Chapter 11 Part 1
This graph shows how voltage changes in a smooth alternating roller coaster fashion coming from an American electrical outlet, the blue line. This style of curve is known as a sine wave. The red line shows what the voltage looks like coming out of a "converter" when it is used in Europe. The voltage has a very hard landing 50 times a second. On top of that it is not the alternating sine wave that your gizmos need. The horizontal scale covers a little bit more than a tenth of a second. There are more blue peaks than red peaks because American electricity alternates faster, 60 times per second, 60 Hz for short. The frequency of European current is slower, at 50 Hz. This can have a severe effect on the performance of American things when they are used in Europe. Frequency cannot be "converted" except by complex expensive devices.
This Internet edition of chapter 11 is divided into two parts:
The purpose of this page is to bring you up to full power on the biggest buggy-boo facing international travelers — "converters" for your electrical stuff. More detail is given in chapter 11 at Electricity in Europe: Travel Voltage Fundamentals.
220 ≠ 110
The voltage throughout Europe is 220. American voltage is only 110. Knowing if and when you must change European electricity so that it can be safely used in your gizmos is a significant nuisance for travelers. How do you do that? You should not even try.
A lot of travel supply companies and travel writers on line recommend that you use a "converter" to change European 220 volts down to 110 volts so that you can use your electrical things in Europe. This is dangerous nonsense. I am flabbergasted at some of the rubbish I read on the Internet.
Who says so?
How do you know if you can trust me on that? Briefly, some of my qualifications are: earned my degree in chemical engineering cum laude, built and regularly used a number of electronic test instruments (e.g. volt-ohm meter, wave generator, oscilliscope), lived in four European cities accumulating a total of over seven years on the ground in 220-lands, and traveled extensively through scores of foreign countries on four continents since long before the Internet was invented. I have popped the hotel fuses and fried my gear more than once. Click on my mug shot above for my travel bio and even a full professional résumé.
If you do not know the meaning of voltage and frequency you have a choice. You can trust this university educated, former Mensa, midwestern American geezer, or you can put your life in the hands of a Chinese chipmunk selling stuff made by child labor with the help of dirt chutes in the USA. It is potentially your life, and it is your call.
So, end of lecture and on with the message.
WHAT IS A CONVERTER?
A "converter" is an electronic device designed to reduce 220 volts to 110 volts. It does this by cutting off half of the sine wave. Thus, the electricity varies from zero to max volts and back to zero. It does not go to negative volts. It stays at zero volts for half of the sine wave. Therefore, what comes out of a converter is on-off power, at a frequency of 50 Hz. See the red line in the graph above.
Converters are suggested for use on hair dryers, irons, and other high wattage heating devices. If your high wattage equipment does not have a dual voltage switch, you might be able to use a converter. A converter is much lighter and smaller than a transformer of equal capacity, and it is definitely not a transformer. If it is used with something like a 400 watt slide projector, the lamp will burn out in a few seconds. Yup, I know — I did that. I've read that the 1,600 watt converters can also fry a 1,200 watt item.
Because of the way that converters work they may destroy your equipment no matter what. Many normal electrical appliances these days include a chip in the control crcuit. Half a sine wave may be OK for a pure heating appliance from 1950 but the go-stop-go-stop of a converter can shake the shorts off a silicon chip immediately.
I urge you to absolutely avoid using devices called converters regardless. They are potentially hazardous to your equipment because you never know which of your appliances has an electronic control circuit in it. Those chips are ubiquitous. I receive a couple of emails a month from people who used a converter and were immediately blessed with an amazing light show from the converter or their gizmo, followed by blackout in their hotel room.
Six Cylinders or Bust, Probably Bust
Picture this as a situation similar to a converter: An engine is connected to a small cog wheel which is driving a big cog wheel. The big cog wheel is conected to a train. Now remove half of the cogs from the small drive wheel, all on one side. Next, rev that drive baby up to 3,000 revolutions per minute, RPM for short. If you are on that train my prediction is that you are going to have brown briefs, at least yellow, right now.
Transformers are another type of device which changes electrical voltage. Transformers transfer the full sine wave and are safe for virtually all electrical and electronic gizmos. However they are extremely heavy and bulky.
Unfortunately, some merchants who sell electrical devices do not know a transformer from a converter. They use the words interchangeably. Some travel "gurus" do the same. This is really really stupid. The First Amendment protects free speech, but it doesn't guarantee that people know what they are talking about. Read the product description carefully before you buy.
Some merchants mention that converters should not be used with electronic devices. This caution is usually in small print or in a side bar of their advert. So, what should you use a converter for? The only devices that can safely be used with converters are heating appliances which do not have any electronic circuitry. That is old school.
Let us get up to date with technology. This is the 21st century. Almost everything these days has an electronic control circuit. That's a given so it isn't discussed. American distributors of home electrical devices expect that the device will be used in your home in the good old USA, not in some foreign 220-land. My email indicates that travelers who contact the makers of their appliances to see if they can be used in Europe get absolutely no help from the "service" desks on this issue. The phone bank clerks in New Delhi who answer your call have a script book with all the answers they are allowed to give out, with an accent that only their cousin could understand.
You should be aware that warrantees are tightly written by lawyers to protect manufacturers against lawsuits brought by other lawyers, not to guarantee that you will have sweet happiness with the product. I went to law school and aced torts so I can say that. Boilerplate warrantees are not subject to negotiation with a company service representative on the phone. The service rep wants to keep his or her job and is certainly not going to give you an out-of-school OK, or even advice on what to do.
Further, 99.99% of warrantees are valid in the USA — ONLY. If you blow it up in France you pay for the replacement. You also pay for consequential damages. Huh? "Consequential damages" could include the value of the hotel you burned down, all of its contents, and all previously prospering people, pets, and produce on the premises. You won't be needing a restaurant guide book because you will be eating prison food until you make bail.
1,875 Watts — Oh Boy! or Uh Oh.
The most common appliance that travelers feel they need is a hair blower/dryer. NOT! The fact is that virtually every hotel and other form of travelers' sleeping quarters in Europe already has a hair blower/dryer in each room these days. In my experience over the past few years that includes B&B's, hostels, university dorms, and private homes in a few dozen countries, i.e., every place from Portugal to Estonia and Turkey to Ireland. I suspect that the reason for this is that 1,875 watt hair dryers have blown out the circuit breakers in so many places that the owners are fed up with switching the power back on for you fluff-dry bad-hair-day-phobic Americans.
So before you make room for that hair blower in your luggage and start hauling it around Europe find out from your hotels if a hair blower is not already provided. This fact is often specified in the web page of each facility. If not, email or call to find out.
The Safe Option
If you need a hair dryer, curling iron, laptop computer, cell phone, or similar item for your trip to Europe make sure that each item is rated and labeled for 220 volts and 50 Hz. Then all you need are plug adapters for the countries you are visiting. It couldn't be easier.
This is a typical electrical nameplate of a laptop computer. This happens to be for a MacBook Pro but a similar label can be found on the chargers or cases of all laptop computers and such. Normally the charger is a little "black brick" but Apple's way is usually different. Apple chargers are little white bricks. Why do you need to look at this high tech data? Because if you don't you might mess up your pretty little computer. The only thing you really need to know is the top line on the right side: Input: AC 100-240 V~, 50-60 Hz. Thus, this charger will operate just fine in Europe without a "converter" or anything else, other than a simple plug adapter.
THE WHOLE STORY
As stated in the first paragraph above, the purpose of this chapter 11 preface is to bring you up to full power on the biggest buggy-boo for international travelers — "converters" for your electrical stuff. I get more email on converters than on any other subject.
Now that you have dispensed with the idea of bringing a converter to Europe see chapter 11 Electricity in Europe: Don't Blow Their Fuses for much more detail on what electrical hardware you might consider bringing, if any.
NOTE TO READERS
I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to Europe that have not been covered well enough in this section please do not hesitate to write and ask. When you write please include relevant details.
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