Your Guide to RV Inverter Installation: How They Work, What to Look for, and Tips

When it comes to providing your RV with power, most people who spend a substantial amount of time in their motorhomes have a generator equipped to maintain electricity to your 120v power outlets. Without a generator, however, you're only able to provide energy to these points when connected to shore power. Naturally, this can cause some inconvenience in situations where neither is available.

If your RV outlets don't operate without these power sources, then you don't have an inverter installed in your motorhome, though some RV manufacturers include these parts. Thankfully, it's possible to fix this issue by purchasing and installing an inverter of your own. We've got the complete guide to this essential piece of equipment, how it works, how to install one, and more.

What Is an RV Inverter?

As mentioned, the power outlets in your RV require a specific type of power to operate—the kind that generally requires shore power or a generator to work. However, RV inverters are a piece of equipment capable of running these outlets without generators or shore power, instead of using your vehicle's battery as the source of energy.

Overall, inverters are an excellent option for those who want minimal use of outlets when camping away from hookups and without using a generator. They do require some adjustment to your 120v power system, but RV inverters can be helpful.

How Do RV Inverters Work?

RV inverters work as a type of converters. Since they provide power to your power outlets through your RV's battery, an inverter's job is to make the types of power between the two compatible. Batteries operate on DC power, which differs from the AC amperage which runs most appliances. The inverter ensures that devices can run safely off this other power state.

Additionally, inverters can only provide as much AC power as the battery's capacity allows, which can limit which appliances will work in your RV—especially if you're attempting to run several huge power users at once. While not impossible, you'll likely see complications with refrigerators and air conditioners while using an inverter. The efficiency of an inverter is roughly ninety to ninety-five percent.

While you could increase the size of your battery to make your inverter more efficient for running multiple devices, this usually can weigh down your motorhome or travel trailer, take up additional space, and add costs to your budget that aren't appealing. Inverters can also be appealing when selling your RV or when looking at RVs for sale.

How to Pick the Best RV Inverter

Much like other pieces of equipment you purchase for your RV, you want the right inverter to do the most efficient job for your needs. When narrowing down your choices, be sure to consider these factors.

Wattage and Power Rating

If you expect anything to operate with an inverter in use, you need to have the right power capacity to do so. Inverters have various areas where energy plays a factor, from the maximum levels of energy output, its regular power operation, and its overall power rating. To accurately pick out a product that can support your AC appliances when off the grid, you should understand how much power you need first.

Input and Output Voltage

For everything to operate as you want it to, having the appropriate input and output voltage is essential. The input voltage should match up with your RV's battery—many utilize 12V batteries, so your inverter should have 12V for its DC rating. Output voltage for most US, Canada, and Mexico RVs will need to be at 120V AC power (other locations and devices will use different energy).

Since DC measures in two digits and AC measures in three, it's easy not to mix up the two values. However, you still want to confirm the numbers before finalizing a purchase, especially when shopping online.

Energy Efficiency

Even if an RV inverter can operate at levels that are suitable for your needs, you don't want to ignore its efficiency. The more efficient an inverter is, the better it will be able to operate. Otherwise, you risk having the inverter put a significant strain on your RV, increasing how much energy you burn through.

Types of Inverters

RV inverters come in three main types:

Sine wave – These types of inverters have a stable place on the market since they allow for most kinds of appliances to operate on them, including high power devices like microwaves. However, they are the most expensive of the three due to their high capacity.

Modified sine wave – Working on a similar layout to sine wave inverters, these modified models are less expensive while still allowing for high energy appliances to operate. However, modified sine wave inverters aren't as efficient as regular ones, which means they go through much more power and can make more noise.

Square wave – The final type of inverter is the cheapest available, but they can only operate simple AC appliances. While this combination may be more than enough for some RVers, it can be challenging to find all the necessary equipment to install them.

Your budget and the types of appliances you want to run will determine the best inverter model for you. Once you understand these choices, you more effectively choose the product that will meet your needs so that you don't waste time installing an ineffective product.

Size

Aside from their power capabilities and type, inverters come in different sizes. Aside from wanting a model that can fit into your RV's setup without taking up too much space or adding too much weight (as you would with most RV upgrades), size also matters because it determines how long you can provide your appliances with power.

A smaller inverter will provide power while also keeping battery power available for the RV's engine to operate. If you plan to use your inverter for an extended period, you'll likely need a larger model to keep everything you want operational.

How to Install an RV Inverter

Now that we've covered how to pick out a suitable inverter for your RV, it's time to install it! Take note that this guide does not focus on how to handle solar inverters, so you'll want to look elsewhere for those instructions. We do, however, cover your various options for wiring this part to the rest of your RV. For supplies, you'll need:

  • Inverter
  • Fasteners
  • Screwdriver
  • Connectors
  • Cable

Now let's get started!

Clear Out Space

Your inverter will need to stay safely secured, so you must clear out enough area for it to rest. You also want to keep it close to the battery, but in a separate compartment. You should also avoid keeping it below fluids, near flammable objects, and in an area without enough airflow to keep it cool. Likewise, the surface you connect the inverter next to should be noncombustible.

Use this stage to check that your cables can reach between the battery and the inverter before moving onto the next step!

Secure the Inverter

With the inverter in its secure place, it's time to attach it to the surface. Most products already come with manufacturer drilled holes that you can use. In most cases, a screwdriver should serve you well, but don't be surprised if you need a wrench to handle lag bolts. No matter what, follow the exact instructions that come with the inverter. By properly securing it, you prevent the inverter from moving about and potentially becoming damaged in the process, becoming a hazard.

Wire Inverter and Battery

Once the inverter is secure, you'll work on wiring it to the battery it will draw power from. The exact terminals that need connections can vary depending on the model you get, so follow the instructions from the manufacturer carefully for the best results.

Ground the Unit

Before you can start taking advantage of your inverter's capabilities, you'll need to ground the unit. Your model should come with a twelve-volt ground cable, and, once again, you should follow the instructions outlined in the manufacturer's manual. In most cases, you can loosen a pre-existing bolt, fir the ground connector around it, and tighten it back in place.

Potential RV Inverter Configurations

Connect to the AC Distribution Box

To connect your RV inverter directly to the AC distribution box, you'll need a transfer switch to do so. Like picking out the inverter itself, this part needs to be wholly compatible with your vehicle, and you may need a different model if you have a generator. This switch is essential because it will make sure shore power doesn't run through your inverter, which can permanently damage it.

To do this, you'll need a split distribution panel. As you hook these components together, you want to make sure that your inverter and converter are on different parts of the board. Because of the extra parts, this option can be expensive, but it is efficient.

Connect to a Dedicated Extension Cord or Outlet

If you don't want to go through the hassle of connecting to the whole system, you can install your inverter and run it to a dedicated extension cord or outlet. This approach does the job quickly and without much effort, but it does add the inconvenience of only having so many plugs available. Because there isn't a switch connection, the dedicated outlet won't work when connected to shore power, even if others do.

Best RV Inverter Installation Practices

Check out these tips when installing your RV inverter.

Don't Make Wires Too Long

While you'll need to use wires to connect your inverter to the battery, you don't want to have excessively long cables. If you do, you risk dropping your inverter's efficiency, even if it's a high performing model. This consideration is especially critical when handling smaller voltage systems, as you'll more quickly see the effects of lost power.

Don't Forget Your Remote or Auto Transfer Switch

Some, but not all, RV inverters have remote switches that control when you can operate them. If you have one of these controls, then you'll need to install it as well. In most cases, you can connect them through a basic telephone cable. Follow the instructions outlined in your inverter guide to complete the process correctly.

Additionally, there are auto transfer switches that can detect when your RV can run off shore power, and when it can't. Because of this capability, the switch can then toggle between using the inverter and not as is appropriate, which saves you the hassle of switching things over yourself. Since running shore and inverter power at once can be a considerable safety risk, these switches provide reassurance.

Wrapping Up

RV inverters aren't going to be the best option for every RVer, but they can provide an option for staying off the grid while camping. It can take a bit of research beforehand to find the right model and decide how you want to set up your configuration, but it's worth the effort.

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