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So, what is a power inverter anyways?

Updated on April 28, 2014

What is it?

What is a Power Inverter?

A power inverter, at its most basic, converts direct current (DC) power to alternating current (AC) power. In practical terms, this means that a power inverter allows you to use direct current sources, like batteries, a generator, or self-contained renewable energy sources like solar energy to power all manner of household appliances.

If you were to plot a graph of what DC current looks like flowing into an electrical device, you’d see a perfectly straight line. Batteries, for example, provide a consistent flow of power that doesn’t change direction or “alternate” (hence “alternating current”). However, most household appliances run on alternating current. Alternating current, plotted on a graph, would look like a sine wave, as the current changes direction over time. Power inverters use a series of electronic circuits to mimic alternating current, even though the power they’re receiving is direct. In this way, they allow DC power sources to supply electrical current to devices designed to run on AC power.

Cell Phones and Laptops

Your cell phone and your laptop can run on batteries, or they can run on current from the wall. Typically, while it’s plugged in, a phone or laptop is both receiving power to operate from the wall current, and charging its batteries. This process involves an adapter, which might loosely be called the opposite of an inverter. This system converts AC power to DC power, since the laptop and phone are configured to run on DC power primarily.

Power Inverters and Emergencies

Many establishments, and some well-prepared homes, have a backup generator that most likely runs on diesel fuel or natural gas for emergencies. When the AC power from the power station goes out, these generators kick on automatically, providing power for sometimes as long as a few days. The machines require a power inverter because all of the appliances it powers are not configured to receive power from a direct current. If you’re running a generator in your home or business, remember that your system is only as good as the power inverter, and can only handle as much as the power inverter can handle. The system might run great, but if your inverter isn’t the right one for the job, or if it isn’t in good condition, you might as well not even have the generator.

Power Inverters and Renewable Energy

If you have solar panels on your home, or—this is probably rarer—get your power directly from wind turbines or some other renewable energy source, getting normal household appliances like your refrigerator and TV to work will require a power inverter. Most of these renewable energy sources transmit energy as it’s created, or may be hooked up to a battery. Either way, the current they send out is primarily direct. The power inverter will allow you to run your appliances.

Sites like DonRowe.com provide a line of power inverters from the most trusted names in the business.

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