Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The quirks of global electricity

My knowledge of electricity doesn’t go much beyond the light switch. You flip it one way, the light comes on; the other way, the light goes off. What else do you need to know?

But while preparing for a recent overseas trip, I got an unexpected education in the peculiarities of using electricity while traveling internationally.

My family and I were going to Kenya for a safari, and we’d also be stopping in Amsterdam on the way back. This was not to be my first trip overseas, but on trips years earlier to China and Italy, I somehow managed without having to plug in anything. It seems amazing, in retrospect.

Like many people, our family has grown increasingly tech-dependent, so this time we wanted to be sure we could feed our electrical needs.

For this trip, my wife and I would be bringing along a tablet computer, a smart phone, and three rechargeable camera batteries  Plus, my wife wanted to be able to use a hair dryer and curling iron (I have too little hair left to worry about).

Our first need was for a plug adapter, and possibly two. While the United States uses what are known as type A and B outlets, Kenya uses the type G outlets favored by the United Kingdom, Ireland, Malaysia, and a scattered collection of other countries.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands – our second stop – uses outlets known as types C and F, which are used across most of the European continent. There are other styles of outlets used elsewhere on the planet but since I wasn’t going to Australia or Fiji, I didn't worry about what they use there.

I soon learned that a plug adapter wasn’t our only electrical need. While the U.S. is on a 120-volt system, Kenya operates using 240 volts and the Netherlands uses 230 volts. This is not a problem for most modern electronics, including laptops, computers and cell phone chargers, which are “dual voltage” (look on your device for something like “AC120/240V”).

But your typical U.S. personal appliance – such as a hair dryer or curling iron – is not dual voltage, so if you plug it into another country’s system you’re likely to overload it and ruin it. So we would need a voltage converter, too.

Still, we weren’t done. Online, international travelers strongly warned others to use surge protectors to protect electronics in both Kenya and the Netherlands.

My shopping list now included a plug adapter or two, a voltage converter and a surge protector.  Searching the Internet, I hoped that some enterprising company would have put all of them in one device. Maybe such a creature is out there somewhere, but if so, sorry, I didn’t find it.

I did, however, find on Amazon a combination plug adapter and surge protector designed for use in all countries. The user reviews were encouraging. I put it in my shopping basket along with a voltage converter and pressed “buy.”  Whew.  My work was done.

Uh-uh. Belatedly, I noticed that the plug adapter was to be shipped from Hong Kong and was to take six weeks to arrive. Which meant it would arrive about the time we were in the middle of our safari. There was no option for express shipping.

Sigh. Quickly, I located a similar adapter/surge protector online. It cost a bit more, but at least it wasn’t shipping from the other side of the globe. I ordered it.

I soon discovered yet another electrical need: An external battery, to keep our tablet and phone charged during our long flights, and as backup in case we needed the juice on the road. I found one online and ordered it. Surely, I was done now.

Nope. Soon the voltage converter arrived. I was delighted to have it at first, but then noticed this on the packaging: “Not for use with hair dryers.”  What?  Apparently this converter was not built to handle the high-wattage demands of a hair dryer. I looked back at the product page on Amazon and, to my chagrin, realized that it indeed said exactly this. I just hadn’t noticed it.

Going back online, I found another voltage converter that specifically said “for hair dryers” and ordered it. That one soon arrived and initially looked good, but then I noticed on the package the phrase, “Do not use 1600W converter to operate travel appliances exceeding 1600 watts.”  Hmmm, I wondered, is that something important?

Curious, I checked our hair dryer. Arrgh, it was 1875 watts.

I soon learned that virtually all hair dryers sold in the U.S. these days are 1875 watts. So the voltage converter I purchased, advertised as “for hair dryers,” could actually only be used with a small subset of “travel” hair drivers.

I then did what I probably should have done in the first place. Since two online purchases had gone awry, I went to our local Target, found a voltage converter that claimed the ability to work with all hair dryers and bought it.

I was also planning to bring some spare AA and AAA batteries along for this trip, for use in a flashlight and one of our cameras. This seemed pretty innocuous until I stumbled over the fact that batteries on planes raise some special concerns from the Transportation Security Administration.

Apparently, TSA fears that an errant piece of metal could strike a battery in your luggage, create a spark and cause a fire on a plane. So the TSA asks this: Carry batteries in your carry-on luggage, and tape over the ends of loose batteries to minimize the spark risk. I did as recommended.

The trip is now history, and somehow we managed to avoid electrical meltdowns and flare-ups. Here’s the scorecard:

  • The “Universal Travel Power Adapter” I ordered from Hong Kong through Amazon actually arrived in time (I sent the other one back). While you sometimes had to jiggle it to make sure it connected correctly in an outlet, it generally worked well and helped us charge our devices in both Kenya and the Netherlands. I don’t know if the built-in surge protector was truly tested, but we had no problems.

  •  The Travel Smart voltage converter I bought at Target worked just fine for my wife’s hair dryer and curling iron.

  •  We only used the Anker Astro3 external battery once, but in that one case it did successfully recharge my wife’s iPhone.

  •  I sent my carry-on through airport security multiple times on the trip, and not once did anyone check to see if I’d taped the ends of my loose batteries.

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