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One of Nick’s Pet Peeves . . . Using U.S. Electronics Overseas

In the piece about “Electrical Power and Money . . . . . and Distributing Electricity” the subject was about electrical power distribution and its relationship to wire size and subsequent cost. The article pointed out the difference between the U.S. standard 115volts vs. most of the rest of the world’s 230volts. This leads us to a common problem that U.S. travelers often endure when traveling abroad for business or pleasure, and that’s their electrical equipment being destroyed by overseas electricity.

My military unit in Iraq went through $50,000 in printers because of this problem, and luckily the laptops we used had true dual-voltage capability or we would have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. Beware, most of those little voltage “converters” you buy at electronic retail stores and airports are for the most part, worthless. I cannot stress this enough. THROW THEM OUT! If you read the fine print, (which only some of them have) it’ll say something that it s only good for 40 or 50 Watts, up to 1600 for heating elements, and not to be used for electronics??? Those little “converters” are really cheap and transform the voltage in a very sloppy way. Basically they cut the sine wave in half, so while it’s okay for a heating element or a basic motor, it’s definitely NOT okay for a large portion of electronic equipment.

Technically, a converter changes AC to DC (Alternating Current to Direct Current), an inverter does the opposite and changes DC to AC. A transformer changes (or steps) the voltage from higher to lower (aka step-down) or from lower to higher (aka step-up). You will see many companies selling voltage “converters.” This is a misnomer and if they can’t get the name of their product correctly, then Caveat Emptor.

Think of American products as Standard, and the rest of the world as Metric. Our machine tools generally don’t work at the stated specification or don’t work at all across international borders. You have to get a sophisticated power supply – and might it be quite expensive – to make them work properly and safely.

AC power is actually Alternating Current. Basically the voltage goes from positive to negative and flips back negative to positive 60 times a second. In Europe, it alternates or cycles at 50 times a second. Why does America use 60 Hz and overseas use 50Hz? When electrical utility companies started generating power they had all different kinds of cycle times and eventually 60 Hz became the standard in America and 50 Hz for the rest of the world. Why is this? There is no legitimate reason but historical precedent. If you run an American motor or a fan in Europe, it will be slower.

You sometimes see foreign hotels have dual-voltage “converters” in the bathroom. These are cheap transformers and only meant for blow dryers and old style electric razors. If you have to use a blow dryer overseas, I recommend you turn the fan speed up and the heat to medium or low, so you don’t risk burning it out. As for your electric razor, it’ll go slower, so it’ll probably hurt more.

If you want to use any type of American electrical device you have to buy a 230V to 115V step-down transformer. A transformer will automatically transform the electricity from 230VAC and step it down to 115VAC. Transformers are the size of a brick and are even heavier. They’re basically a bunch of copper wire coiled up hundreds of times. The bigger the transformer, the more power (aka watts) it can handle.

There’s a pleasant exception to all of these rules, and that’s the power supply that comes with most electronic devices such as laptops these days. Almost all the familiar electronic devices we use, but definitely not all electronics, are equipped with dual voltage power supplies. They are usually small external packages that plug directly into a wall receptacle and run quite well on both 110VAC and 230VAC and are completely tolerant of 50Hz or 60Hz. They are really voltage converters that produce DC to run the electronic device they are associated with. As a rule of thumb, anything that runs on batteries is using DC.

For many years, it was the practice of most electronic manufacturers to include power supplies inside their equipment. Eventually business people figured out that if you had a one size fits all (i.e. 115V and 230V) power supply they could save money by having to stock only one power supply and cut down on manufacturing, and have a more satisfied customer. To be safe, you have to look at your power supply, which is almost always that black blocky looking thing that heats up. You know the one, that stupid little thing you have to plug into the wall and then into your laptop, and waste your time coiling it back up again after you’re done. Look at the numbers written on it and if you see; Input 100-240V 50~60 Hz, you’re good. If you see 100-120V 60Hz, you’re NOT good, since it is meant for American electricity.

From my experience you are around 95% safe with laptops, 10% safe with printers, 25% with game systems…but to be 100% safe, check the power supply and then label everything. My sister destroyed my X-Box that I had lugged to Greece for my niece and six nephews, when she used a cheap converter. Since that mistake, I’ve labeled everything and threw out every “converter” you buy at your “friendly” local electronics store or the duty free airport outlet. I have three big transformers and use American power strips (all labeled). Cost me less than $200 and worth every penny.

In addition, those tiny little plug adapters do absolutely nothing with “converting” power or reducing voltage. It just changes the plug from American to European, Asian, etc. It’s just like cutting off the plug and rewiring it to the local standard. You still need a transformer. And where do you buy this stuff? Online. There are a bunch of companies specializing in foreign voltage products and at good prices, i.e. $1-$2 per adapter, instead of $5-$10 at the local electronics store or airport kiosk. $100 for a nice sized transformer that can handle 2,000 watts, instead of a voltage “converter” for $40-$50 that can only do 40 watts and if you plug in electronics equipment you have a 95% chance of frying it! So if you don’t want to hear that anyone little pop when you plug in the wrong thing and fry your equipment, buy a real transformer.

If you travel a great deal, it’s not convenient to carry a heavy transformer, so buy things that are dual-voltage and buy a proper power adapter. If you use a multi-voltage “converter”, you’re taking an unnecessary risk. It only takes one time to plug in the wrong thing. This blog is about throwing away those voltage converters, and hopefully my sister will read this blog (hint, hint, you owe me an Xbox).

If we banned those confusing “converters” from America, our US Military would have easily saved millions in damages. And if everything was dual-voltage for the military, we would save hundreds of millions, i.e. damages, using local power versus generating 115V at $400/gallon in fuel, etc.


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