Words of Wisdom: “One can only put so much inverter on so much battery… A lot of people will put a 2KW inverter, or larger, on a single 12v battery, but this can be compared to a 5 second drag car, which uses 5 gallons of gas to run the 1/4 mile, but then only having a 2 gallon gas tank.” – sternwake2)
Inverters take 12v DC and turn it into 110v AC. For shore power charging see Converters.
It is more efficient to use DC power directly whenever possible. In particular it is more efficient than running a laptop of phone charger off an inverter.3)
AC-only items will require an inverter. Devices that run off a "wall wart" adapter almost never require an inverter.
Originally called “square wave” inverters, MSW inverters are inexpensive and ubiquitous. If your inverter doesn't say it is MSW or PSW then it is probably MSW.
In the end, probably 80% of the stuff you plug in will work fine [on MSW], 10% will fail pretty quickly, and the other 10% it will be difficult to tell. – BB4)
there is anecdotal evidence that MSW can damage some electronics. The most commonly repeated stories are Dewalt cordless tool battery chargers and laptop chargers.
Laptop chargers that work on MSW will usually run somewhat warmer and may buzz. Laptop chargers that will not work on MSW tend to get hot, not power on at all (no light), or cycle on/off. Laptop chargers and other power supplies might be tested thusly:
Rule of thumb:
Everything that has electronics and use a power supply or an integrated power supply to lower voltage will be fine [on MSW]. (Radio, charger, Screens etc.) Everything that uses a power motor (often without electronics) will not (hairdryer kitchen appliances etc.) - WombatCombat20207)
Other devices which do not like MSW:
PSW inverters are as good as (or better than) than AC mains power. All AC items will run on a properly sized PSW inverter.
They tend to be expensive, some over $1000.
Once you have made your MSW vs. PSW decision the next step is sizing the inverter (picking the right capacity).
Note that to actually power the inverter you will need something like a 1:1 ratio of panel:inverter on flooded lead and 1:2 on AGM or lithium.10) This would mean 400w of solar to run a 400w inverter (dipping into the battery as needed) or 400w of solar for 800w of inverter on AGM/Lithium, which have greater throughput.
You will need to know the largest draws you will need to meet at the same time. If your TV is 40w, and your your laptop is 100w you would need (40w + 100w) * 1.1011), or an inverter that can power at least 154w.
Note that motorized equipment like drills likely have greater current requirements for startup and for running. Be sure to meausure both startup and running (see below). There are tricks you can use to minimize the start load, like starting a sewing machine at a low-load position12), or easing into the trigger of a variable-speed power tool.
Some devices will only show Volts and Amps. Since Watts = Volts * Amps we can do the math to get watts:
A standard wall plug in the US is 110v x 15A, or 1,650w.
The best way to understand how much your 110v equipment needs during startup/running is to use a power monitor like the Kill A Watt. You may be pleased to find that some appliances run at much lower power than their labeling would suggest.13) It is rare to find a device that pulls more than the label states.
Kill A Watts may be available for loan from your public library.14)
The buttons on the traditional Kill-a-Watt have two functions each. You press the button repeatedly to see the information:
Inverters are generally rated in watts.
While there are both peak and continuous duty ratings it is common for marketers to advertize only the peak rating.16) The peak rating is only for short bursts of heavy draw.
Stand-by power 17) may be a factor when an inverter is run for many hours. The inverter drops to a power-saving mode then checks regularly to see if any load has been added.
The immediate temptation might be to buy a massive inverter and call it good. There are factors arguing against this approach:
price - an oversized inverter wastes money
efficiency - an oversized inverter wastes power. All inverters have a parasitic draw, a level of baseline power consumption no matter what it is doing. Even sitting idle. Larger inverters generally have larger parasitic draws, which tax your house batteries or solar setup.
Imagine a 3000w PSW with a 1.6A parasitic draw which you use to charge a cellphone (0.3A). The inverter will still consume 1.6A even though you only need 0.3A. Even worse, it will consume 1.6A while idling. If you are disciplined you can remember to turn the inverter off when not in use. Higher-end (and more $$$) inverters sometimes have a powersaving mode that allows an idling inverter to sleep. The model linked above sleeps at 0.35A. It would still jump to 1.6A when powering the example cellphone charger.
If all you need is small amounts of AC the same maker above makes a 150W PSW model that idles at 0.15A although it lacks the sleep function of its larger stablemate.
noise - smaller inverters are usually cooled with a heatsink, which is silent. Larger inverters may have a fan that spins constantly or, preferably, as needed under load.
space - larger capacity inverters are physically larger, eating into limited RV space
“One can get a small PSW for the delicates and get a Beast of a MSW for those less delicate electronics…” - Sternwake22)
“I use two for redundancy and efficiency. Large loads need big inverters to power them. Most inverters will scale down their power use to the load that is being placed on them, but they all have a minimum amount of power that they use just when they are powered on. Generally, the larger the inverter, the larger this parasitic power draw is. Most items that need large inverters are not used constantly. You will only use a microwave a few minutes per day probably. There is no need to waste all the extra power required to keep the big inverter on constantly for that few minutes of big power draw each day. I use a much smaller inverter for the majority of things that get powered in the van. The television, dvd player, and antenna amplifier all draw less than 200 watts combined. The refrigerator runs at about 150 watts intermittently. My 1000 watt inverter will easily handle all of that and have enough surge capacity to handle the refrigerator compressor when it turns on. Because its smaller, it is more efficient and doesn't waste as much power just by being on.” - Coultergeist23)
Most inverters will shut off if they get too hot, or if the input voltage is beyond certain points.
The low voltage cutoff is to protect your batteries from over-discharge. The high voltage cutoff is to protect the inverter itself.
Because higher voltage power has less losses over long wires, it may be most efficient to share power between RVs as 120v. The donor vehicle would invert to 120v, plug in an extension cord to their inverter and run it to the recipient. The recipient could plug it cord into their shore power inlet or use it as 120v.
… inverter outputs are usually two 60 VAC lines driven 180 degrees out of phase, so that there is a net 120 VAC potential across them.26)
That's all fine, as long as what's plugged in is electrically “floating,” that is, not connected to any external ground.
The situation gets more complicated when there's a 3-prong 120 VAC plug. The third prong is a safety ground which is assumed to be tied to a ground rod.
You can see that the neutral and ground wires [in shore power] are tied together at the panel. That works, because the hot is 120 VAC. You can also see how that is very different than two “half-hot” 60 VAC lines, and how that kind of tie-in would short out one leg of an inverter.
In fact, the situation with an inverter is very similar to [a] 240 VAC circuit… which has 2 120 VAC lines driven 180 degrees out of phase, i.e., “push-pull.”27)