- by Bryan Veldboom - updated on 9/30/2021
The cigarette lighter outlet has been a staple of vehicles for decades. Back in the day, it actually contained a working lighter designed for lighting up. These days, however, it’s been repurposed as an accessory outlet used to power phones, seat warmers and other electronic devices. Before you go plugging just anything into your car though, it’s important to get a better understanding of how it works.
Your vehicle’s cigarette outlet, also known as a 12V accessory outlet, provides 12 volts of Direct Current (DC) power. DC power functions very differently from the Alternating Current (AC) power that comes out of your electrical outlets at home. AC electricity flows in alternate directions many times per second, while DC current flows consistently in one direction.
Different applications have different power needs. Solar cells, LED bulbs and electronic devices that contain rechargeable batteries, such as laptops, cell phones and tablets run on DC power. Appliances that need to be plugged in directly to a power source in order to work require AC power. Examples of AC power applications include hair dryers, TVs and microwaves. When powering an application using your car, the type of power it requires will determine what you need in order to run it.
Devices that run on DC power can tap into your vehicle’s power without the need to convert it first. This is typically done through the use of a 12V car adapter plug, a large male style plug with a center pin and metal contacts on the sides. A number of DC devices, such as CB radios, some GPS units and DVD players come equipped with a hard-wired 12V DC plug designed specifically for use in cars. If your device doesn’t come with a hard-wired 12V DC plug, you can pick up a DC power adapter, which functions the same way. There are even splitter adapters available which allow you to power multiple devices simultaneously from the same outlet.
If your vehicle doesn’t come equipped with its own USB outlet, you can also pick up a 12V USB adapter. These plug into your vehicle’s accessory outlet just like the adapters mentioned above, but feature USB outlets that you can use to charge cell phones and tablets.
A power inverter is an electrical adapter that converts the 12-volt DC power put out by your car into 120-volt AC power. This allows you to power things that traditionally run off a wall outlet using the power in your car. Anything that typically doesn’t have a USB cable will require a power inverter in order to run off of your car’s electricity. Examples include: cooking appliances, power tools and TVs.
There are two different types of power inverters, modified and pure sine wave inverters. Without getting too technical, modified sine wave inverters are the older of the two. They are more affordable and tend to work best with simple applications, such as motors or fans, but don't work well with electronic timers, digital clocks or other delicate electronics.
For more advanced applications, such as microwaves, battery chargers and audio and video equipment, a pure sine wave inverter is a much better choice. Because all equipment is designed to work with pure sine waves, this type of inverter will allow electronics to work to their full capacity. A pure sine wave inverter also helps to protect your equipment by detecting rapid changes in power output and correcting it to a safe output.
You don’t need a power inverter in order to charge DC devices from your car, but it’s still recommended. When plugging USB cables and adapters into your vehicle, there is some risk that the cables can malfunction and potentially cause damage over time to the device. If you want to ensure that your device won't be damaged, it's wise to use a pure sine wave power inverter to help keep it protected.
When shopping for a power inverter, you need to look at both the running (continuous) power and the starting surge power of the device you plan on connecting to your car. Some applications will require a much higher starting surge for the first few seconds of operation before they settle down to their standard running power. Be sure to select your inverter based on the total starting surge power of the device you plan on using it with. This can be calculated by adding the normal running power to the additional starting surge power.
Many power inverters will come with a Surge Power rating, although this rating can be a bit misleading. Typically the Surge Power rating only measures the surge power of the inverter for less than one full second. Appliances with a high starting surge power will typically last longer than this. Unless the Surge Power rating of an inverter specifically states that it lasts for greater than five seconds, the Surge Power rating should not be used to judge its starting surge power capacity. In that case, you’ll want to look at the Continuous Power rating instead.
Batteries Plus has a full selection of power inverters for a variety of power needs. Looking for additional auto products? Read the article entitled, "The Top 5 Best Car and Truck Accessories of 2021," at the Batteries Plus blog, then visit our Automotive Center for additional vehicle essentials, including batteries, chargers, headlight bulbs, fuses and more.
Need your car battery tested or a new one installed? Visit your nearest Batteries Plus today. In addition, most of our stores also offer key fob replacement service too.