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RV Converter vs Inverter Explained | A Camper Owner’s Guide

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Choosing components for a campervan electrical system can become confusing, especially if you’re not familiar with all the terminology.

And then you hear about parts like converters, inverters and inverter chargers. It’s enough to boggle the brain!

It doesn’t help when it’s common practice to use these terms interchangeably or use completely different names for them.

So whether you’re a new RV owner or building a DIY campervan conversion, this post explains the basics about converters, inverters and the differences between them.

Build your own camper quick start guide

RV Camper Electrics Basics | AC and DC Power

To help explain why we need inverters and power converters in campers, we first need to understand some electrical basics.

Don’t let this put you off though. It’s not rocket science and we’ve kept it pretty simple.

There’s basically 2 types of electricity – AC and DC.

AC Power – or Alternating Current

Generated in power plants and delivered over miles and miles of power lines, AC power is what businesses and household appliances typically use.

AC current doesn’t flow as much as oscillate, its current changing direction constantly.

In fact it’s this movement that creates the electricity.

This makes it more efficient to transmit over long distances so ideal for supplying large amounts of energy across national networks i.e to houses and businesses.

Most, if not all, your household appliances use AC power so every time you plug anything into a wall socket.

However, AC power cannot be stored.

This is why power plants manage their production throughout the day and night, depending on how much demand there is across the country.

AC Power can't be stored

DC Power – or Direct Current

DC power flows constantly in one direction, from negative to positive. 

This makes it ideal for storing in a battery and in turn, perfect for RV campers, boondocking and off grid living.

Because batteries only hold a finite amount of power, and when living off grid, we’re fairly limited on recharging them, we aim to use low voltage appliances wherever possible.

Anything with a battery, like mobile phones, use DC power. Some appliances are designed specifically to use with DC power like 12v fridges, water pumps and roof vents.

Appliances designed to run off AC power, like a household fridge or TV, cannot run off DC batteries directly.

DC power can be stored in batteries

Do I need AC or DC in my RV?

When living off grid or boondocking, all electrical needs must be met by the onboard batteries. 

Batteries provide only DC power so anything running directly from them, must be able to run on DC.

If you prefer wild camping to campgrounds, installing only DC appliances avoids the need for AC power. 

If you can’t do without your AC coffee maker and TV though, you’ll need AC power too.

Batteries also need to be recharged. 

Even if you only use DC appliances, without a means to replace the used energy, you’ll have flat batteries eventually.

Installing camper solar system is a perfect way to stay off grid and avoid the need for AC power.

But if you can’t rely on enough sun hours, you need AC power to recharge them.

So if you can rely on charging your batteries from solar and use only DC appliances, you don’t need AC power. 

To use any AC appliance, or charge batteries from the grid, you need both AC and DC power. 

Why do I Need a Converter or Inverter in my Camper?

The short answer is: you don’t.

Using only DC appliances and charging batteries from solar or the alternator means you can avoid these electrical components.

If you need AC power for charging batteries or powering appliances, a converter, inverter or both is essential.

Remember AC appliances cannot run on DC power. So how can you use the coffee maker and TV when living off grid? 

You need to change the DC power from the batteries to AC power. 

A 12v DC battery can’t be charged directly by AC power either. 

It’s a bit like the battery on your laptop. 

The battery can only be charged by DC.

You plug in the cable to the AC socket and the energy is converted from AC to DC in the power adapter before the cable connects to the laptop.

Need more advice and support on a specific part of your campervan electrics? Join our new Facebook Group to connect with a growing community of like minded van builders.

What’s the Difference Between an Inverter and Converter?

Both inverters and converters transform voltage but they do the opposite of each other.

A converter (sometimes referred to as a battery charger, converter charger or power converter), turns AC power to DC, transforming 110v (or 220v) to 12v. You can get them to convert to 24v too. 

An inverter (sometimes called a power inverter) turns DC power to AC, transforming DC power to AC power or 12v to 110v or 220v. 

To run AC appliances from the camper battery bank, you need an inverter.

To charge the batteries from shore power, you need a converter.

An inverter charger is both an inverter and a converter in one. 

RV Converters

How an RV Converter works

Most RVs have converters already fitted but if you’re converting a van to a camper, this is a component to include in your electrical design.

A converter is another name for a battery charger. It takes AC power and converts it to DC to charge the 12v RV batteries.

If you spend a lot of time at campgrounds with hookup facilities,  a converter is the best way to keep your batteries topped up. 

They’re also useful for topping up the battery bank at home in readiness for camping weekends.

Getting enough sun hours on solar panels when living in a van in winter isn’t always easy, so a converter is a fall back for recharging.

We live in our van full-time and spend 80-90% of our time boondocking. 

We rely on solar to charge our batteries but the converter comes in handy when we use campgrounds.

We’ve written a detailed post on RV converters and battery chargers so check that out for more details.

In the meantime, here’s some tips for choosing the right one for your camper:

  • Power capacity must be enough to charge the batteries in a “reasonable” time. Make sure you take into account any ongoing power usage as the battery is charging too.
  • Look for easy installation units. Most converters are easy to install but a few are a bit more tricky.
  • Make sure the converter supports the right battery type – Lithium-ion, Gel, or AGM.
  • For most efficient charging, choose an inverter with at least 3 stage charging for AGM and Gel batteries
  • For Lithium batteries, choose a smart converter. 

RV Converters / Battery Chargers | Our Top 5 Picks

Powermax Converter Charger
  • 3 stage charging & integrated cooling fan
  • Reverse polarity, overload and thermal protection
  • 2 year warranty
Progressive Dynamics Converter Charger
  • Accessory port
  • Low voltage & reverse polarity protection
  • Fast charging
Victron Smart Converter Charger
  • 93% efficiency
  • 7-stage charging process
  • Compatible with Lithium, Gel & AGM
CTEK Converter Charger
  • Reverse polarity protected
  • 10 amp
  • Reconditioning programme to restore battery life & recondition flat batteries
Numax Converter Charger
  • 12 month warranty
  • Suitable for 50 to 135Ah battery bank
  • Budget friendly

RV Power Inverters

How an RV inverter works

Living off grid takes some planning to help reduce energy demand. Being frugal with use of electricity will help keep you off grid for longer.

We recommend using DC alternatives wherever possible. Not only will they minimise the need for AC but they tend to be more energy efficient too.

If you want to run household appliances like a TV, microwave or coffee maker, you need to convert the DC battery power to AC power.

A power inverter does the job and allows you to plug in extension leads or AC devices directly.

We’ve written a detailed post on campervan power inverters so check that out for more details.

The key points to remember when choosing one for your van life:

  1. AC appliances tend to be quite thirsty so use a lot of power, depleting your battery bank much faster than their DC alternatives.
  2. You can’t take out more energy than you put into the battery bank. 
  3. Converting DC to AC isn’t efficient.
  4. Use our inverter calculator to ensure you get the right size component to meet your needs.
  5. Aim to buy the smallest inverter you can get away with.
  6. Buy a pure sine wave inverter as opposed to one with a modified sine wave – it’ll give a cleaner flow of energy so reduce the chance of damaging electronic devices.

We’ve managed for almost 3 years with a 300w inverter. 

RV Power Inverters / Battery Chargers | Our Top 5 Picks

BESTEK Pure Sine Wave Power Inverter
  • 2 outlet plugs & 2 USBs
  • Protection against overheating, under and over voltage charging
  • Surge upto 700w
Renogy 700W 12V Pure Sine Wave Inverter
  • 2 outlet plugs
  • 700w continuous power & surge upto1400w
  • Overload protection for both DC input and AC output
BESTEK Pure Sine Wave Power Inverter
  • 2 outlet plugs & 2 USBs
  • 8 protection mechanisms
  • Surge upto 2400w
Renogy Power inverter
  • 2000w continuous power & surge upto 4000w
  • Overload protection for both DC input and AC output
  • LED indicators
Renogy Power inverter
  • 3000w continuous power & surge upto 6000w
  • Overload protection for both DC input and AC output
  • Quiet

Inverter Chargers

How an RV Inverter Charger works

Dig deep enough into your pockets and you could replace 2 components with a combined inverter charger.

Again, we have another post about RV power inverter chargers.

As the name implies, an inverter charger does the job of both a power inverter and a smart battery charger.

They tend to have a few extra features like being able to automatically start the generator if the batteries drop to a certain level and you don’t need to switch them on manually either. 

Although much of what you may read on the internet suggests these are far superior to the separate components, this isn’t always the case.

They do have more features but many of those are bells and whistles.

The biggest downside of them is they tend to be pretty big in terms of their power capability.

This means if you need a large converter but a small inverter, you’ll end up need to buy an oversized component.

But if you need pretty large components, they may be ideal for you. They certainly make the electrical setup more simplistic.

Here’s our top 3 picks of RV inverter chargers.

Victron inverter Charger
  • 3000w pure sine wave inverter with 6000w surge
  • 100A smart battery charger
  • Lithium, AGM & Gel battery compatible
AIMS 3000w inverter charger
  • 3000w pure sine wave inverter with 9000w surge
  • 100A smart battery charger
  • Lithium, AGM & Gel battery compatible
Go Power inverter charger
  • 3000w pure sine wave inverter with 3400w surge
  • 125A smart battery charger
  • Lithium, AGM & Gel battery compatible

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