Power Inverter

I have a terrible habit of thinking of projects that would be neat, starting to work on them, then forgetting about them or otherwise leaving them until some point in the future at which I remember them, and then the cycle repeats.  Well, I’ve been mulling one particular project over in my head for a couple years, and now I’m going to declare my intention to start it and hopefully share it with the world: I am planning to build a power inverter.

Now, the truth is I have started on this project a little bit, mostly by sketches on paper and in LTspice, an excellent,  free (but not open source) circuit simulator.  For those unaware (and who didn’t feel like reading the Wikipedia entry), a power inverter (I’ll probably just refer to it as an ‘inverter’) is a device that converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC).  There are a number of applications for this…

  • Running household appliances in your car (shave while you drive!)
  • Backing up servers, medical equipment, or whatever else you want to keep running when the power goes out (UPS)
  • Running normal household appliances on a small renewable energy system
  • Connecting your small renewable energy system to the grid

And so on.  Inverters range from small ones you get at a hardware store, to big ones that can run small villages.  I’m not trying to run a village with this project, nor am I trying to power a significant portion of my apartment.  I would, however, like a small, high-quality inverter, and to really learn how it works.  And, I would like to publish instructions for this online, so that hopefully they will be useful to other people and the design can possibly evolve.

Here are my objectives for this project:

  • Output of 120 VAC, 60 Hz (nominal), 300 watts
  • Input of 12 VDC (nominal)
  • Sine wave output
  • Bidirectional: can also function as a battery charger with a transfer relay, similar to an uninterruptible power supply (UPS)

Now, this isn’t really anything novel.  As I mentioned, there are smaller inverters around, and you might be wondering why this would be worthwhile compared to say buying a small inverter at the hardware store for less than $100.  Well, as I mentioned, I’d like to learn, but that’s not all.  Note the ‘Sine wave output’ requirement.  Most of those cheap inverters won’t have this and will thus produce dirtier power.  Also, I haven’t really found a smaller unit that can act as an inverter/charger, which is something that would come in handy for me – while I do have a largish battery with some solar, it would be nice to be able to charge from the grid with this unit and essentially have a UPS.  Of course, I could get a UPS too, but they’re not really designed for continuous usage, they tend to have dirty outputs, and are designed for charging smaller batteries (usually big enough to allow you to shutdown your equipment, or start up generators or whatever).  Also, for safety reasons, I will NOT being setting this up as a grid tie inverter, meaning it won’t sell power back to the power company.

Now, I would also like to point out that I am not sure how well the design I’m considering will scale.  By this, I mean that were I to build a bigger unit (>1kw), I might approach it differently – this is kind of an experiment.  So, if you’re thinking of building something that you can use to power a chunk of your house when the power’s out in the next hurricane, I’d advise pursuing other options at this point.  (Hey, hopefully this can evolve…)  There are actually several commercial manufacturers that make products (inverter/chargers) that are similar to what I’m building, but work at higher power levels.  I have not used any of those companies’ products, but they do have decent reputations.  Also, if your power doesn’t go out very often, and you just want some quick, cheap backup, a normal gas-powered generator isn’t a bad idea.

I should note that I would not consider this the ideal beginning electronics project; while not impossible it will be somewhat challenging, and will involve high (lethal) voltages.  If you’re unsure of things, feel free to ask here (I’ll try to answer as best I can), and go brush up on power electronics (there are plenty of books on this subject, as well as college classes).  I’ll be saying this again, but whatever you try must be at your own risk.  I’ll try to keep up with this and post more as I go, so stay tuned.  It should be fun.