Many modern vehicles are designed to deliver the comforts of home -- entertainment systems, heated seats, charging ports and more -- but even the most fully-loaded models can’t do it all. You can supplement with devices that run on batteries or the 12 volt DC current coming from the cigarette lighter socket, but what if you want to use a device with a standard 120 volt electrical plug? For that, you’ll need a power inverter.
A power inverter is a device that turns your car’s 12 volt DC current into AC current, the same type flowing through the wiring in your home. Inverters are available in a variety of sizes that range from as low as about $20 to more than $400. But for travelers who are just looking to connect one or two electronic devices while driving around, there are several models under $50 that will do the trick.
Power inverters can make long road trips more enjoyable by enabling passengers to connect electronics like video game systems, disc players and laptops. And they can really come in handy in the event of unexpected power outages, especially if you don’t have a generator at home. For instance, you could take your electric percolator out to the driveway and make a pot of fresh-brewed coffee just as easily as you’d do in your kitchen.
Sizing Up the Inverter Selection
As you browse your choices in power inverters, you’ll notice they advertise a variety of wattages. But before you pay more for an inverter with a higher wattage, you should know that your total wattage output is restricted by the size of the fuse connected to your car’s cigarette lighter socket.
Fuses often range from 5 or 10 amps in small cars to 20 in large SUVs. To determine the maximum wattage supported by any given car, you must multiply the amperage of the lighter socket fuse by 12, the voltage of the socket. So if you have a 10 amp fuse, and 10 times 12 is 120, you can expect a maximum wattage output of around 120 watts.
Power inverters also come in two general categories: modified sine wave inverters and pure sine wave inverters. The difference comes down to the way the two types of inverters transfer DC to AC, and the consistency of the electricity they produce. Modified sine wave inverters work well for most electronics but may provide unreliable power for some battery chargers, laptops and other devices. Pure sine wave inverters produce the same type of electrical current flowing to your outlets at home.
There’s a significant price difference, however. Whereas many modified sine wave inverters are available for under $50, pure sine wave inverters typically cost more than $100. If you have doubts about whether a modified sine wave inverter meets your needs, check the manual carefully for exceptions before purchasing.
Keep Your Cool
If you pick up a power inverter for your car, be sure to place it in an area with space on all sides. Inverters generate heat and feature vents and small fans to expel that heat. If your inverter is crowded, or if you operate it in blazing temperatures, it could overheat.
It’s also worth noting that using a power inverter in a car that isn’t running will drain the battery rapidly, so you should do this sparingly.
If you like having this extra burst of portable energy, think what a portable generator can do! Reach out to your local Mister Sparky for a no-obligation consultation on generators and other portable energy solutions.