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Inverter vs Converter & How to Tell the Difference

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.

RV inverters vs converters

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. It’s not rocket science, and we’ve kept it pretty simple.

There are two types of electricity – AC and DC.

Build your own camper quick start guide

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

It’s this movement that creates the electricity.

This makes it more efficient to transmit over long distances, so it is ideal for supplying large amounts of energy across national networks 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, so power plants manage their production 24/7, depending on how much demand is across the country.

AC Power can't be stored

DC Power – or Direct Current

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

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

Batteries only hold a finite amount of power. When living off-grid, our ability to recharge them is limited, so 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 directly run off DC batteries.

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 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, you’ll need AC power too.

Batteries also need to be recharged. 

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

Installing a 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 avoiding 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 needs DC to charge.

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

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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, even with a top-end MPPT charge controller, 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 converter with at least 3-stage charging for AGM and Gel batteries.
  • For Lithium batteries, choose a smart converter. 

Grab your copy of the Campervan Electrics Handbook

Includes 110v & 240v, solar, B2B, batteries, inverters, design & installation tips and a detailed troubleshooting guide.

Campervan Electrics Handbook - Campervan Conversions & Van Living

RV Converters / Battery Chargers | Our Top 5 Picks

PowerMax Pm3-55 RV Converter Charger

Powermax Converter Charger
  • 3-stage charging & integrated cooling fan
  • Reverse polarity, overload and thermal protection
  • 2-year warranty

Progressive Dynamics 70 amp Inteli-Power 9200 Series Converter

Progressive Dynamics Converter Charger
  • Accessory port
  • Low voltage & reverse polarity protection
  • Fast charging

Victron Blue Smart IP22

Victron Smart Converter Charger
  • 93% efficiency
  • 7-stage charging process
  • Compatible with Lithium, Gel & AGM

CTEK MXS10

CTEK Converter Charger
  • Reverse polarity protected
  • 10 amp
  • Reconditioning programme to restore battery life & recondition flat batteries

Numax 12V 10A Converter Charger

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 the 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 on how an invert converts current.

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

  1. AC electrical devices 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 instead of one with a modified sine wave – it’ll give a cleaner flow of energy, reducing 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 300w Power Inverter

BESTEK Pure Sine Wave Power Inverter
  • 2 outlet plugs & 2 USBs
  • Protection against overheating, under and over voltage charging
  • Surge up to 700w

Renogy 700w Inverter

Renogy 700W 12V Pure Sine Wave Inverter
  • 2 outlet plugs
  • 700w continuous power & surge up to1400w
  • Overload protection for both DC input and AC output

BESTEK 1000w Power Inverter

BESTEK Pure Sine Wave Power Inverter
  • 2 outlet plugs & 2 USBs
  • 8 protection mechanisms
  • Surge up to 2400w

Renogy 2000w Inverter

Renogy Power 2000w inverter
  • 2000w continuous power & surge up to 4000w
  • Overload protection for both DC input and AC output
  • LED indicators

Renogy 3000w Inverter

Renogy 3000w inverter
  • 3000w continuous power & surge up to 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 is both a power inverter and a smart battery charger.

They tend to have a few extra features like automatically start the RV generator if the batteries drop to a certain level. 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 are our top 3 picks of RV inverter chargers.

Victron Combi Multiplus

Victron inverter Charger
  • 3000w pure sine wave inverter with 6000w surge
  • 100A smart battery charger
  • Lithium, AGM & Gel battery compatible

AIMS 3000 Watt Inverter Charger

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

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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RV inverters vs converters

Check out our introduction inverter and converter differences for a brief overview.

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