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July 27, 2007

Ubiquitous Power for Traveling Nerds – The Cigar Lighter Inverter

Inverter Reader Omar nailed it: “The one power source that I think is consistent around the world is the 12v power (cigar lighter in older vehicles) in most vehicles.” It’s an incredibly ubiquitous standard. It shows up in boats as well as cars; but, for some weird reason, airplane seats with power use a different plug.

So the answer to my question of which one device does a nerd who has been forbidden to bring his twenty-piece power adapter kit need to take instead to assure that his or her electronic toys can be topped off with electrons is – drum roll – a twelve volt inverter! There are lots around; I’m not recommending any particular brand. You can see that the one pictured here hasn’t even been freed from its bubble-wrap; but note that it does come with an adapter for airplane seats.

Note that this inverter has a 120 volt out so the power supplies for every one of my North American toys plug into it: cell phone, PC, camera, GPS, even my battery recharger. If you’re based elsewhere, you can get an inverter with the right output voltage for your toys . You could buy a separate cigar lighter adapter for each toy and you would use energy more efficiently because you wouldn’t be converting from DC to AC and back again; but that’s too much junk.

One of these inverters saved a vacation for us (and a little marital stress). Mary booked a stay at a place in Belize near ruins and the rain forest; she’d already put up with a week on a sailboat off Belize so this was “her” half of the vacation. At the time I was regularly working on my novel hackoff.com: an historic murder mystery set in the Internet bubble and rubble. After a long bumpy drive down proto-roads we arrived at our home-for-a-week. It looked lovely lit by its kerosene lanterns. Whoops, they’re not just for atmosphere. No electricity!

But no problem. We had a car for exploring. I had my inverters (one plus a backup) because we’d been on a boat. Plenty of juice to recharge my PC after a writing bout and ruins around to recharge me.

The amount of power you can actually get out of an inverter depends both on the size of the inverter AND the voltage available at the source. Sometimes lousy boat batteries cause inverters to trip themselves offline. The solution can be to charge only when the alternator and engine are running but this isn’t fool-proof. Spikes knock inverters offline also. However, the more electronics a boat has, the better the power is likely to be. I’ve also had inverters refuse to work on planes.

The inverter pictured here, for example, is not recommended for PCs with screens larger than 15 inches or TVs. The next size up can handle all laptops, small TVs, and even cordless tool chargers.

BTW, I’ve never had to take a taxi or rent a car JUST to charge my batteries – but it could happen.

If anyone knows the history of how cigar lighters got so standardized, I’d love to hear it. It’s not that there’s only one possible device that could light a cigar. Part of the story must be the prevalence of 12 volt car batteries.

Readers Ben Metcalfe and Michal Altair Valasek both suggested USB-based power attachments. USB certainly is universal and it is fascinating to see it used as a power source even when no data connection to the host PC is needed. Doesn’t solve the problem of how to get power into the PC in the first place but, perhaps, you have a cigar lighter adapter just for that.

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