifically designed to charge the batteries in an RV. RVs often have a battery bank made up of multiple batteries that provide power to the various systems and appliances in the vehicle, including lighting, heating, and entertainment systems.

An RV battery charger can be either a standalone device or a component of an RV inverter charger. It’s designed to charge the battery bank from an external power source, such as shore power or a generator, and typically provides a regulated charging current to ensure safe and efficient charging.

Many RV battery chargers offer multiple charging modes, such as bulk, absorption, and float, which help to ensure that the batteries are charged to their maximum capacity while also preventing overcharging or damage to the batteries. Some RV battery chargers also offer features like temperature compensation, which adjusts the charging voltage based on the ambient temperature, and equalization, which helps to balance the charge levels across multiple batteries in the bank.

Overall, an RV battery charger is an essential component of any RV’s electrical system, as it helps to ensure that the battery bank is fully charged and ready to power your appliances and systems when you’re on the road or off the grid. When choosing an RV battery charger, it’s important to consider the size and capacity of your battery bank, as well as any specific charging requirements or recommendations from the battery manufacturer.

Can Your RV Have Power Without An Inverter?

Our inverter allows us to use our appliances and AC outlets during unique off-grid stays, like this farm Harvest Host in Nebraska!

Yes, an RV can power itself without an inverter. The RV’s electrical system is designed to provide power to both AC and DC circuits, with the DC circuits powered directly by the RV’s battery bank. The DC circuits typically include lighting, water pump, and other low-power appliances.

However, to power AC devices and appliances such as TVs, microwaves, and air conditioners when off-grid, an inverter is necessary. Without an inverter, the RV’s AC outlets will not work when the RV is not plugged into a shore power source or running a generator.

It’s worth noting that even with an inverter, the power available from the RV’s battery bank is limited, so it’s important to use power-hungry appliances sparingly and be mindful of your power usage when off the grid. A generator or solar panels can also be used to supplement the RV’s battery bank and provide additional power when needed.

The Role of an RV inverter On Shore Power

When you’re plugged into a shore power source or running a generator, your RV’s converter is responsible for converting AC power into DC power to charge your battery bank and power your DC circuits. In this scenario, your inverter is not needed unless you want to run an AC device or appliance off your battery bank.

We split our time between boondocking and dry capping, and staying at state parks or the occasional RV park, so that we can utilize more shore power, get our RV batteries into float (fully charged), and experience the luxury of using all of the electrical devices that we have to be careful of when spending time off-grid. There is something glorious about running our washer and dryer, dishwasher, and electric fireplace while watching a movie and air frying potatoes and baking dessert in our convection oven after weeks of being much more frugal with our power usage. 

The Role of an RV Inverter When Dry Camping

When you’re dry camping, your RV’s battery bank is the only source of power for your AC circuits. This is where your inverter comes in, as it is responsible for converting DC power from your battery bank into AC power to run your appliances and electronics.

An Overview of Our RV Solar & Power Setup

How to Properly Use Your RV Inverter

Whether or not to leave your RV inverter on all the time depends on your individual needs and preferences. In general, it’s safe to leave your RV inverter on all the time as long as it’s properly installed and functioning correctly. Most modern inverters are designed to automatically switch between battery power and shore power, so you don’t need to turn the inverter on and off manually.

However, leaving your RV inverter on all the time can drain your RV’s battery bank, especially if you have high-power appliances or devices plugged in. If you’re not using any AC appliances or devices, it’s generally a good idea to turn off your RV inverter to conserve power.

Additionally, if you plan to store your RV for an extended period of time, it’s recommended to turn off your inverter to prevent unnecessary battery drain. Some RVers also prefer to turn off their inverter at night to reduce the risk of noise or other disturbances.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to leave your RV inverter on all the time based on your specific needs and preferences. If you’re unsure, consult your RV owner’s manual or a qualified RV technician for guidance.

RV Inverters & Power Systems Overall

A fifth wheel boondocking on "the wall" near Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Our RV Inverter and Solar System give us the freedom to live a normal day-to-day life in a variety of breathtaking landscapes

In conclusion, an RV inverter is a crucial component of an RV’s electrical system, allowing RVers to power their appliances and electronics off their battery bank when off the grid.

Understanding the different types of inverters, how they work, and how to calculate your power needs and battery bank size will help you choose the right inverter for your RV and ensure you have enough power to meet your needs when dry camping. It’s also important to choose the right type of RV battery for your needs and understand the role of your inverter in different scenarios, such as when on full hookups versus dry camping.

When shopping for an RV inverter, consider factors such as size, brand, and features. Make sure the inverter you choose is capable of providing enough power for your needs and is compatible with your battery bank and electrical system.

Overall, with the right inverter and battery setup, you can enjoy the freedom and flexibility of off-grid RVing and camping, without sacrificing the comforts of home.

Some of the links on Fulfilling Travel are affiliate links. We may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you make a purchase, contributing to the site's upkeep while ensuring our travel recommendations remain freely accessible. Read our disclosure policy to learn more.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *