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Electricity: Way more than you wanted to know.

Packing Tip

Electricity is different in Europe. Basically it’s twice as “hot.” Most of Europe was wired for electricity decades before the US was completely electrified so the infrastructure is likely to be older with a higher possibility of power surges and blowing circuit breakers and fuses. The result of these two facts is that your US electric powered gizmo probably won’t work in Europe and is fairly likely to fry without some serious planning. Even with planning, using any North American electrical appliance in Europe is a bit of a crap shoot.

The basics:

Volts: The “force” of electricity going through the wire. Standard North American voltage is 110 volts. Standard voltage in Europe and most of the rest of the world is 220 volts. US electrical appliances will usually burn up when plugged into a 220 volt outlet. You may need a converter to convert the 220 volts to 110 volts so your appliance will work. Dual Voltage: Simple heating appliances like hairdryers, immersion heaters to heat up a cup of water, travel irons, curling irons, etc. that will work with either voltage are widely available. The package usually says “dual voltage” or “world wide voltage.” The item will get twice as hot on 220 volts, so the dual voltage aspect is usually a switch to prevent using the highest temperature settings when the switch is in the 220 position. Your hairdryer will only turn on to the “low” setting, but it will get as hot as it does on the “high” setting.

Watts: The work done by the electricity. This usually isn’t an issue for travelers, but more about this later.

AC vs DC: Alternating current reverses direction at regular intervals. This is what comes through the power lines to the wall outlet. Direct Current flows in one direction. This is what comes from a battery. Battery chargers and sophisticated electronic items actually run on DC when plugged into a wall outlet. The oversized plug or the box on the cord is an inverter that’s changing AC to DC. This is good news as many inverters will work with either 110 volts or 220 volts.

Cycles: How often the direction of the alternating current reverses. US AC reverses 60 times per minute. European current reverses 50 times a minute. This usually isn’t a big deal, but some simple electric appliances use the cycles in operating. Thus, a fan or a shaver may run slower on 50 cycle current and a clock that keeps time by 60 cycles = 60 seconds isn’t going to keep accurate time on 50 cycle current. If your appliance uses a fan to keep itself from overheating, slower fan speed may be a problem.

Wall outlets: The shape of the outlets and the plugs is different. You will need adapter plugs to fit the wall outlet. There’s one plug for UK and Ireland and a different one for the rest of Europe.

Electric check list for travelers:

1. Do I really, really need to take this electric item with me? If you can live without it leave it home. Even with converters, dual voltage items, etc. you still have a chance of damaging your stuff.
2. Can I get a dual voltage item? Vidal Sassoon and Conair make dual voltage hair care products. You can buy travel irons, etc. at a travel store.
3. Is it reasonable to buy a European model after I get there? For long trips, this is a good choice. For short trips, who wants wasting time shopping for a hairdryer?
4. Is the item actually running on DC? Ipods, laptops, digital camera chargers, phone chargers, etc. are actually running on DC. Somewhere on the charger, the oversized plug or the box on the cord, it will list the acceptable “input.” This will be molded into the plastic or on a permanent label. If the “input” is listed as 110 to 220 volts then you won’t need a converter but you will need adapter plugs to fit the wall outlets. If it only lists 110 volts then look for a different model of charger that lists 220 volts or buy a converter.
5. What converter will I need? Travel and luggage stores, big box discount stores and electronics stores sell small, relatively cheap converters for travelers. These are designed to run simple electric items for short periods of time. If you’re going to run something complex or for long periods of time you’ll need a prohibitively large, heavy and expensive converter. The converter usually lists the wattage that it’s designed to work with. Most travel converters will work with items of 50 to 1500 watts. If you have a low wattage electronic item listing less than 50 watts or an 1800 watt hairdryer, you will have a problem and may blow a circuit breaker (which won’t make you popular with your hostelmates) or damage either your appliance or the converter. To protect your stuff, look for a converter with a fuse in it and take extra fuses.
6. What adapter(s) do I need to fit the wall outlets? These are also available with the travel items at discount and travel stores. There are universal adapters (usually fairly bulky) and individual plugs which are usually sold in sets of 4 or 5 which will include the two you’ll need for a trip to continental Europe and UK.
7. Will cycles be a problem? Even though items laptop computers are configured to have adequate cooling capacity on 50cycle current, you may find that things run “hot,” run slower or don’t keep accurate time. Keep an eye on your stuff and turn it off and unplug it if it seems to get hot.
8. Any other concerns? The plugs and inverter boxes on electronic items sometimes seem to get hot. Don’t leave anything plugged in when you’re not using it. Watch your chargers and unplug them as soon as the batteries are fully charged.

Illustrations by Marie McLaughlin

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Oops The picture shows a whole new wrinkle, not covered above. Increasingly you find recessed outlets like the one in the picture where the “ground” is a prong coming out of the outlet that fits a hole in the plug on your appliance. If you’re using an appliance with a regular 2 prong plug with no ground and a thin two-pronged adapter, you probably won’t have a problem. However, if you’re using a converter which looks like it will fit this outlet because it has two prongs in the appropriate places, you’ll have a problem. The ground prong sticking out and the fact that the outlet is recessed mean you’re converter won’t plug in. Further, if you’re using a universal adapter plug, that probably won’t fit either. You’ll need to use the small, two prong, European adapter plug or perhaps even two of them to make the chain necessary to use your converter in this outlet. A better option is to find and buy the round adapter plug that’s specifically designed for these outlets. Those aren’t easy to find other than in specialty travel stores.

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Nice article for travelers. I remember once i purchased a mobile phone in UK but i had to purchase a converter for charger of the mobile phone here in US. But other than that i think whenever you purchase any electrical appliance from UK or any other country, always make sure you have your options open at home for using them.

Sandy – fanimation fans

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Don’t want to nit pick but US is 60 Hertz which is 60 cycles per Second europe and the rest of the world is 50 Hertz, 50 cycles per second, not minute. Great write up!

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I am not entirely sure how many of these I adapters I have purchased over the years. What I do know is that every time I am looking for the latest one it is never around and i always end up buying a new one.

What I have found though is that, unless you are traveling to a variety of different countries, I usually purchase a simple adapter at a local store as then you are certain it will work.

Where possible I try to avoid taking any electrical appliances, of course now with the days of roaming mobile phones this is not always an option!

Great information though.


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These days it seems that as Michiel states doesn’t matter what sort of adapter you have, you either can’t find it or you have to purchase a different one anyway!! Great idea though to perhaps just purchase a cheap one from a local store then you know you have the right plug. I guess the problem with the statement though is that the store has to have the right mate for your plug!!

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Nice, this will help for my physics lessons Smile

well explained Smile

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Lost my Eagle Creek converter on a recent sojourn to Shanghai, but was able to repplace it in the local electronics market there at Baoshan Rd. A little daunting I suppose for those uninitiated into the organized chaos of an asian electronics market, but I found it invigorating.

One thing though – watch your wallet. I learned long ago to keep mine in a front pocket.


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Thanks for sharing this information with me , قصة اصحاب الاخدود .