An inverter is a device which changes DC power stored in a battery to standard 120/240 VAC electricity (also referred to as 110/220). Most solar power systems generate DC current which is stored in batteries. Nearly all lighting, appliances, motors, etc., are designed to use ac power, so it takes an inverter to make the switch from battery-stored DC to standard power (120 VAC, 60 Hz).
     In an inverter, direct current (DC) is switched back and forth to produce alternating current (AC). Then it is transformed, filtered, stepped, etc. to get it to an acceptable output waveform. The more processing, the cleaner and quieter the output, but the lower the efficiency of the conversion. The goal becomes to produce a waveform that is acceptable to all loads without sacrificing too much power into the conversion process.
Inverters come in two basic output designs - sine wave and modified sine wave. Most 120VAC devices can use the modified sine wave, but there are some notable exceptions. Devices such as laser printers which use triacs and/or silicon controlled rectifiers are damaged when provided mod-sine wave power. Motors and power supplies usually run warmer and less efficiently on mod-sine wave power. Some things, like fans, amplifiers, and cheap fluorescent lights, give off an audible buzz on modified sine wave power. However, modified sine wave inverters make the conversion from DC to AC very efficiently. They are relatively inexpensive, and many of the electrical devices we use every day work fine on them.
     Sine wave inverters can virtually operate anything. Your utility company provides sine wave power, so a sine wave inverter is equal to or even better than utility supplied power. A sine wave inverter can "clean up" utility or generator supplied power because of its internal processing.
     Inverters are made with various internal features and many permit external equipment interface. Common internal features are internal battery chargers which can rapidly charge batteries when an AC source such as a generator or utility power is connected to the inverter's INPUT terminals. Auto-transfer switching is also a common internal feature which enables switching from either one AC source to another and/or from utility power to inverter power for designated loads. Battery temperature compensation, internal relays to control loads, automatic remote generator starting/stopping and many other programmable features are available.
     Most inverters produce 120VAC, but can be equipped with a step-up transformer to produce 120/240VAC. Some inverters can be series or parallel "stacked-interfaced" to produce 120/240VAC or to increase the available amperage.