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Converters, Inverters & Inverter Chargers for RVs

If you’re new to RV and camper electric systems, terms like converter, inverter and charger can make your head spin. Many youtubers use these words interchangeably (or incorrectly) further adding to the confusion. Our goal with this post is to simplify and clear up these definitions.

DC Power vs AC Power

Before you can understand what an inverter or converter is, you should familiarize yourself on the difference between DC (direct current), and AC (alternating current) power. There are many distinctions – and we wrote an article about them – but for the sake of simplicity, here’s what you need to know:

AC power runs your typical household electronics. That means anything that plugs into a wall socket is using AC power. This is the power that runs in the electrical grid and power lines. You will most commonly see AC power in 120v or 240v form.

DC power is the type of power stored in batteries. Anything that plugs into a USB outlet or cigarette lighter uses DC power, and vehicles use DC power to run their electrical systems. Anything with a battery is using DC power internally. You can also power special made electronics like lights, water pumps and vent fans with DC power. You will most commonly see vehicle DC power in 12v form.

Here’s where things get tricky: When you park an RV at a campsite and plug into city power, you are using AC electricity (from the grid). When you travel off-grid and run a camper with a battery bank you are using DC electricity (from your batteries). Inverters and Converters allow you to switch between the two power sources

  • Converters and Inverters are mirror functions of each other
    • Converters turn AC power to DC power
    • Inverters turn DC power to AC power
  • You need a converter to get city power into your battery bank
  • You need an inverter to run your household AC electronics from the battery bank
  • An inverter/charger combines both a converter and an inverter
    • The “charger” part of the name refers to a converter
AC PowerDC Power
120v Household electronics12v Battery bank
Coffee potLights
MicrowaveVent Fan
Hairdryer12v Portable refrigerator
BlenderWater pump
120v Household refrigeratorCell phone

infographic showing the difference between a converter, smart charger, inverter and inverter charger in an RV electric system

Converting Power

As stated previously, you cannot charge a battery bank directly with 120v AC city power. You need to first convert that power into 12v DC form so it can be stored in the batteries; and that’s where converters come in.

Converters are often referred to as “chargers”, because their primary function is to charge batteries.

a motorhome or rv converter charger converts 120v ac power into 12 volt dc electric power

Converters

Your typical RV comes with a converter built-in. These are simple, single-stage systems which convert 120v AC power to 12v DC power and slowly charge up your battery bank while simultaneously powering your RV.

Converters work well when you’re plugged into city power frequently. This is the best solution when you spend all of your time at RV parks with hookups.

However, if you plan to travel off-grid often you should consider upgrading to a smart converter (multi-stage converter) because they are more efficient.

progressive dynamics smart converter charger
Smart Converter Charger

Smart converters (smart chargers)

Smart converters work just like converters, but charge batteries faster and more completely. A smart converter will sense how full your batteries are and adjust amperage and voltage to charge them in an efficient way.

They charge through four stages: bulk, absorption, float and equalize.

When the batteries are  depleted, a smart charger ramps up the amperage until it gets near full capacity. Then it restricts amperages and increases voltage to top off and balance without throwing away extra power or damaging the batteries. This is known as multi-stage charging.

Why you should upgrade a converter to a smart converter

  • Smart converters charge your battery bank faster, that is especially useful if you’re using a generator to charge your batteries.
  • Smart converters are better for your long term battery health.
  • Standard converters are not compatible with lithium batteries.
  • If you’ve upgraded batteries from flooded to AGM or Gel, your old converter might be improperly charging them. This can damage the new batteries.

Upgrading your converter

Upgrading your converter is a relatively simple process. They are normally located underneath the AC breaker panel in an RV. We recommend these smart converters to upgrade to:

IMAGE PRODUCT DETAILS  
replacing a converter charger in your rv motorhome
Progressive Dynamics
  • 70 amp Inteli-Power 9200 Series Converter
  • Built-in Charge Wizard to recharge to battery 90% in 2-3 hours
  • Boost mode, normal mode, storage mode
Check Current Price →
upgrading to a lithium converter charger in your rv motorhome
Progressive Dynamics
  • 60 amp Lithium-ion PD9160ALV Converter/Charger
  • Reverse Battery Protection
  • Battery management system (BMS)
  • Automatic Thermal Protection
Check Current Price →

Installing an RV smart charger

Inverting Power

If you want to go off grid and run a laptop, hairdryer, coffee pot, microwave or anything that plugs into a standard household wall socket, you’re going to need an inverter.

Inverters are the opposite of converters. They take 12v battery power and turn it into 120v AC power.

Inverters are popular in van life, but they are only as good as your battery bank. You’ll need replace the power you use with either an inverter charger,  generator, or with solar panels and a charge controller.

differences between an inverter and an inverter/charger for an RV or motorhome

Inverter/Chargers

victron inverter charger for RV
Inverter/Charger

Inverters combined with smart converters are called inverter chargers. They can charge your battery bank with city power and also provide power to run household electronics from your batteries. This is the best of both worlds.

Why you should upgrade a converter to an inverter charger

  • They can charge your battery bank.
  • They have all of the benefits of a smart converter.
  • You can use all of your electronics off-grid.
  • One unit does the job of two devices.
  • Most come with an automatic transfer switch so you don’t have to manually turn them on and off like a standard inverter.
  • Many inverter chargers have an automatic generator start feature. If the batteries drop too low, the inverter will send a signal to the generator to turn on and run until they are topped off again. This will keep the battery bank full and the electricity flowing without a touch.
  • They are compatible with all battery types.

Is an inverter necessary?

You can rely on battery power and 12v electronics when camping off-grid. Many van lifers choose to go this route because it is simple. If you don’t have an inverter you can still use lights, vent fans, 12v portable refrigerators or other small electronics. You just won’t have any powered household wall sockets.

Inverter chargers are significantly more expensive than a smart converter. If you don’t plan to do a lot of boondocking, save yourself some money and stick with a smart converter.

The Best Inverter Chargers For RV

IMAGE PRODUCT DETAILS  
upgrading to an inverter converter charger in your 5th wheel
AIMS Power
  • 2000W continuous, 6000W surge (20 seconds)
  • 16A, 120V pure sine wave 
  • 70A smart battery charger
Check Current Price →
upgrading to an inverter charger in your travel trailer
Go Power!
  • 3000W pure sine wave inverter; 4800W surge (5 seconds), 6000W surge (1 second)
  • 120V pure sine wave
  • 125A battery charger
Check Current Price →
upgrading to a inverter charger in your camper van conversion
Xantrex
  • 3000W continuous, 6000W surge output
  • 120V pure sine wave
  • 150A battery charger
Check Current Price →
upgrading to a inverter/charger in your camper van conversion
Victron
  • 3000W continuous, 6000W surge output
  • 25A, 120V pure sine wave
  • 120A battery charger
Check Current Price →

Installing an RV Inverter Charger

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Eternal Flame In NY

Kate Moore

Kate is the lead content creator for ParkedInParadise.com and has spent over two years living in a camper van conversion. She has traveled through 48 US states and writes about van life, camping and RV living.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I am working on a project to provide continuous power to 3 ByteSpeed servers; P/N R2308WTTYSR; and 4 HP POE switches. The thought is to use 6 deep cycle batteries connected to an inverter/charger. The servers are rated at 1100 Watts each and I have not been able to find the ratings on the switches, but I am sure it is substantially less than the servers. We would like the servers and switches to be powered by the utility company power, but in the case where power is lost to seamlessly switch to the inverter. We would also like to have the ability to integrate a Smart system that would correctly shut down our servers in the event we would lose power from the electric company. If you have any suggestions or recommendations, it would be appreciated. Thanks, Jim Courtney (Tech) at Booneville School District; Booneville, AR

  2. I think this is a good blog for RVers and I like it, but it would be better if you can recommend the pros and cons of each product which helps it easier to choose the best one. I hope my opinion is useful to you.

    1. I think choosing a good inverter for RV is my big problem because I am a new RVer so I just have a little bit of knowledge about RV. But your post gave me a lot of useful information and I chose my best inverter which was Power TechON 3000W Power Inverter. I satisfied with it and I am gonna follow more about your article. Thanks!

  3. I have an rv (class A, Thor Vegas) that when I plug in to shore charges my battery. I am installing an inverter OR inverter charger. why would I need an inverter charger when the the rv already charges the battery? wouldn’t an inverter do what I need? why would I go with and inverter charger, not just an inverter?

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Eternal Flame in NY

ABOUT US
Hello! We are Kate, Ian and Harper. We spent over two years living in a DIY camper van and visiting 48 US states. Along the way, we've met with other van lifers, checked out their rigs, and learned a lot about adventure travel. We hope this site can help you plan your next road trip.

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