Oh, dear… !
By Henrik Feilberg
Another piece of electrical gear emerged from a traveller’s bag. It had been cheap! It was supposed to be capable of doing all kinds of spectacular things! Could you please change the plug—?
Oh dear, again, It does not always work like that. at times, however cheap, such a bargain may be a throwaway. Here is why, following a bit of advice.
Historically one of the first endeavours to produce a distribution system consisting of a couple of wires carrying electricity to a water fountain and Direct Current (DC) generating at 100 volts. Since this was a showpiece, the power was carried over a great length and consequently had big losses. The voltage receiving therefore was probably no more that half of the dispatched. In this case it didn’t matter, the point was proved.
As power stations became more common, 110 volts were generated to ensure 100 volts to the customer. In some cases the 110 volts system became inadequate and more wire with 110 volts was added to produce 220 volts for heavy motors. This later went up to 220 volts + 220 volts (220 for light and 440 for power) But the whole system of Direct Current became too cumbersome and in fact somewhat dangerous to work with on the power side. Thus we all went to Alternating Current (AC) which is cheaper to produced. particularly, cheaper to distribute.
Regretfully the development of electrical service was no better co-ordinated that the standards for video recorders, which I’m sure we all remember: which system? How to view this cassette with what recorder. The 110 volts in the USA and Canada became 115 volts Alternating Current (115VAC) with 120 volts at transformers. For small power loads: 2 times 115 = 230 volts suitable for the kitchen stove, air-conditioning etc. At one time part of the USA, California, had 50-Hertz supply and the other parts, 60 Hertz. But many years ago it settled on the 60 Hertz or, 60 Cycles per second.
Europe developed a 3-phase system of 220 volts. It was felt that this was close enough to the old DC system so the house wiring could be used with no alterations. The assumption was that the load considered mainly of lighting, electric irons and the occasional vacuum cleaner. Incidentally, by law vacuum cleaners were manufactured to run equally well on AC and DC but, since a 3-Phase system was produced, the low voltage was not 110,115 or 120 volts, but 127 volts. But wait, there is more to come! 50 Hertz was used and has not changed.
The Europeans had the advantage of not being too afraid and has been maintained particularly around the Mediterranean. You may not be aware of it, but this is what we have in many of the apartments in Andorra today.
In northern Europe the voltage was later increased to 380/220 volts and 415/240 volts. Glory be, in the interest of democracy, the EU decreed 400/230 volts some 15 years ago. All well and good, most equipment will accept the change, but a small snag developed: The 110 volts, became 127 volts in Europe, increased to 133 volts. The specification allows for a range of +5% and – 10% making the maximum 140 volts.
We shall now digress. We have now boiled this down to mainly two systems for household use
European Standard : 230 volts, 50 Hertz
North American Standard: 115/230 volts 60CPS (60Hz)
We will add a few other areas from memory: India, Nepal, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Yemen, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Egypt, Sudan; are all 230 volts, 60 CPS.
And now for the bad news; The two systems don’t mix.
Arrivals from France, Germany, Scandinavia should have no problem. Change the plug as appropriate, plug in and go. Keep away from the ‘110volts’ socket outlets; in fact the best thing is to have all ‘110 volts’ outlets changed to 230 volts. Howdy we know the difference? Years ago the 110 volt socket was a two-pin designed for 6 Amperes. The 220 Volts had a collar and a earth pin. Unfortunately, some owners have converted the socket outlets/receptacles indiscriminately and it is wise to check with a volt meter . Arrivals from the UK: as above, but you may in some cases experience less efficiency in the microwave oven. Some are voltage-sensitive, and 15 volts can make some difference. Equipment here is not normally earthed as in the UK but, according to latest Code of Practice, the dwelling should have an earth leakage breaker installed.
Arrivals from North America: best advice is to leave all electrical and electronics behind. This is a touch decision as electrical goods are more expensive in Europe, but they are more expensive due to the 50Hz! 60CPS fridges and freezers will run slower in Andorra, and after some time usually break down. Fan motors will overheat very quickly. An electric lawn mower will burn. TV-sets and video recorders are not compatible at all. Voltage and frequency are wrong. In addition, the NTSC is used in USA whereas various other systems are used in Europe (PAL and SECAM).
So far I have found only two exceptions:
The portable computers. They are usually DC/battery powered and a new power supply for 220 volts 50Hz may be bought anywhere in Europe for a small price. If The laptop has an internal power supply, then check that it is marked 50/60 Hz and switchable between 220/115 volts by hand or automatically.
Power tools: a few are in fact manufactured for the European market and also sold in North America and will work equally well in both places. But check the nameplate for the 50/60 Hz-sign.
Hot plates? The basic hotplate contains only DC resistance and works equally well on both frequencies. But nowadays they tend to be souped-up by electrical timers, micro-computers, motors or fluorescent lighting which will go wrong, due to the difference in frequency.
Can we not buy a transformer? Yes, we can, but the cost of the transformer for a toaster is poor economy. You can buy several toasters for the price of a transformer. For the equipment you must also remember that the transformer does not change the frequency.
Can we not buy a frequency converter? Yes, with modern technology all these things can be bought, but like the toaster, it’s cheaper to buy new equipment.
If you do have to buy a transformer for some selected equipment be sure it is marked 50Hz or it will go up in smoke.
Regardless of where you come from, if you are in doubt of your equipment, check the nameplate. It’s usually located in an inconspicuous place such as under, at the back on the equipment or on an oven door, for example. Somewhere not spoiling the visual impression of the equipment. The nameplate always displays the standard for which the product is made frond in our case it must be stamped 230 volts 50Hz.
Now for the good news, particularly for hard tried expats; The power in Andorra is well organised and operated. Except for the odd thunderstorm power outage are announced for maintenance purposes, and usually by loud speakers. Voltage and frequency are stable. No, break units are generally not required and there is no need for voltage regulators or stabilisers .
Published in the Inter-Comm autumn 2003