A power inverter is a device that converts DC power (also known as direct current), to standard AC power (alternating current). Inverters are used to operate electrical equipment from the power produced by a car or boat battery or renewable energy sources, like solar panels or wind turbines. DC power is what batteries store, while AC power is what most electrical appliances need to run so an inverter is necessary to convert the power into a usable form. For example, when a cell phone is plugged into a car cigarette lighter to recharge, it supplies DC power; this must be converted to the required AC power by a power inverter to charge the phone.
How Inverters Work
DC power is steady and continuous, with an electrical charge that flows in only one direction. When the output of DC power is represented on a graph, the result would be a straight line. AC power, on the other hand, flows back and forth in alternating directions so that, when represented on a graph, it appears as a sine wave, with smooth and regular peaks and valleys. A power inverter uses electronic circuits to cause the DC power flow to change directions, making it alternate like AC power. These oscillations are rough and tend to create a square waveform rather than a rounded one, so filters are required to smooth out the wave, allowing it to be used by more electronic devices.
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Most electronic devices require AC power to work correctly because they are designed to be plugged into a standard wall outlet, which supplies AC power. These devices need a specific amount of low, regulated voltage in order to operate. AC power is easier to step up or down, or change from one voltage to another, than DC and easier to regulate. In many cases, when a power inverter is in use, DC power is being converted to AC power, which is then stepped down and turned back into DC power inside the device.
Types of Inverters
Most modern power inverters produce either modified square (or modified sine) waves, or pure sine (or true sine) waves. Modified square wave inverters don't provide the smooth peaks and valleys that AC power from a home's electrical outlet does, but it can deliver power that is consistent and efficient enough to run most devices. This type of inverter is relatively inexpensive, and probably the most popular type.
Pure sine wave inverters are the most expensive, but they also deliver the smoothest and most even wave output. Any device will run on a pure sine wave, but some sensitive equipment, like certain medical equipment and variable speed or rechargeable tools, requires this type of inverter to operate correctly. Radios, for example, work better with pure sine wave inverters because the modified square wave inverter's less-smooth waves disrupt the radio's reception, causing static and other noise.
Basic power inverters are often small, rectangular devices that plug directly into the cigarette lighter or DC outlet on the dashboard of a car or other vehicle. This size inverter is usually sufficient to run a laptop, a small television, a portable DVD player, or similar equipment. These devices don’t draw a lot of power and can be used continuously while the vehicle is running; they may even be used for a half-hour to an hour while the engine is off, such as while camping or during a power outage at home.
Other power inverters come with jumper-like cables so they can be connected directly to a battery. This type is required to run more powerful equipment, such as power tools at a remote work site or a larger TV. Inverters can also be hard-wired into a battery to make them easier to use with larger pieces of equipment.
Larger inverters are used to convert solar or wind energy into AC power that can be used in a home. Called a grid-tie inverter, this device links into the utility grid to allow power to be delivered along the same wires that supply energy from a electric utility. It even allows any excess power produced to be fed back into the grid, where it can be sold to the utility company.
Different models of power inverters vary in how many watts of power they can supply. The capacity of an inverter should equal the total number of watts required by each device, plus at least a 50% addition to account for peaks or spikes in the power draw. For example, if a DVD player draws 100 watts and a small TV another 100 watts, a minimum 300-watt inverter is recommended. Getting an inverter with more capacity than what is immediately needed is a good idea for many people, as it means that different or new devices can be added without the need for a new power inverter.
When using a power inverter continuously inside a vehicle that is not turned on, the engine should be started at least once an hour for 10 to 15 minutes to keep the battery from running down. A vehicle should never be started in a closed garage, as the carbon monoxide in the exhaust is fatal.
Power inverters should only be used with batteries that are in good condition and fully charged. A weak battery will be drained easily if demand is too high. If used in a car, this could leave a driver stranded, so the battery's condition should be checked before using an inverter in a stationary vehicle. If the inverter is being used while the vehicle is running, as in the case of a road trip, there should be no problem with the extra draw as long as the battery is in good condition.
Working with large batteries can be dangerous, and when not done properly, can result in serious injury. Improper use of a power inverter can even lead to electrocution. For safety reasons, someone attempting to hook an inverter directly to a battery should be sure to read and follow any and all safety precautions listed in the inverter's instruction booklet.
It is important for people to always use a power inverter that is rated high enough for the device that needs to be run. If a heavy-duty power saw is plugged into a cigarette lighter, for example, the lightweight inverter might overheat and cause a fire in the dashboard. Adapters that allow more outlets than the unit is designed to accommodate should be avoided, and proper ventilation around the inverter is required to prevent overheating.