The entire book is published free on-line by author and photographer John Bermont, yours truly, with help from my daughter Stephanie. Copyright statement. Home page at enjoy-europe. Update 24 February 2015.
My hostel, not hotel, room in Tallinn, Estonia had the most modern and plentiful array of electrical outlets I've seen anywhere in Europe. There were three grounded Schuko outlets. Two of them were occupied by ungrounded Euro plugs for the lamp and TV. Additionally there was an Internet LAN jack and a phone jack. It is a good idea to carry a short LAN cable in case the WiFi doesn't work or doesn't exist in your hotel. WiFi is often free in B&Bs and hostels, and costs a bunch in fancy hotels.
Safely using European 230 volt 50 Hz electricity in your hairblower and razor, and the battery chargers for your camera, phone, laptop computer, and other devices is a continuing nuisance for travelers. How do you do that?
The popular answer from travel gurus and travel goods suppliers is to bring a converter. This is a huge mistake. Before you go any further please read the important preface to this chapter at Electric Converters in Europe: Why You Should NEVER Use a Converter.
Why do those Internet places advertise and sell converters? Because they make money when they sell those destructive devices. Why are converters recommended by so many travel writers? Because many of them are stupid.
For starters, in Europe you will not see the familiar American 2-wire and 3-wire electrical outlets. Instead, there are about a half dozen different styles. Some are obviously distinguishable and some are somewhat similar in outward appearance. That is the initial and obvious issue you must face, the outlet. The American plug on the wire of your gizmos does not fit anywhere in Europe.
Further, there are two hidden and much more serious issues. The voltage is higher and the frequency is slower. This unseen stuff is what shall give a final fatal jolt to your American 120 volt 60 Hz electrical gear. There may be consequential effects, say a loud clanging from the hotel's fire detection system.
These differences create a series of challenges for American travelers using electrical gear in Europe. That would be just about all of us in the 21st century. So follow along here and get up to a first grade level in electrical know-how. First grade is all you need.
If you have any lingering questions see "Note to Readers" in the last paragraph below. I am happy to answer any email on the subject of electricity, and any other travel inquiry if I can. I learn a lot from my email questions and continually update this chapter based on them. There is a lot of strange stuff out there. Before you write please show some evidence that you have read the Preface on converters and this entire chapter. I do not write the same stuff twice, despite many emails asking me to do so.
WHAT IS ELECTRICITY?
Electricity, in the nearly abstract, is a form of energy consisting of a flow of electrons. What are electrons? Electrons are one of the three basic particles in the universe. Electrons are electrically charged negative pieces of matter and/or energy. Einstein figured that out with his famous equation. Electrons are very mobile. The other two particles are protons and neutrons. Protons are electrically charged positive and neutrons are neutral. Each is about 1,800 times heavier than an electron and do not go anywhere. All of your body parts and everything in the universe is made out of these three tiny tiny particles of matter and/or energy. It is amazing what God did.
Electrons flow through wires and provide power to darn near everything. The wire is the path of least resistance. Electrons are dumber than turkeys so that is where they go, normally. However, electrons can be loose canons. They can cut loose and go anywhere. Sometimes they jump out of the wire. This is when you see them, as a spark. When they jump out of a cloud they are known as lightning. Benjamin Franklin taught us that with his kite experiment. Don't try that at home. It should have killed him.
The normal flow of electrons in an electric wire can be continuous in one direction (direct current electricity, DC) or it can be reversing on a fixed frequency (alternating current electricity, AC).
Measuring the Juice
Electricity is measured in terms of quantity (amperes, amps, A) and force (voltage, volts, V). The energy used is electrical power (watts, W). In household electrical circuits, power is approximately equal to the product of quantity and force. In other words, volts multiplied by amps equals watts, VxA=W. Instead of mentioning watts, the nameplate on many electrical devices uses the term volt-amps, abbreviated VA. The VA is slightly higher than W due to circuit impedance and power factor, stuff you really don't need to know unless you are an electrical engineer.
Circuit Breakers, Fuses
The quantity of electricity available at any outlet is determined by the size of the wires furnishing it. The fuse or circuit breaker at the main electrical panel is designed to limit the flow of electricity according to the size of the wire. When too much electricity passes through a wire it becomes hot. In the extreme case the wire can become so hot that it melts, starts sparking, and sets the place on fire. Before the wire gets that hot the fuse blows or the circuit breaker opens and prevents damage.
The "Hz" you see on electrical appliances indicates the frequency. That is the number of times per second that AC current reverses polarity from negative to positive. It is not an abrupt change. The voltage follows a sine wave, gently rising to a peak and then reversing to a valley. For a visual on this see the graph in the first part of this chapter at Electric Converters: Why You Should NEVER Use a converter. Hz is the abbreviation for Hertz, a German physicist long ago.
I hope this little scratch of electrical know-how won't make you dangerous.
Electricity in America
In the United States household electricity is normally supplied by your local power company or municipal utility at 110 or 120 volts at a frequency of 60 Hz. Any device rated between 100 volts and 130 volts works fine. The quantity available in American homes is generally 15 to 20 amps at a single outlet or for the total of all outlets served by a single fused circuit. Thus, one circuit may provide from 1650 to 2400 watts of power. One circuit usually supplies more than one outlet. Many people use a doubler plug or power surge strip so they can use more lights or appliances from a single outlet. This can cause blown fuses. Instead of fuses, circuit breakers (CBs) are used in most homes built in the last few decades. If the CB for your home office trips often you have too many computers, printers, monitors, and other gizmos plugged into those power surge strips. When I had my old HP III laser printer electricity hog I was tripping the CB so often that it eventually went kaput. Calling in an eletrician to replace the CB cost over $100. Ouch.
Here are the major electrical plug adapters for Europe. The UK and Ireland grounded plug is used all over both islands. The Schuko grounded plug is the standard plug for most of Europe. The metal strip in the recessed edge is the ground connection. The Euro plug can be used in Italy and Switzerland if your devices are two wire, not grounded three wire. Grounded plugs for Italy and Switzerland are different and unique. Note that "plug adapters" like these do not change the voltage or frequency. Plug adapters are simply these little pieces of copper and plastic which allow you to connect your plugs to wall sockets in Europe.
Electricity in Europe
The European version of electricity is generally supplied at 220 volts and a frequency of 50 Hz. Officially it is 230 volts plus or minus 10%. Any device rated between 200 volts and 250 volts works fine. Some localities may still have 110 volts but I haven't seen this in many years. A frequency of 50 cycles is the standard frequency regardless of the voltage throughout France, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, and the rest of Europe.
The quantity available, amps, depends on the hotel or home where you are staying. You might be able to use a 1,000 watt hair blower or travel iron. If the lights start to flicker, shut it off immediately. I once blew a fuse in an old French hotel as I was drying my hair with a dual voltage 600 watt hair blower. It seems that Tim Allen has prompted hair dryer makers to boost the power up to 1,875 watts. Vrooom! Vrooooom! This much power would trip a circuit breaker in many hotels. That might be why virtually all European hotels, hostels, B&Bs, and dorms have a hair dryer wired in for each room. If you are making advance reservations ask the hotel if it has hair blowers before you pack your own.
Have a lot of respect for 220 volts. It can easily kill you if you plug the wrong thing into the wall outlet. You might come home as burnt toast.
To use electrical appliances in Europe, some hardware is needed in order to plug in without electrocuting your machine, and maybe yourself. Since the hotel keeper or desk clerk probably knows less about electricity than you do, don't bother asking if you can plug in your appliances — you may scare the desk clerk. Just make sure to unplug everything after use. Especially do not leave anything plugged in while you are out sightseeing.
In conjunction with this chapter I urge you to read the Electrical Gadgets section of my chapter 6, Pack Light Field Test: Travel Europe in Comfort and Style. Chapter 6 has critical information about hair blowers and similar items. There is no need to repeat that information here.
While it is feasible to transform European electricity from 220 volts to 110 volts for some appliances, it is safer and far simpler to use dual voltage appliances. Some of these have a 110-220 switch while many are "smart" and can use either voltage with no operator settings to make.
You may not be able to get full power out of a dual voltage item. My hair blower would only go up to the 50% setting at 220 volts, but it worked. A reader has told me that her straightening iron cut out at the half way point also. Neither device was damaged.
Low Wattage Devices
Small 110 volt electrical appliances like radios and razors can normally operate with a 50 watt 220 to 110 volt step down transformer. This is a heavy little package of solid steel plates and copper wires. If your appliance is marked only 60 Hz, and not 50/60 Hz, you run the risk of burning up something inside even when using a 220-110 volt transformer if you use it for an extended period of time.
Laptop Computers, Digital Cameras, Cell Phones, and Similar Devices
These are electronic devices that more and more people are bringing on their trips. I'll use the generic term "gizmo" here because all of these devices have similar electrical requirements. I carried four gizmos on my last few trips.
These gizmos are usually powered by custom designed rechargeable batteries. Some of the gizmos work on AA or AAA batteries. Most of the gizmos with rechargeable batteries come with a little black "brick" in the line cord. The brick is a combination transformer and rectifier especially designed to charge the battery for that particular gizmo. The transformer part changes the input voltage to the voltage required by the gizmo's battery. The rectifier part changes the electricity from AC to DC. Batteries operate only on DC. See the top of this page for a refresher on AC and DC.
The black bricks always have their electrical specifications embossed or printed on the back side. For example, my Nikon digital camera Quick Charger brick says "Input: 100-240V~50/60Hz 0.18-0.105A 18-25.2VA." The only part of this statement that you really need to know is the part saying Input: 100-240V~50/60Hz. This tells you that it works on both American (110 volt 60 Hz) and European (220 volt 50 Hz) electricity.
This enhanced and enlarged view of the electrical specification plate for my Olympus pocket digital camera battery charger shows the critical data. The black-on-black label embossed on the back of the gizmo is no more than ¼" high with maybe a 5 point font. Yes, you do need a magnifying glass to read this. Since the INPUT (center line, look carefully after the Chinese script) is given as 110-240V 50-60Hz this will work throughout Europe with the aid of a plug adapter only. NEVER use a "converter" on any gizmo with these specifications. Actually, NEVER use a "converter" on ANY gizmo.
If the line cord does not have a black brick then the electrical specifications are printed on the gizmo. You may need a bright light and a magnifying glass to read the small print.
If your gizmo or charger has this Input: 100-240V~50/60Hz electrical specification printed on it then all you need in order to use it in Europe are plug adapter(s) for the countries you are visiting. You do not need a transformer. You do not need a converter. In fact, a converter will probably destroy your gizmo, momentarily light up the room, blow the circuit breaker, and put you in candle mode. You will need to go to the front desk to get your lights working again, assuming that the desk clerk knows how to change a fuse or reset the circuit breaker. Please read part 1 of this chapter.
The numbers for A tell you how many amps are used. VA (roughly equivalent to watts, W) tells you how much power is consumed. In the case of my camera battery charger that is in the neighborhood of a 25 watt light bulb. That tells you something else you should be aware of — the brick is going to generate some heat. It won't be much heat but it would be wise to lay the brick out in open air to dissipate the heat and not wrap the brick in a T-shirt where it could get hot.
The bricks for my other three gizmos have similar "Input" statements. The net result is that all I need for powering these gizmos and/or their chargers in Europe is a plug adapter for each one. A plug adapter does not change anything electrically. It only changes the prongs on your plugs. For details of the different plugs in use see the section below on plug adapters.
If you have several gizmos, then instead of a plug adapter for each gizmo it would be better to have a 250 volt power surge strip with a European plug or a plug adapter on the cord. Outlets in European hotels are scarce. See the power surge strips in the Amazon advert column on the right. The surge strip with six outlets has a Continental Schuko plug, good for most of Europe except Italy, Switzerland, Britain, and Ireland. If you are going to Britain or Ireland you will also need the Continental to UK plug adapter listed just below the power surge strip.
Here is a side-by-side view of a Schuko and a Euro plug adapter. Notice the larger prongs on the Schuko plug. Also notice the previously mentioned ground strips on the side of the Schuko, and the barely visible hole in the contact on the back side in this view. That black hole serves as the ground port for a prong in the wall outlet as found in several countries. Both of these devices are advertised near the top of the right hand column.
In Italy and some other southern and eastern countries, especially in older hotels, the Schuko plug (4.8 mm) does not fit. You need a plug adapter called a Euro plug (4.0 mm). Schuko to Euro adapters may be available at local hardware stores or probably from your hotel desk clerk.
The advertised three outlet power surge strip has an American three wire grounded plug. You will need to bring appropriate plug adapters for the countries you are visiting because American grounded and ungrounded plug adapters are virtually unknown and unavailable in Europe.
Each black brick also has an "Output" statement. These specifications are all different. I can't use one simple brick. I need all four for my four gizmos. The output statement of each brick matches the input requirement of its associated gizmo or battery charger in terms of DC voltage and power, VA.
Be aware that not all bricks are good for 100-240V~50/60Hz. When I bought my Nikon camera I just happened to look closely at the brick before I left the store and it said only 110v~60Hz. The camera store owner looked in another box and found a brick good for 100-240V~50/60Hz. You almost need a microscope to read those electrical specifications.
Do not bother bringing a plug-in electric clock or clock radio to Europe. These devices, which generally operate on AC motors, will run at only 5/6 of the speed for which they were designed because the speed is determined by the electric frequency. If you bring your electric alarm clock, assuming that it works on 240 volts, and set it at 6 pm when you check into the hotel, it will read only 11 pm when it is midnight, and only 4 am when it is 6 am. You will probably miss breakfast. You need a battery powered travel alarm.
Your hair blower will run slower, if you set the switch at the 220 volt setting as you should. If your hair blower starts running at a very high speed you have probably plugged in a 110 volt hair dryer or left the switch at 110. If you leave it running on 220 volts it will burn up in a few seconds and your room will smell putrid for a long time.
If your electrical device has a transformer in it, you probably should not bring it to Europe. Lower frequencies require thicker transformers. Transformers designed for 60 Hz operation can overheat and sometimes burn up when used in 50 Hz circuits. Make sure that your stereo receiver is rated for both 50 and 60 cycles before moving it to Europe. We used to have a tape deck which apparently suffered untimely death due to 50 Hz burnout.
If you are relocating to Europe for an extended period, don't bother bringing a TV. Not only because of the differences in electricity, but the broadcast signals in Europe are different. It will not work. An American TV will have a constant roll, snow, and static. See chapter 22, Moving to Europe: Things to Know Before You Go for more information on television and a hundred other topics.
The producers of DVDs have introduced a "zone" system for all DVDs. There are six geographical zones in the world. The USA is #1, Europe and some other areas are #2, etc. DVD players will only play DVDs manufactured for a specific zone. The reason they do this is to control the sales and make more money. So if you intend to buy a DVD in Europe make sure that it will play in your zone #1 player, but it probably won't. Or buy a zone #2 DVD player while you are in Europe so you can watch those French movies. But check the electrical nameplate for 110/220 volts and 50/60 Hz. Multi-zone DVD players are available in Europe.
EXCEPTIONS AND CAUTIONS
Although European electricity is generally 220 volts, there are a few places where you might find 110 volts. On entering a hotel room, inspect a light bulb. It will be marked with the voltage as at home. Then you know. You can also find the voltage stamped on the back of the radio or TV if your room has one or the other. But there are exceptions. On a visit to Stockholm, I found that the hotel room was 220 volts, except for the shaver outlet in the bathroom. It was 110 volts only. It is more common to find both 110 and 220 volts available in bathroom shaver outlets of the better hotels.
This is a typical electric razor outlet as found in many bathrooms in European hotels. This is a better design than most of them. It has the fat pin Schuko outlet marked 220V and a standard American 110V outlet. Everybody from North America and most of Europe can use this. The British/Irish plug will not fit, of course, and the Italian plug will hang loose. Hanging loose presents a potential sparking problem. Sparks can ignite other stuff and get out of control pretty fast. This outlet only delivers 20 VA (equal to approximately 20 watts) so you won't be able to plug in your hair blower. Get those 1,875 watts somewhere else! This outlet is in my hotel room in Turku (also known as Åbo), Finland (also known as Suomi). I happened upon a statue of Nikolai Lenin in Turku, where he once hid out from the Czar's police.
There may still be a few cheap hotels in Europe warning against the use of any electric appliances in the rooms. Even though some of these places are recommended in popular budget guidebooks, do not stay there. The warning signs in the lobby indicate that the hotel wiring is archaic and that they have had trouble before. Someday some tourist is going to plug in his electrical items and fry the wiring. If you are lucky, all you will lose is the lights. About one hotel in Europe goes up in smoke every year or so. See chapter 14, Hotels, B&Bs, Hostels, Homes: European Travelers' Sleep Options for more information on safety in hotels.
Direct Current Electricity, DC
DC electricity is produced by batteries. DC is used to power cameras, flashlights, camera flash units, portable radios, portable recorders and CDs, calculators, camcorders, laptop computers, etc.. Each appliance has its own unique requirements for batteries. This is stated in the operating instructions and in the battery housing.
It is reported that some parts of Europe are wired for DC electricity in the homes, though I suspect that this is a legend. I've never seen it. But if you find yourself in one of these areas, do not attempt to use AC electrical appliances.
TRAVELING ELECTRICAL KIT
When bringing electrical appliances to Europe, some or all of the following list must also be carried:
The following sections describe these devices and what they can be used for.
Definition: A plug adapter is a small item into which you insert your American plug on one side. On the other side it has a plug which will fit in a foreign outlet. A plug adapter does not change the electricity. To use one in Europe your gizmo or appliance must be rated for 240 volts and 50 Hz.
European electrical outlets come in different sizes and shapes. On the Continent, outlets normally require a plug with two round prongs about 0.19 inch (4.8 mm) in diameter and 0.72 inch (19 mm) apart. This is known as the the Schuko plug. Outlets in Italy and Switzerland and some older hotels in other countries accept a plug with slightly smaller prongs, 0.15" (4 mm) in diameter. This is known as the Europlug. The Schuko plug looks like a Euro plug at first glance but it does not fit in these outlets. Neither plug works in Britain and Ireland.
Grounded plugs for Italy and Switzerland have a third prong, as described below and illustrated in the adverts in the pink column on the right. The red thing on the UK Ireland plug is a fuse, in this case 13 amps. Plugs for shavers and low power devices have 1 amp fuses. Get the right size if you are going to blast your hair with 1,875 watts!
If you are bringing a laptop computer or other device which has an American three prong grounded plug you will need a grounded plug adapter. The Continental Schuko grounded plug has only two prongs on it but it has ground connections on the perimeter of the plug and/or a hole which accepts a ground prong in the outlet. This is the legal standard throughout most of Europe, although older hotels and those in the east may still be using the Europlug outlets. As said, the standard Schuko grounded plug will not fit in the slightly smaller holes of the old hotel outlets. If you run up against that problem, go out to a local hardware store and buy an additional adapter when you get there.
This is the most common European electrical outlet, the Schuko. The metal parts at the top and bottom are the ground connections. Most are silent on the issue but this one in my hotel room in Mariehamn, Finland says "use is forbidden while bathing and showering." They won't arrest you if you use it while showering because you will probably have electrocuted yourself already. That 220 volts packs a real wallop. This is written in Finnish, but almost everything else on the island of Åland is written in Swedish because that is the local lingo. Note that many Euro plugs with square bases will not fit in recessed outlets like this. See the reception desk if you have a problem.
Most British and Irish facilities use a three prong plug, with two flat prongs in line and one perpendicular. See the photo of the UK grounded plug adapter in the photo at the top of this page. They may exist but I have never seen an ungrounded outlet in Britain or Ireland. Many UK/Irish electrical outlets have an on/off switch. If you are not getting any electricity look for a switch on the wall plate. Many outlets are fused, also. If you pop the fuse you will need to put on your drawers and go see the reception. Note that Britain includes England, Scotland, and Wales. The UK includes Britain and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is an independent nation comprising most of the island of Ireland.
Newer facilities in Switzerland have another kind of plug. This one has three round prongs in a triangular pattern. There is an image in the pink column on the right.
The Italians have two types of plugs. There is an ungrounded version with two round prongs and a grounded version with three round prongs in line. These have the narrow Europlug prongs, 0.15" (4 mm) in diameter. The Schuko plug does not fit. Here is a typical grounded outlet in an Italian home. It is rather plain and unremarkable.
In Eastern Europe it is possible that you will find the old style Europlug, at least until the time when all those countries adopt and implement EU (European Union) standards.
Many plug adapters now use "universal" receptors. This is a strange looking arrangement of various holes that accept virtually any plug on earth. You can see an example of a universal plug receptor in the image of the Italian plug adapter in the column on the right.
Most plug adapters accept the American "polarized" plug. This is the plug in which one of the prongs is slightly wider than the other. Most electronic gizmos do not use polarized plugs. But if yours does make sure the plug fits in the plug adapter you buy before going to Europe.
Since plug adapters for the American double flat prongs are virtually impossible to buy in Europe you should buy plug adapters for each gizmo and appliance you are bringing or a 250 volt power surge strip before departure. Carry an extra plug adapter in case your's gets lost or permanently borrowed. These things drop out of sight pretty easily. See images in the green column on the right and order direct from Amazon.com.
Power Strips and Power Surge Strips
Definition: A power strip is an item with a power cord and a rank of outlets, normally three to six. This allows you to plug in multiple gizmos in your hotel room. European hotels rarely have a spare outlet available. The power strip cord may have an American, European Schuko, or UK/Irish plug. Depending on the power strip plug and the countries you are visiting, you may need a plug adapter in order to use it.
Most Americans have a few power strips in the house. These are commonly used to plug computers, monitors, printers, and other devices into a single wall outlet. Power strips usually have built-in surge protection, power overload protection, on/off indicator light, and a main shut off switch. Surge protection helps protect your gizmos against voltage spikes, e.g. lightning hitting the power line.
My email lately indicates that many travelers pack multiple gizmos that use rechargeable batteries. I do too. See the section above, "Laptop Computers, Digital Cameras, Cell Phones, and Similar Devices." It is nice to be able to charge them all overnight and start every day with your batteries fully loaded. You could have a crisis by mid afternoon otherwise. Typically there are only two wall outlets in your hotel room. They are being used by a lamp and the TV and there isn't a spare outlet for your equipment. This is when a power strip comes to the rescue.
A power strip with "universal" outlets is most useful. Then you can unplug a lamp in your room, plug in your power strip, plug the hotel lamp into the power strip, and plug in your American bricks and gizmos. The "universal" outlet looks like nothing you have ever seen before. In a T arrangement, it has a number of various shaped holes. It accepts everything — American, British, Irish, and all the Continental plugs.
This adapter is handy in Italy and places which use the Euro plug. It has two sockets. One is a grounded "universal" socket. As you can see this thing accepts everything up to the kitchen sink. The extra socket on the side accepts ungrounded American plugs. It also has round holes so it accepts Schuko plugs and Euro plugs because it has spring loaded contacts inside. Typically a Euro plug will be so loose in a Schuko socket that it will move, spark, and/or fall out. The color is deliberately a bit wild according to the manufactuer to help you notice it when you are checking out. The same company makes a similar Schuko model plug adapter. See the adverts at the top of the right hand column. That upside down tree embossed on the "universal" socket is the standard symbol for ground, but you knew that already.
American power strips can physically be connected to a plug adapter and plugged in to any European wall outlet. This results in 240 volts rushing through your American 110 volt power strip. This is definitely not good. You might have sparks and smoke. If you burn down the hotel you are responsible, if you are still alive. I recommend that any power strip you use be rated for 220 volts minimum. There are a couple of them in the green Amazon advert column on the right. One has a continental European Schuko plug on the cord so you do not need a plug adapter to plug it in for most countries. Both have universal outlets which accept virtually any plug on the planet.
Do not plug your high power hair blower into a power surge strip. Use a separate plug adapter. A high power hair blower could pop the circuit breaker. But you probably don't need to bring a hair blower anyway since most hotel rooms have one as standard equipment. This became common in the last 20 years. I suspect that hotels do this to help avoid getting burned down when uninformed guests plug in their 110 volt American hair blowers. The 220 volts of Europe immediately shorts out the hairblower, resulting in a wild fireworks display and the end of electricity in your room. Never plug in anything that is not rated for 240 volts. I recommend that you not plug anything other than electronic gizmos and battery chargers into your power strip. The capacity of a power strip is limited. This is a redundant statement (see above) but one that needs to be emphasized. Get out your magnifying glass and look at the bottom of your gizmos and bricks!
Definition: A transformer is a device which can change any alternating current from one voltage to another. The most common transformers are those large gray cans you see mounted on electric power poles in your neighborhood. They convert the high voltage transmission current down to voltage for household use.
Travelers to Europe may need a small transformer to change the 220 volts over there to 110 volts for their American electrical appliances. If your appliances are dual voltage you do not need a transformer.
A 220 volt to 110 volt step down transformer is a heavy little thing because it is made of solid steel plates and two coils of copper wire. Electricity is introduced into the primary coil and comes out at the secondary coil. The change in voltage equals the ratio of the number of turns in each coil. Thus, a 220-110 volt transformer has half as many turns in the secondary coil as in the primary coil.
A transformer can be used to change European electricity from 220 volts to 110 volts so that it can be used in American specification devices. Transformers come in all sizes. The common travelers transformer is 50 watts and can be used for small electrical devices. Larger transformers can be used for bigger devices like kitchen appliances and power tools. Look at the electrical nameplate on your equipment to find out how much power it requires. That is measured in watts. You would only be interested in this if you were moving to Europe. For more information on that subject see Moving to Europe: Things to Know Before You Go.
This little 50 watt transformer can be used on very low power devices. Because it is made of solid steel and copper it weighs a ton, well actually 10 ounces (300 grams), more than half a pound. Try to avoid the neccessity of carrying around dead weight such as this by using dual voltage travelers' gizmos and appliances.
If you load a transformer to the max wattage on its nameplate it will get hot and maybe start to humm. Get a bigger transformer if it is too hot to hold your hand on it. If you are going to leave your electrical appliances plugged in and running for hours and hours get a transformer rated for at least twice the wattage of your appliances. If you are going to use your appliance for only 10 or 20 minutes you can get by with a transformer rated at the wattage of your appliance.
Some vendors advertise transformers with the added note "for continuous duty" or a similar statement. That is hollow verbiage. ALL transformers can be used continuously if they are operated well below their nameplate capacity. For example, if you have a 500 watt appliance it can run all day from a 1,000 watt transformer. If you ran it from a 500 watt transformer the transformer will get warm, and maybe start to hum. If you ran the 500 watt appliance from a 400 watt transformer you will notice the transformer getting hot and humming loudly. If you run it long enough the insulation will disintegrate and short out the transformer. Sizzle, sizzle, spark, and pop.
Definition: 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.
Please see the Preface to this chapter at Electric Converters in Europe: Why You Should NEVER Use a Converter.
Definition: A battery is an item containing chemicals which react to produce direct current electricity. Dry cell batteries typically produce 1½ volts. They come in various sizes. The most common are identified as AAA, AA, C, and D. The most common wet cell batteries are those used in automobiles. They contain a series of cells filled with extremely hazardous sulfuric acid, lead, and lead oxide. They typically produce 12 volts, in the USA and in Europe, no difference.
Bring spare batteries for your flashlight and gizmos. If you buy batteries in Europe, do not expect much. Cheap off-brands are widely available, and probably dead on arrival when you get back to your hotel room. Even some Duracell batteries I have bought in Europe were completely dead when I tried to use them a few hours after purchase.
Camera batteries are a special subject. See the Camera Batteries section of chapter 12, Photography in Europe: Take Your Best Shot for more information.
Definition: A rechargeable battery is one which can be renewed by passing electricity through it by use of a specially designed charger. The chemical reaction which produces electricity is reversed so the battery can be used again and again. Eventually rechargeable batteries wear out and must be replaced.
Nickel metal hydride, Ni-MH, rechargeable batteries made by Sanyo, Eveready, Sony, Panasonic, and others are expensive but pay for themselves in a hurry, especially in Europe. If you are packing anything that uses AA batteries, rechargeables are worth considering.
Definition: A battery charger is an electronic device which changes wall outlet alternating current to low voltage direct current suited for your rechargeable bateries. The guts of a charger include a transformer to change the voltage and a rectifier to change the AC to DC.
If you are using rechargeable batteries, carry a dual voltage charger. Use a charger made by the same company as your rechargeable batteries. Finding 220 volt chargers in the USA is a problem. Battery chargers rated for 220 volts are available in Europe.
Many cameras use rechargeable batteries. The camera kit always includes a special charger for the battery. These charges are almost always of the dual voltage variety, i.e., 110-240 volts and 50/60 Hz. However some camera battery chargers, especially the older ones, will only work on American electricity. If your charger has only 110 volts and not 110-240 volts on it then the best solution would be to buy a new battery charger, either at your nearest camera store or on line. For further information on this subject see chapter 12 as mentioned above.
Battery Charger Wire
This is something that baffles many people, judging by the email I receive. It also baffle me. For example, the nameplate of my Nikon and my Olympus battery chargers both state "110-240v 50/60Hz." Great. That's just what you need to use the battery charger anywhere in the world, with the appropriate adapter plug of course. But, the wire for each of my chargers has labels attached stating "110 volts" and "USA." Additionally, the special female plug (described as a "figure 8" by one of my correspondents) states "7A 125V." What the heck is going on when you have a 125 volt cord hard wired to a 110-240 volt device. But that's not the end of it. Both of the wires have the following embossed in the plastic insulation, 300v, along with some electro-tech mumbo jumbo. Hey Pavlov, I'm not a dog! I do not understand this, or how something so simple can be so FUBAR. Nevertheless I have used those wires and chargers all over Europe without incident, and I pray that it stays without incident.
Individual plug adapters, transformers, and multi-piece kits are sold in some department stores (try the wallet section) and by several electrical specialty companies. Better luggage retailers also carry a selection of electrical devices and other widgets for travelers. Do not be talked into buying a converter. Retail clerks know how to ring up a sale but most do not necessarily know anything about what they are selling.
The duty free shops in international airports carry many electrical appliances. If you didn't have the opportunity to buy what you need before leaving home, browse through the duty free shop before getting on the plane. When you see the prices you'll wish that you had taken care of this earlier.
After you land in Europe you will again see duty free shops in the airport. But you cannot buy anything in a duty free shop when you land. You can only shop duty free on departure.
American-to-European plug adapters are nearly impossible to find in Europe so you'd better get these before you go. It is possible to buy transformers in Europe, but it may be difficult to find a small one suitable for traveling. They are also very expensive in Europe. If you really need one, shop in stores selling hardware, electrical goods, computers, or electronics.
If you do a search for these electrical devices on the internet you will find many manufacturers, models, and vendors. I've saved you some trouble by locating what you need at the Amazon.com store. See the items in my pink Amazon.com advertising column at the right. Most of these items can be delivered in a few days direct to your door. Save gas, shop from your computer, and help support this web site.
SUMMARY REFERENCE TABLE
This table answers 99% of the questions I receive. Please have a go at it before you write.
|Your device says:||Action|
|What to do?|
|110 V||60 Hz||
25 watts or less
(¼ amp or less)
|Bring a 50 to 60 watt transformer with European plug.|
|110 V||60 Hz||
more than 25 watts
(more than ¼ amp)
|Leave your appliance at home and buy a dual voltage item for your trip.|
|110-220 V||50/60 Hz||
200 watts or less
(2 amps or less)
|Bring it with a plug adapter or a 250 volt surge strip.|
|110-220 V||50/60 Hz||
more than 200 watts
(more than 2 amps)
|Bring it with an individual plug adapter. Do not use a surge strip.|
* Voltages are approximate.
110 volts applies to 100 to 125 volts.
220 volts applies to 200 to 250 volts.
** Due to the frequency, motorized devices rated for 60 Hz will run at only 5/6 of their normal speed on the 50 Hz of Europe.
See the Household Items section of chapter 22 for more information. Moving to Europe: Things to Know Before You Go.
*** Watts and amps are approximate, +/-15%.
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 on my web site please do not hesitate to write and ask. When you write please include relevant details.
I do not open attachments. Please include all of your data in the body of your email. I will reply in a day or two.
Do not forget to smell the hyacinths. Scroll through the Table of Contents of How To Europe: The Complete Travelers Handbook and read all 30 chapters, FREE on line. Good deal! You'll probably find the answers you seek, and some you didn't know you needed.
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