What Does This Outlet Do?

CARS.COM — Many SUVs, minivans and trucks have a house-style AC outlet, but what exactly can it be used for? House-style AC outlets are one of those handy "little things that count" car convenience features that literally have hundreds of uses. The feature is still far from standard equipment on family vehicles where it often appears, and it's usually paired with expensive rear-seat multimedia systems in large SUVs and minivans or available only on more expensive trim levels. When equipped, this power inverter converts power from DC to AC. The outlets are typically found in the second row or cargo area and look just like a wall outlet at home.

Related: In-Car Outlets: What Do You Use Them For?

The outlet goes by different names and voltage ratings like 110-,115- and 120-volt AC outlets, and they are found in sedans, SUVs, trucks and minivans, though they all serve the same purpose and offer a house-style pronged power outlet inside your vehicle, in addition to the common probe-style DC outlets that accept phone and portable GPS chargers.

As cool as it would be to plug an electric snow blower or refrigerator into your vehicle, not everything with a plug works. The outlet has its limitations, and there are guidelines to follow in order to use electronic devices safely.

Around the Cars.com office, the AC outlets see all types of plugs from various devices. They help warm game-day meatballs in a slow cooker and inflate a mattress while camping. They also come in handy for keeping an iPad charged during a road trip to occupy kids' attention. Most commonly, the AC outlets help us work on the go by functioning as a portable charging station for laptops and camera batteries; the outlets also charge cell phones faster than a standard USB port.

Most new vehicles with this feature have around a 150-watt maximum rating, which is good for most portable and small electronic devices. A simple way to check if the device is car-friendly is to look for a wattage rating on the bottom of a device or power supply or in the device's owner's manual.

Those wanting to plug in newer gaming systems — which seems perfectly normal when the outlet is included in an "entertainment package" — should be careful. Some automakers warn against plugging those systems into your kid-packed SUV. The 2013 Dodge Durango SUV, in which the 150-watt maximum outlet is standard in all models except the base SXT, says in its owner's manual: "Certain high-end video games, such as PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 will exceed this power limit, as will most power tools."

And that's not just for the Dodge. Any car with outlet with a 150-watt maximum rating would have the same limitations. Newer versions of those gaming systems have scaled back their wattage rating, but always check the device to make sure. Most outlets automatically shut off via overload protection when a device that’s too powerful is used. And there are other warnings besides simply using the wrong device. The 2018 Ford Explorer's owner’s manual cautions not to use an extension cord with the AC outlet: "Do not use any extension cord with the 110-volt AC power point, since it will defeat the safety protection design. Doing so may cause the power point to overload due to powering multiple devices that can reach beyond the 150-watt load limit and could result in fire or serious injury."

Also, only use the outlet only when the engine is running so you don't deplete your car's battery. Many outlets only work when the engine is running, however.

AC plugs are also common in new trucks, and with more capability. The 2018 Toyota Tacoma has an available 120-volt, 400-watt maximum bed-mounted AC power receptacle. In the Tacoma, the AC power outlet's maximum wattage is unlocked when the truck's automatic transmission is in Park or Neutral with the engine running; only then will the "400 W" indicator inside the cabin illuminate to show the maximum available capacity, according to the Tacoma's owner's manual. If you're moving, the maximum wattage is lowered.

The Chevrolet Silverado and Ford F-150 also include an available AC outlet in the cabin. The F-150, like the Tacoma, has a 400-watt maximum for the 110-volt outlet, which has one located on the center dashboard and another in the backseat console. Ford says the 400-watt power outlet can be used for electric hand drills, rechargeable power tools, video games, laptops and televisions, though warns it's best to use for recharging power tool batteries rather than directly powering them. Ford says not to use cathode-ray, tube-type televisions, vacuum cleaners, electric saws or anything that needs a precise power supply, like measuring equipment.

Moral of the story: Readers are leaders when it comes to safely using electronics in the car.

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