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How to run 240V appliances when you are camping

If you camp out of a car, caravan, RV or camper trailer, running 240V appliances is a common problem faced. Unless you are at a powered site in a Caravan park, you need a different solution, and there are actually a number of different options. In this post, we look at the different options you have, and what you need to know about them.

The first option is to run a 12-240V inverter. This is not new technology, and involves the use of an inverter, which takes 12V DC power from your vehicles battery (or caravan/camper trailer/RV, boat) and converts it into 240V AC, like what you’d use in your home.

Now, there are some severe limitations depending on what sort of setup you have, so please don’t think you can take your fan heater with you, or a portable air conditioner without some serious gear (and of course expense!).

The other alternative is to run a generator, which a lot of people still use but with the way technology is going are fast becoming the less popular option.

12V to 240V inverters

Inverters can be purchased from about $80, and work their way up to the thousands, depending on what size they are, and what sort of quality they offer.

Basic inverters start off at around 100 watt, and for the purpose of camping, go up to about 6000 watts. However, just because you have a big inverter doesn’t mean you can run appliances that use a lot of power; there’s a bit more to it than that.

Projecta inverter

A 12-240V Projecta inverter in our Dmax

Pure sine wave inverters

The cheaper inverters on the market provide electricity that is not a very clean waveform, and ultimately is poor quality power. This is fine for charging batteries, or running lights and other gear that you aren’t too concerned about. However, plug in sensitive electronics, and you can do some pretty nasty damage to them. This includes laptops and other expensive electronics.

If you want to run quality, sensitive gear off an inverter, make sure its pure sine wave. You pay a bit more, but will save a fortune when it doesn’t destroy your nice electronics.

Inverter

A 3000W pure sine wave inverter

How does an inverter work?

Inverters take power from your battery, and convert it into 240V. The smaller inverters take power directly from a cigarette lighter, or using alligator clips on the battery. Bigger inverters tend to plug in via Anderson plugs, or if they draw over 50 amps are permanently attached to a battery using lugs.

There is some loss in the conversion between DC and AC; usually around the 10 – 20% mark. This means if power consumption is an issue (which it usually is when camping) sometimes you are better off buying a 12V appliance. For example, you can buy the Ryobi 18V battery chargers in both 240V and 12V.

Inverter or 12V chargers

For a long time, I used a cheap 150W inverter from Dick Smiths to charge the basic items; an old laptop, camera batteries and occasionally other random bits and pieces. I wasn’t worried about the laptop dying from the inverter not being pure sine wave, and it never did any damage. I actually purchased a number of 12V chargers for the different gear, because its easier to use and less hassle.

However, not too long ago I purchased a decent laptop to work with while travelling, and I looked at the cost of a 12V charger, which was about $50, and what I’d have to buy in the future, and decided to pick up a 350W Projecta Pure Sine Wave inverter instead, for about $200.

No matter what I buy in the future, I’ll be able to run it off this inverter (I’ll never go over 350W anyway) without having to buy 12V chargers.

12V Inverter

The first inverter we used, from Dick Smiths

What appliances can you run from an inverter?

This part is actually pretty simple; check your inverters maximum rating, and the maximum current draw (which is often very high on start-up) of the appliance you want to run. A 900W grinder can sometimes pull 1400 – 1500 watts on start-up, so factor that in.

Providing you are under the rating, your inverter will run the appliance. However, the harder you work them, the more likely they are to break (pushing an inverter to, or beyond its maximum limits will reduce its lifespan). Also, just because your inverter might be able to power it does not necessarily mean your battery system will; see below.

Van and aircon

A high end electrical system will even run an air conditioner for several hours from an inverter

What size inverter should you fit?

The bigger the inverter, the more you’ll pay for it. Sure, you can get some cheap 2500W inverters, but they won’t be pure sine wave and realistically, running 2500W off a normal battery system is asking for trouble.

Why? I hear you ask. Most car alternators can charge at a maximum of 70 – 130 amp hours. This means every hour the vehicle is running at a reasonable RPM (not idling) your battery has the potential to charge at the rate above. For most vehicles, its on the lower end of the scale, but for this exercise, lets call it 100 amps an hour.

100 amps an hour is anywhere between 1200 and 1400 watts on a 12V system. If you run anything above that, your alternator will not be able to keep up.

Our Bull Motor Canopy came with a 2500W inverter, which the previous owner used to power a microwave, to heat his lunches up on site. Now that’s not such a bad idea, as the inverter would be supplying around 1800 – 2200W, but only for a few minutes. As long as you do it with the car on and accept that your battery life probably will be decreased a bit, there’s no real drama.

Pulling a lot of power for any length of time out of a battery isn’t very friendly for it, unless its got the correct discharge rates (which you should be able to find in the battery documentation).

There are some pretty amazing caravan battery setups these days with huge amounts of solar, lithium batteries and these will run massive inverters very comfortably for a long time. However, to get that sort of system installed you are looking at a substantial investment; around the 3 – 20 grand mark!

Inverters are great when used sensibly

Inverters are fantastic, when used in a logical manner. The power coming out the other side is 240V, and when used incorrectly can kill you. If you are hooking them up to power outlets, you need the relevant RCD’s, and installation needs to be done by a licensed electrician who signs off on the work.

Use inverters to run gear that suits your setup; push it too far and something is going to have its life shortened. For us, I can’t see the point of running anything over 350W, so a small inverter does us just fine. Will that change in the future with lithium batteries and other appliances? Maybe!

Inverter review

Our little inverter does the basics for us, and that’s all we need

Using a Generator

With the way that technology has gone, generators are often not looked at overly favourably, and if you run one amongst a group of people in anything but a generator designated site, you might get a few sour looks. 

In essence, you can have a battery and solar setup that will rival a generator, and it is free to run, doesn’t make any noise, or smell at all. That said, generators have their place, and a lot of people still use them. They will run larger appliances easier than trying to do it with a battery system, including air conditioners, microwaves, air fryers and so forth. 

They are also a great solution when its overcast and your solar struggles for a number of days on end. If you haven’t got a generator in this situation, all you can do is run your vehicle which is far less economical.

Honda Generator

Generators are still popular for camping, especially the Honda units

Camping at a powered site

The alternative to these two options is to pull into a powered site, at a Caravan Park, or private residence. Some people love the feeling of staying at a Caravan Park, and others much prefer the bush, away from the hustle and bustle. Each to their own, but it certainly does affect how you can run 240V appliances!

Caravan Park

If you camp at a Caravan Park in a powered site you are laughing

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