It’s tough to live without electricity in today’s world, even when you’re traveling in a van. And if you want to keep your laptop charged, or if you like to make super healthy smoothies for breakfast, or if you prefer to freshly grind your coffee every morning – you need an inverter.

An inverter is a device that converts DC electrical current (the 12V power coming from your van’s batteries) to AC current (the type of electricity that comes out of a standard wall outlet). With the help of a good inverter, you can still power all of your appliances from your van’s 12V electrical system!

So how do you go about choosing an inverter? Wading through all the options out there can be insanely confusing and raises a ton of questions for the uninitiated.

There are so many different ones – how do I know which is the best inverter for me? Why is this one so much more expensive than that one? There are a lot of weird, random brands on Amazon – which ones actually make quality products? What size inverter should I get, and will it power what I need?

In this post, we aim to answer all of these questions and more. We’ll also provide you with some recommended inverters, as well as some tips for safely installing one in your van. So read on, and you’ll be powering your AC devices on the road in no time!

TL;DR: Our Top Vanlife 12V Inverter Recommendations

Top Pure Sine Wave Inverters

We recommend going with a pure sine wave inverter, if possible. These output cleaner current (“pure sine wave”), and are better for powering sensitive modern electronics.

Top Pure Sine Wave Inverter/Chargers

Inverter/chargers function as both an inverter and battery charger if/when you plug your van into shore power.

ImageModelOther SizesCheck Price
1000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter ChargerRenogy 1000W Inverter/Charger
Enter coupon code GnomadHome for 10% off at
2000W | 3000WRenogyAmazon
AIMS Power 1000 Watt 12 VDC Pure Sine Inverter Charg ETL Certified to UL 458AIMS 1000W Inverter/Charger600W | 1500W | 2000WAmazon

If you need shore power charging capabilities, another option is to pair an inverter with an onboard battery charger. While this adds complexity, it can sometimes be cheaper.

Top Modified Sine Wave Inverters

Modified sine wave inverters output “dirtier” current that may not play well with sensitive electronics. However, they are much less expensive than pure sine models, and may be perfectly adequate for basic needs.

Obligatory Disclaimer: While we spent a whole lot of time researching this post and trying to get things right, at the end of the day we are just amateur vanlifers and are NOT ELECTRICIANS. Working with electricity is serious business, and can lead to many bad things if you do it wrong.

We suggest taking anything you see on Youtube or read on the internet (including on this site) with a spoonful of salt, do your own research, and consult a licensed electrician before performing any of your own electrical work.

Do You Actually Need an Inverter for Your Van?

do you need an inverter

Photo by @970verland

Before you even think about throwing down your hard-earned cash for an inverter, ask yourself this question – do you actually need one?

Most of the electronic devices you’ll use on a daily basis can be powered via your main 12V system. Your 12V fridge, vent fan, lights, and devices like phones and tablets will all work fine with 12V. You may be able to find 12V versions or adaptors for other electronic devices as well.

But if you plan on using appliances like blenders, induction cooktops, electric shavers, televisions, power tools, battery chargers, audio equipment, or anything else that only works on 120V – you need an inverter.

We also recommend getting an inverter if you want the flexibility to be able to power anything you may need to in the future, or if you plan on adding the ability to charge your van via shore power.

We have a Xantrex ProWatt 1000 pure sine wave inverter in our van, and it fits our needs very well. While most of the time we’re only using it to charge our computers, we also use it to power battery chargers for our cordless drill and rechargeable batteries, a small immersion blender, coffee grinder, hair clippers, and a nail grinder for our dogs. We’ve also used it to run amplifiers, vacuums, and power tools, as well as providing emergency power to friends and family when we’ve been around during outages.

If you’re on a tight budget for your build and don’t have a lot of electrical needs, an inverter may be something you can skip (or buy a small portable inverter if you just need to charge your laptop). Remember, you can always expand your system and add an inverter later on.

But if you can swing the cost, we think having the additional flexibility of 120V outlets in your van is a worthwhile addition and really boosts the utility of your rig.

Now let’s talk about the different types of inverters to help you decide which one best fits your needs.

The Two Different Types of Inverters: Modified Sine and Pure Sine

krieger modified sine wave inverter

Photo by @scott_quimby

There are two different types of inverters that you’ll see out there: modified sine wave (MSW) inverters and pure sine wave (PSW) inverters.

Before we dig into the differences between the two, let’s go over some basics that will help you understand what an inverter does and how it functions.

Understanding DC and AC Electric Current

The electrical current produced by your van’s batteries is known as Direct Current, or DC. DC flows at a constant voltage (12V in the case of most campervans and RVs), and the waveform basically looks like a flat line.

12V DC Sinewave

You can power most things in your van with 12V DC, including your lights, fridge, vent fan, and 12V outlets.

But DC is not what comes out of your typical wall outlet – that’s Alternating Current, or AC. AC produces a signal that alternates above and below 0V, ultimately outputting the voltage that you need to power most standard household electronics (110V/120V in North America, 220V/240V in many other countries).

If you want to power something that has a regular wall plug, you’ll need to convert the DC current from your batteries to AC. This is where the inverter comes in.

All 12V power inverters take 12V DC and convert it to 120V AC – but not all AC current is created equal. When choosing the best inverter for your van, you need to understand the two different types of inverters and how they create AC power.

Modified Sine Wave vs Pure Sine Wave Inverters

Modified Sine Wave Inverters create alternating current by producing a stepped, blocky signal that jumps above and below 0V in boxy shapes.

This is not “pure” alternating current, but rather an approximation of the sine wave that makes up clean AC. A modified sine waveform looks something like this:

120V Modified Sinewave

The best modified sine wave (MSW) inverters are perfectly adequate for many types of electronics, but they can create issues with more complex or sensitive devices. And even if a modified sine inverter can run your electronics, it produces a “dirtier” electrical signal that can cause devices to run hotter and less efficiently, burning up to 30% more power than normal. MSW inverters may also produce a “buzzing” noise with audio equipment and some other devices.

Here’s a brief list of some common electronics that cannot or should not be used with a modified sine inverter:

  • Battery chargers
  • Variable speed tools
  • Items with brushless motors
  • Electric shavers
  • Newer TV’s
  • Some laptops
  • Induction cooktops
  • Coffee makers
  • Electric blankets
  • Microwaves
  • Audio equipment
  • Laser printers and photocopiers
  • Many digital clocks
  • Medical equipment

MSW inverters are significantly cheaper than the best pure sine inverters, so if you only need to power a couple of simple things you can save a bit of money by going this route. But if you think you’ll have any need to power sensitive electronics, we heavily recommend going with a PSW inverter.

Modified sine wave inverters are also referred to as “stepped sine” or “multi-step wave” inverters.

Pure Sine Wave Inverters produce a smooth sine wave that is equivalent to the “clean power” you get from the electric grid.

The waveform looks something like this:

120V Pure Sinewave

The AC current from pure sine wave (PSW) inverters is much more consistent and reliable than the current from MSW inverters. Thus, PSW inverters are able to run any AC device, including sensitive electronics, just as well as the wall outlet in a grid-connected house.

What’s the downside? The big one is cost. The best pure sine wave inverters are more expensive than MSW equivalents. But if you have the space in your budget, we highly recommend going the PSW route.

Pure sine inverters are also referred to as “True Sine Wave” inverters.

Which Type of Inverter Should You Get?

If you have simple electrical needs and aren’t running anything too complex, than you may be able to save a bit of money by going with a good modified sine inverter.

However, if you need or want to power any sensitive electronics, or want the flexibility to do so in the future, we think it’s worth it to shell out a bit more for a PSW inverter.

How Can You Tell if it’s a Pure Sine Inverter?

samlex inverter

Photo by jarvis_the_van

It’s not always easy to tell what type of inverter you’re looking at online. Many product listings for modified sine inverters – especially for the random off-brand units – purposefully do not specify what type of waveform the unit produces.

If you’re not careful, you could end up buying a modified sine inverter when you meant to buy a pure sine unit. When we were first researching what inverter to buy for our van, we had a bitch of a time identifying what was what.

If you’re in the market for a pure sine inverter, beware of inverters that are suspiciously inexpensive – they’re probably modified sine. It’s also a good idea to stay with well-known, established brands when dealing with your van’s electrical system.

The general rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t say Pure Sine (or True Sine) in the product name – it’s not!

What if You Plan on Using Shore Power?

If you often stay places where you can plug into shore power, consider getting an inverter/charger or an inverter with a built in transfer switch.

Inverter/Chargers have a charging unit built in that will charge your batteries from shore power when you’re plugged in. This is a great option if you want the ability to plug in and charge when you need to supplement your solar setup. However, they are more expensive than standalone inverters.

Inverters with a built in transfer switch will power your AC devices from shore power when you’re plugged in, and will automatically switch to the inverter when you’re not.

These types of inverters may not have built in outlets, and instead need to be hardwired. These are good options for bus conversions and RVs that primarily run off of 120V – whereas most campervans will use mostly 12V and supplement with an inverter. You can also purchase automatic transfer switches for use with standalone inverters.

Sizing Your Inverter for Your Needs

AIMS Inverter sizing

Photo by @whitewhaleskoolie

Inverters are sized by the amount of Watts of AC power they can generate, and you’ll want to pick your inverter size based on the Wattage of the devices you need to power. Inverters have ratings for both Continuous Watts and Peak/Surge Watts.

Continuous Watts refers to the amount of current the inverter can output on a continuous basis. This is usually the listed size of the inverter (i.e. a 1000W inverter can output give or take 1000 continuous Watts). Make sure to choose an inverter that’s rated to handle the continuous Wattage of all the AC electronics you’ll be running at once.

Peak or Surge Watts refers to the maximum Wattage an inverter can generate for a short period. For example, you might have a blender that pulls 300 Watts continuously, but on startup it may have a 600W surge for a few seconds. If you’re running electronics that have a startup surge, make sure you pick an inverter with a high enough surge rating.

So how do you figure out what size inverter you need? Look at the AC electronics you’ll be powering.

All AC electronics should have a Wattage rating listed in the tech specs. (If you don’t have those available, it’s usually pretty easy to find them online. Just Google “your appliance + manual” or “your appliance + technical specifications.”)

Add up the Wattage rating of all the AC electronics you think you’ll be using at the same time. That’s the total amount of Watts you need (don’t forget to look for surge Wattage if you have appliances with a startup surge).

But inverters are not 100% efficient, so running a 200W blender will ultimately consume more that 200W of power. Most inverters are 80%-90% efficient, so we recommend choosing an inverter that is rated for at least 20% more Watts than your appliances will draw.

Here’s a real life example of electronics we may run at the same time in our van:

John's Surface Book 295W
Jayme's Surface Pro 645W
Immersion Blender200W
Coffee Grinder150W
Cordless Drill Battery Charger90W
AA/AAA Battery Charger20W

Our total consumption in this example is 605 Watts. To account for the inefficiency of the inverter, we need to add another 20%.

605W x 1.2 = 726 Watts

Now, we don’t necessarily run all of those appliances at the same time always, but we might. We want the ability to do so without worrying about overloading our inverter, so we decided to go with a 1000 Watt inverter.

Why Not Just Get the Biggest Inverter You Can Afford?

sizing your inverter

Photo by jalexartis, licensed uncer CC 2.0

Efficiency, for starters. Bigger inverters tend to be less efficient than smaller ones, and they tend to consume more power when they’re at idle (not running a load). When you’re boondocking off grid, sometimes every Ah of battery capacity counts, so there’s no reason to draw more than necessary.

The other main reason is cost – inverters quickly jump up in price as they get bigger. If you’re only consuming 600W of power at one time, it’s likely a waste of money to shell out for a huge 3000W inverter.

It’s also possible to get an inverter that’s too big to realistically run in a campervan. If you really need to power 3000W of AC electronics at one time, you’re going to drop a lot of money on a huge battery bank and a means to charge it. All those batteries will take up a ton of space. And you’ll need very thick cable to wire your inverter to your batteries, which will also be expensive and difficult to work with.

For most vanlifers, a 1000W – 1200W inverter will more than cover your power needs. We generally don’t recommend going bigger than 2000W with a typical 12V campervan electrical system.

Make Sure Your Electrical System is Big Enough to Power Your Inverter

Your inverter is only part of the equation – you also need to make sure your batteries and charging setup can handle the load.

We have full instructions on sizing your system in the sizing section of our epic electrical post. Remember to add 20% to the Wattage of all AC appliances to account for inverter inefficiency.

What to Look for When Choosing a 12V Inverter for Your Van

what to think about inverter

Wading through product listings and inverter reviews online gets real confusing real quick. There’s not a whole lot of reliable or consistent information, and reviewers on places like Amazon have varying experience/knowledge levels about complex electronics like inverters.

It’s always a good idea to check out the manual for any inverter you’re considering purchasing. Just Google “inverter model + manual.”

Product manuals are a great place to hunt down technical specifications that you might not be able to find elsewhere, and they can give you an insight into the care and detail that the manufacturer puts into their products.

They also normally list any independent safety certifications that the product holds, which will ensure that you’re getting an inverter that conforms to the highest safety standards.

Here are some recommendations on what to look for when searching for a good inverter online:

  • Continuous Watt rating. This is what the inverter is capable of continuously outputting.
  • Peak/Surge Watt rating. This is what the inverter is capable of outputting for short periods, or “surges.”
  • Efficiency rating. This is the overall efficiency of the inverter. For example, an inverter that is 90% efficient will consume 10% more Wattage than the device it’s powering.
  • No load/Idle consumption. This is how much amperage the inverter consumes when it is not powering a load.
  • Automatic shut off safety features. At the very least, your inverter should automatically shut down if it detects too high/low voltage from your battery, if there is an AC input overload, and if the inverter begins to overheat.

Also make sure to look for UL listing, ETL certification, or other safety compliance rating by an independent testing board.

To make sure you’re getting an inverter that’s safe, we highly recommend getting one that conforms to UL Standard 458 for mobile power inverters/converters. This is a US-Based safety standard that means the inverter has been independently tested to make sure it follows electrical safety best practices for vehicle installations.

Testing can be done by UL themselves (UL Listed), or by a variety of Nationally Recognized Independent Labs. The most common NRIL certifications that you’ll see on inverters are UL, ETL, MET, and CSA. If you’re in the EU or Australia and your inverter is does not carry one of these certifications, it should conform to the safety standards of your locale. The point is, find an inverter that has been independently tested and certified for safety.

There are a lot of cheap inverters out there that don’t have any kind of safety certification. While you may be able to save a bit of money going this route, we don’t recommend playing with safety when it comes to electronics – especially at higher voltages like 120V.

Recommended 12V Power Inverters for Vanlife

Below we list our recommended pure sine inverters for vanlife, including important specs and inverter reviews. We did the research to help you make a decision on the best inverter for your van.

All of the inverters we recommend below meet the following criteria:

  • Manufactured by a reputable brand
  • Include high/low voltage, AC input overload, and high temperature shutdown protections
  • Certified to conform to UL Standard 458 for mobile power inverters/converters

Xantrex ProWatt SW Pure Sine Wave Inverters

Xantrex Technology Inc, 806-1206 Inverter Prowatt Sw 600

Xantrex ProWatt SW pure sine wave inverters are solid pieces of equipment. We have the ProWatt 1000 in our van, and it’s worked flawlessly for us. Xantrex has been around for decades, and their products have a very high reputation in the RV industry. These highly efficient inverters do what you need them to do, and they do it quietly and with a minimum draw on your batteries.

We can also attest that Xantrex has good customer support. We once torqued off the ground screw on our inverter when we were rearranging our electrical area. We called Xantrex, and they had a warranty replacement in the mail the next day. Super easy.

Xantrex ProWatt inverters handle continuous loads remarkably well, but their surge ratings are lower than many other inverters on the market. The label wattage is also something of a misnomer – for example, the ProWatt 1000 is only rated for 900 continuous Watts. But these are sturdy, reliable, and efficient inverters that should serve you well on your travels.

These inverters are pricier than many inverters you’ll find online, but they’re actually a pretty good value among high end inverters.

Xantrex ProWatt Inverters are available in the following sizes:

Xantrex 600WXantrex 1000WXantrex 2000WRemote Switch

Xantrex ProWatt SW 600W

Xantrex ProWatt SW 1000W Inverter

Xantrex ProWatt SW 2000W

Remote Swtich

Xantrex Technology Inc, 806-1206 Inverter Prowatt Sw 600Xantrex Technology Inc, 806-1210 Inverter Prowatt Sw 1000Xantrex 806-1220 PROwatt SW 2000 Inverter - 1800W, True Sine WaveXantrex Technology Inc, 808-9001 Remote Panel for Prowatt Sw
Pure SinePure SinePure Sine
540W Continuous900W Continuous1800W Continuous
1200W Surge2000W Surge3000W Surge
85%-90% Efficient85%-90% Efficient85%-90% Efficient
< 0.6A Idle Draw< 0.6A Idle Draw< 0.6A Idle Draw
UL ListedUL ListedUL Listed
2 Year Limited Warranty2 Year Limited Warranty2 Year Limited Warranty
Check Price:
Check Price:
Check Price:
Check Price:

AIMS Power Pure Sine Wave Inverters

AIMS 1000 Watt, 2000 Watt Peak, Pure Sine DC to AC Power Inverter, USB Port, 2 Year Warranty, Optional Remote, Listed to UL 458

AIMS Power has only been around since 2001, but they are quickly becoming a respectable force in the mobile energy arena with a full line of products from inverters to charge controllers. Despite some early initial quality issues, AIMS pure sine wave inverters are some of the best on the market today. Not only that, they’re a hell of a value, and are probably the best bang for your buck among all the inverters we looked at.

One thing to be aware of – although most of their products are ETL certified, not all of them are (for instance, their 1500W inverter is conspicuously not ETL Listed). Be on the lookout for “ETL Listed” in the product title – AIMS has non-ETL compliant versions of many of their inverters. While you can save a few bucks going this route, we highly recommend staying with safety-certified inverters for your van.

AIMS inverters are highly efficient with good surge output, and are quickly gaining a reputation for quality and value. If you just can’t justify shelling out for a Xantrex, take a look at AIMS inverters for your van build.

AIMS Power pure sine wave inverters are available in the following sizes:

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

AIMS Power Pure Sine Wave Inverter/Chargers

AIMS Power 1000 Watt 12 VDC Pure Sine Inverter Charg ETL Certified to UL 458

If you want the ability to charge your batteries from shore power, you’ll need an inverter/charger. And AIMS pure sine wave inverter/chargers are the best of the pack, featuring the quality, efficiency, and overall value typical of AIMS products. AIMS inverter/chargers also include a built in automatic transfer switch, so you can run your outlets off shore power while your batteries charge.

AIMS Pure Sine Inverter/Chargers are available in the following sizes:

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

Samlex PST Pure Sine Wave Inverters

Samlex PST-1000-12 PST Series Pure Sine Wave Inverter - 1000 Watt

Samlex is another legendary inverter manufacturer that has been around for decades. They have a very good reputation in the industry, and you probably won’t go wrong choosing one of their inverters.

With their PST line of pure sine inverters, Samlex offers a full range of sizes, from a compact 120W all the up to 200W and beyond. No matter how small or large your power needs are, Samlex has something that fits.

Samlex inverters are on the pricier side, but you tend to get what you pay for when it comes to complex electronics. The smaller models have non-standard Anderson Powerpole connectors, so be prepared for that when planning your electrical system.

Samlex PST Pure Sine Inverters are available in the following sizes:

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

Go! Power Industrial Pure Sine Wave Inverters

Go Power! GP-ISW1000-12 Industrial Pure Sine Wave Inverter - 1000 Watt / 12V

Go! Power is another manufacturer of high end inverters that are well known for their quality, reliability, and efficiency. These industrial pure sine inverters have a power saving mode that makes their idle draw particularly low. Like Samlex, these inverters are on the pricier end.

Go! Power Industrial Pure Sine Inverters are available in the following sizes:

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

Krieger Modified Sine Wave Inverters

KRIËGER 1100 Watt 12V Power Inverter Dual 110V AC Outlets, Installation Kit Included, Automotive Back Up Power Supply For Blenders, Vacuums, Power Tools MET Approved According to UL and CSA.

Krieger modified sine wave inverters are a great value. They are affordable, reliable, and have rave reviews. All Krieger inverters come with a kit that includes wiring, fuses, and a remote switch. However, we think the included wiring is too thin, so we advise sizing up.

Krieger inverter kits are available in the following sizes:

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

Samlex SAM Modified Sine Wave Inverters

Samlex SAM-1000-12 SAM Series Modified Sine Wave Inverter - 1000 Watt

The same great Samlex quality, reliability, and efficiency – this time with a modified sine wave. And Samlex SAM inverters come in a variety of sizes – so no matter your power needs, Samlex has an inverter that will meet them.

Samlex SAM modified sine inverters are available in the following sizes:

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

You can't use multiple times the same shortcode.

Watch Out for Inverters that are NOT Safety Certified

There are several commonly used brands of inverters out there that have NOT been certified for compliance with UL Safety Standard 458 for power inverters/converters. These inverter brands are:

These inverters are widely used in DIY campervans and RV’s, and are less expensive than our recommended picks. One of these units may work perfectly fine for you – but they have not been independently tested for safety, so we can’t recommend them.

Installing Your Inverter in Your DIY Campervan

installing your inverter

Once you’ve picked your inverter, the next step is installing it in your van. Here are a few things to think about before you get started:

  • Where your inverter will be located. You want to install your inverter as close to your batteries as possible to minimize the DC wire run. But, you should not place your inverter in the same compartment as lead-acid batteries or other flammable materials.
  • Give your inverter room to breathe. Inverters need ventilation to prevent overheating. Follow your inverter’s instructions and allow enough space around it for airflow.
  • Make sure you have the right size cables and fuses. The cable you use to connect your inverter to your battery should be thick enough to handle the current – the thicker the better. The positive cable should also be fused to protect your system in case of a surge. Check out this helpful resource for recommend cable/fuse sizes.
  • Include a cutoff switch between the battery and the inverter. This is a safety feature to allow you to cut the electrical feed from the battery if you need to work on the system.
  • Make sure your inverter is properly grounded to the vehicle chassis. Your inverter’s ground cable should have a solid connection to the van’s chassis using self-tapping screws or bolts and shake-proof washers.
  • Consider designing your system so the inverter is easy to turn on and off. Either place your inverter so it’s easy to access the power switch, or install a remote switch within arm’s reach (all of our recommended inverters have remote switches available). This will help you consume less power.

Here’s a wiring diagram showing how your inverter should be connected to your batteries:

Inverter Wiring Diagram

Check out the installation section of our Epic Electrical Post for more detailed instructions, as well as a full guide to installing your van’s electrical system.

Powering Everything You Need on the Road!

With your new inverter, your van should now be able to meet all of your electrical needs. So go ahead and use that blender while grinding your dog’s nails and charging your computer without worrying about you electrical system being able to handle it. And when you’re done – get out there and explore!

For more epic build guides, vanlife tips, and general awesomeness, be sure to follow us on Instagram @gnomad_home and on Facebook. Cheers!