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Inverters

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 powerinverter 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.


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.

Inverter Uses

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.

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