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What Is an RV Power Converter?

What Is an RV Power Converter?

The RV power converter is critical to the 12-volt electrical system that dramatically increases your comfort while RVing. A 12-volt battery bank powers your RV’s 12-volt system when not plugged in giving you power on the go. While the battery stores energy you need a way to charge it, and that’s where the power converter comes in.

Let’s learn about RV power converters and their role in enhancing your RV experience. 

What Does a Power Converter Do? 

Having an RV power converter installed in your RV allows your electrical system to convert 120-volt AC power to 12-volt DC power. This process enables you to charge your RV’s 12-volt battery bank, which often powers fans, vents, and lights in your RV. Whether you’re connecting your RV to shore power or a generator, you need a converter to charge your battery bank. 

RV converter

In addition to charging the batteries the converter powers all the DC needs of the RV when plugged in. It “converts” 120V to 12V.

What Is the Difference Between an RV Inverter and a Converter?

An RV converter takes 120-volt AC power and converts it to 12-volt DC power for your RV. However, an inverter will take 12-volt DC power and invert it into 120-volt AC power. While a converter is a pretty standard piece of equipment in RVs, an inverter is not always installed. 

converter vs inverter RV

An RV inverter lets you use 110-volt electrical sockets from your batteries. You’ll now be able to watch TV and use other appliances that require 110-volt power. If you’re planning to use electronics like hairdryers, microwaves, and coffee makers, you’ll need a larger inverter.

Knowing the difference between an RV inverter and an RV converter can be confusing. Many individuals on social media use the terms interchangeably or incorrectly, making it even more confusing.

Pro Tip: Learn more about RV electrical basics in our How are RV’s Wired Article

What Is An Inverter Charger?

Inverter charger units combine inverters and converters into one unit. These boxes can basically send power both directions to and from batteries. They can convert 120 to 12 and 12 to 120. These are great all in one solutions for those that need an inverter for their RV along with upgraded charging functionality.

RV inverter Charger
This is a Victron Inverter Charger unit

Where Is The RV converter and What Does It Look Like?

RV converters are usually located near the batteries but maybe anywhere. They will always be connected to the main wires coming off the batteries, however. Sometimes they will be stand-alone boxes and other times they will be integrated into a fuse panel or breaker box. Many times when integrated in the fuse panel you can see them somewhere inside the RVs main living space.

RV converter breaker panel
This is an RV converter that is also a fuse panel and breaker box combination
RV fuse panel
Frequently the RV converter will be in a box like this.

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What Size Power Converter Do I Need for My RV?

RV converters are rated at what maximum DC amperage they can output. A 45 amp converter will be able to output 45 amps of 12V DC current or 45×12 = 540 watts. This is the DC amperage while the AC draw at max would be 540W/120 = 4.5 amps. The converter amperage draw will fluctuate depending on the loads applied. The more lights and appliances that are one the larger the load. If the converter’s output is exceeded additional power will be drawn from the battery.

Choosing the correct size converter for your RV requires knowledge of how you use your RV’s electrical system. Generally larger RV’s need larger converters because they will have higher DC loads with more lights and appliances.

While looking at all of the electronics, note each device’s amperage rating. This allows you to consider which items you’ll be running at the same time. The size of your RV power converter depends on how many amps you’ll be pulling from it.

You also need to size your converter based on your battery bank. Larger battery banks can draw more power to charge than smaller ones. Lead acid batteries charge at about a .1C rate meaning a 100Ah battery will need 1oA to charge. If you have a 400Ah bank you can charge at 40A. With lithium batteries however they can usually charge at a .5C rate. This means a single 100Ah battery can charge at 5oA! Because of this using larger converters for lithium batteries will enable you to charge much faster.

When Do You Need an RV Power Converter?

Having a converter installed in your RV is a must, even if you plan to do all your RVing connected to shore power. Lights, jacks, and fans function off your RV’s 12-volt system. The 12-volt battery bank receives its charge from the converter converting 120-volt shore power to 12-volt. 

rv 12v lighting
Want lights in your RV? You need a converter!

Without a converter in your RV, your battery bank will deplete, even when connected to shore power. If you find you’re having issues with your RV’s 12-volt system, it might be due to a faulty converter. Luckily, replacing your converter is relatively easy.

How Much Does It Cost to Replace Your RV Power Converter?

The cost varies considerably. The higher the amperage, the higher the price. If you’re an RVer looking to replace your power converter, know your required amperage. While there are converters that are well over $1,000, a typical converter will cost approximately $100-$400.

Be aware of your amperage when purchasing an RV power converter. If you buy the wrong converter, you’ll end up paying double. If you paid for installation, you’d likely pay for another install as well.

Can You Run An RV Converter Without A Battery?

In theory yes you can, in practice its not a good idea. Converters usually require a battery in the system to regulate their voltage. We have heard plenty of stories of people removing their batteries and burning out LED fixtures or appliances because of voltage spikes.

Its going to depend on the converter if it can handle the loads without the battery but in general you should not operate the RV without a battery in the system.

Is It Worth Upgrading Your Stock Power Converter? 

The power converters that come in RVs out of the factory will do the job, but it may be a basic model. Upgrading your stock power converter to a smart converter will allow you to prolong the life of your batteries. Replacing your batteries can be a significant investment, so extending their life as long as possible can save you money in the long run.

internals of an RV converter

An upgraded stock power converter can also charge your batteries faster. Charging faster means running your generator less when camping off-grid. You don’t want a humming generator ruining your epic boondocking adventure.

Your RV’s electrical system may be intimidating. However, understanding its components can help you avoid issues. Having a functioning converter will dramatically improve your RVing experience. Have you upgraded or replaced your RV’s power converter?

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Dalton Bourne

Wednesday 12th of January 2022

I bought the converters (55 amp) from PowerMax to replace the Magnetek (45 amp) converter in my 1996 Fleetwood. One of the many things that immediately impressed me about this unit is the ease involved in its installation. They are available in different sizes, and I can find one that suits my needs. This specific unit has a DC output and comes with a junction set screw style. I find such a style impressive as it means that it can cleanly strip the heavy-duty battery charge with wires and insert them into the junction. It also guarantees that it will be tightened firmly.

Kat Prawl

Friday 18th of June 2021

Thanks for this information! I'm planning to upgrade the power system in my new travel trailer to add solar panels and LiFePO2 batteries (to allow for boondocking), so now I've added a better converter to the list of potential components to consider.

Julian Fresquez

Sunday 10th of April 2022

This is the best source of information I have found dealing with power converters and inverters. Well written, clear and concise. Excellent.

Mortons on the Move

Saturday 19th of June 2021

You're welcome. Glad you found the information helpful and good luck with your solar upgrade! :)