RiversideTrailer is reader-supported. When you buy via our links, we may earn a commission at no cost to you. Learn more

What Does an Inverter Do in an RV? (Fully Explained)

Written by Philip Lopez / Fact checked by Paul Lemaire

what does an inverter do in an rv

When camping, it’s nice to enjoy all the basic appliances for comfort like at home. However, these electronic devices need AC power to work. This is where an RV power inverter comes into play.

So, what does an inverter do in an RV exactly?

An inverter draws power from your RV batteries and transforms the DC power into AC power. The AC power will be used to run all your appliances.

Let’s learn the definition, mechanism, and installation of inverters below.

What Is an RV Inverter?

An inverter is a power electronic device that changes your RV batteries’ direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). The AC power helps you operate many of your RV appliances, including TVs and microwaves.

Typically, the inverter stays inside the exterior compartments of your RV. You might need to crawl in the compartment a little bit just to really see a glimpse of it. These devices look like a box with red and black DC terminals on the rear and electrical outlets on the front.

There are two types of inverters:

  • True sine wave inverters: These inverters can power all appliances and electronic devices more efficiently, much like a power company. However, they’re more expensive upfront.
  • Modified sine wave inverters: This type of inverter is more affordable. However, this type of inverter may not suit sensitive electronics like the microwave because its output may be a little sporadic.

You may have also heard about RV converters. These are the opposite of inverters. Instead of turning DC power to AC, converters change AC power into DC.

Why Use an Inverter?

inverter-for-rv

An RV inverter comes in handy when you boondock or camp in places without any electrical hookups. Here are some benefits of inverters.

  • Power appliances or electronics off the grid: An inverter supplies the AC power needed to operate your appliances even when shore power is unavailable. Even in a remote area, you can still watch your favorite TV show and cook meals in your microwave.
  • Charge battery for laptops, smartphones, etc. You’ll need to keep in touch with friends and family even when you’re on vacation. An inverter helps you recharge your communication devices to answer calls and send emails. Plus, you’ll have access to convenient phone apps and computer software.
  • Optimize solar power systems: Solar panels generate DC power to run the appliances in your rig. To harness that power for your AC electronics, you’ll need an inverter.

How Does an Inverter Work in an Rv?

rv-power-inverter

When you’re dry camping, it’s impossible to make electronic hookups. It’s either you use your generator or inverter. The former needs gasoline, while the latter converts battery power.

Batteries generate power in DC at low voltages, while generators produce AC to power 120-volt devices. Your water pump and lights normally run on DC power, but not your common home appliances.

An inverter in an RV takes the 12-volt DC power from your batteries and uses that to power all your 120-volt AC appliances and electronic devices. This mechanism makes the inverter an intelligent solution when you can’t access generator power or shore power near you.

The efficiency of an inverter pertains to how much AC power it produces for a given DC input. It varies with load, but it usually falls around 90% to 95%, which means about 5% to 10% power loss. The peak efficiency generally covers about ⅔ of the inverter’s capacity.

Look for Inverter Capacity Ratings

You can power different sizes of appliances, from small computers to microwaves and TV. However, this powerful device can’t output more power than what the battery bank supplies. The key is to get a travel trailer inverter with the right output capacity.

There are three capacity ratings of inverters:

  • Surge capacity rating: This refers to the maximum wattage the inverter can produce at the beginning of startup.
  • Limited-time rating: The wattage the inverter can handle under certain temperatures for around 15 minutes or so.
  • Continuous output rating: This rating pertains to the maximum wattage the inverter can produce on a steady basis for an extended period. It’s generally expressed at a specific number of watts, typically lower than the surge.

Keep in mind that electric-motored appliances need more power when they’re starting than running. Such appliances include refrigerators and pumps.

When choosing the best inverter for RV, look for one with a surge capacity rating that can cover the starting power required for your appliances. We recommend getting at least 20% more watts than your electronic devices will use.

Installing an Inverter in Motorhome

an-inverter-in-an-rv

Inverters for camper are pretty popular, but many RVs still come without one installed. You can directly plug a small inverter that’s around 75 watts into a cigarette lighter outlet. If you want a larger inverter, you’ll need to wire it to your RV batteries.

Install the inverter in a dry, well-ventilated area. Larger inverters may need a cooling fan to reduce heat and improve air circulation. Also, find an installation spot near the battery bank to avoid any voltage drop.

Here are four methods of installing an inverter in your RV.

1. Running An Extension Cord

A simple method to install an inverter is to run it with an extension cord from the appliance you want to power. This setup sounds easy, but it can be a little troublesome to plug and unplug the devices into the extension constantly. Also, the length of the wire might cause a tripping hazard.

Don’t just use any extension cord. Find one with a larger current rating than all your appliances combined.

2. Connecting Via A Transfer Switch

A more convenient way of installing an inverter is to use a transfer switch. When electricity cuts off, the switch will automatically use a power inverter and revert back to shore power when available. At this point, the inverter will serve as a power backup.

Watch how to install an inverter via a transfer switch in this video.

3. Adding Outlets/30 Amp Receptacle

A less inconvenient way of getting a power inverter connection is to install new outlets. The crucial part is looking for the right location, though. The area where you planned to install the outlet should be near the appliances and easy to wire to the inverter.

Place a junction box and split it into two areas to wire an outlet. You can also run the wires straight from the inverter to the outlet. Wire in parallel if you want to continue the circuit to another location.

While this seems more practical, it means having useless outlets when the shore power is available.

A nice setup would be installing a receptacle outside your motorhome and connecting it to the inverter’s output. Plug the inverter into the receptacle when you need inverter power.

Conclusion

I hope this article sheds a little light on the question, “what does an inverter do in an RV?” This device helps you power your appliances when you can’t hook up to shore power. Make sure that you use the suitable capacity, wire size, and wiring connections.

Let us know what you think about this article in the comment section below. Please share it with your friends if you like it.

5/5 - (2 votes)