Watts, Peaks and Surges
The first step in selecting an inverter is to match the inverter to the voltage of the battery you'll be using for power. In the majority of cases, you'll be using a 12-volt battery, so you would want to select a 12-volt inverter.
The next step is to determine which devices you plan to power with the inverter. Look for a label somewhere on each device that tells you the wattage it requires to operate. The wattage rating of your inverter must exceed the total wattage of all the devices you plan to run simultaneously. For instance, if you wanted to run a 600-watt blender and a 600-watt coffee maker at the same time, you'd need an inverter capable of a 1,200-watt output. However, if you knew you would never be making coffee and fruit smoothies at the exact same time, you'd only need a 600-watt inverter.
Unfortunately, things aren't quite that simple. Devices that have electric motors, as well as some televisions, draw a higher wattage than their normal operating wattage rating when they first start up. This is known as peak or surge, and this information should also be listed on the device's label. Most inverters also have a peak rating, so make sure the inverter's peak rating is higher than the peak wattage of the device you intend to power. Microwaves are a special case. As an example, you may know that your microwave is a 500-watt microwave. This is actually the cooking wattage. The power wattage might be twice that amount. Again, check the label on the device to make sure.
If you plan to run your inverter through the cigarette lighter in your car, it's a safe bet that you won't be using any high-wattage devices. In fact, if you try to pass more than about 400 watts through a cigarette lighter connection, it will fail -- and it might even start a fire in your vehicle.
The final specification to look for is the wave output of the inverter. If you'll be powering any of the equipment that is sensitive to square waves, look for an inverter with a "perfect sine" wave output. Be prepared for sticker shock -- a perfect sine inverter can cost almost 10 times as much as the same wattage inverter with a modified sine output. Modified sine means that the current is run through some filtering, so it isn't a square wave, but it isn't totally smooth either.
On the next page, we'll explain how to install an inverter.