November 12, 2011

Power Talk

When I opened the kitchen garbage this morning, I came across this scene:

No, I'm not going off on some weird artistic tangent with my photography. I just wanted to use this opportunity to chat to you about electricity. If you're a man, you may disregard this post, as Noisette tells me, somewhat condescendingly, that all men know this kind of thing. More power - no pun intended - to you!

After chronicling my findings for you by taking the above picture (prompting ridicule from my family for photographing the trash) I set out to investigate. What had transpired is this: 9-year old Sunshine, having bought a new CD for herself, wanted to listen to it in her room. Faced with the plethora of plugs and adapter-studded outlets typical for our entire house, she pushed the power supply for the CD player into the socket it seemed to fit in best. It did fit, but nothing happened, and so she complained to Noisette. Actually, she first complained to me but I sent her to Noisette, claiming "technical things" are his domain. (I'm aware that I'm perpetuating the typical image of a technically challenged woman but when there is a chance to get out of at least one to-do, I'm unashamedly seizing it!). Noisette, surveying the situation, chastised her for frying the power supply by using the wrong voltage, then threw it away.

I will now pause briefly for you to contemplate the time you fried one of your appliances after moving countries.

In fact, for all of his bristling about men and their supposed knowledge, I should disclose here that Noisette did the exact same thing to our CD player (not just the power supply, but the entire thing, which was much more expensive than Sunshine's faux pas, I might add) when we moved here.

If you're still reading this, I take it you won't be offended if I now repeat the voltage lesson we gave to Sunshine:

Your power supply should look similar.This one here is only good for 120V.
  1. If you live in the United States or Canada (or I think perhaps also Japan and Taiwan) the electricity coming out of your wall socket will have a voltage of 110V (or, lest someone correct me, between 100V and 127V, but I think we can all agree that 110V is good enough).
  2. In any other place on Earth the voltage will be 220V to 240V (again, let's just stick with 220V). Let me just interject here that I think I can safely speak for all expats that this is incredibly stupid. Our lives would be so much easier if there was just one standard.
  3. By now, some manufacturers have figured out that people do occasionally want to move and so they've built their devices with dual voltage (a tiny switch on the back, which is what Noisette failed to notice on the above occasion) or a voltage range from 100V-240V. Most computers, e-readers, electric toothbrushes, cell phones, and some DVD players fall into this category. So, when you move, check all your devices (or rather not the device itself, which is often running at a step-down voltage, but the power supply for the device) to see if voltage is going to be a problem. 
  4. For those appliances where it is, you now have the option of either a) buying all new ones once you get to the new country or b) buying a transformer to make the old ones work.
  5. This is where the lesson for Sunshine was necessary: An adapter plug is NOT a transformer! Just because a plug fits into a socket doesn't mean the socket has the right voltage. I.e., your cell phone, if you're coming from the U.S., will not fit into a South African outlet, but using a simple adapter plug such as these ones we bought will make it work, because your cell phone will accommodate both voltages. But things that only run on 120V should only ever be plugged into an actual transformer, which is a big heavy humming box you can't miss. However, when you buy a transformer, you're still not home free. You need to make sure whatever it is you want to plug in doesn't use too much power. The more power you need, the bigger (and heavier and more expensive) the transformer gets, so it really only makes sense for low-power appliances. A toaster is borderline, and a hairdryer will probably be too much. Those things you should buy new. It's easy to check power usage by looking at your appliance and checking the number before W (for Watts). Then find out up to which wattage your transformer will work, and try to stay safely below that.
  6. The outlet thing wouldn't be so confusing if South Africa didn't add to the complication by insisting on a type of power outlet that hardly fits anything you can buy, even here in South Africa. So, you will go to the store and buy a vacuum cleaner, and come home to find out the plug doesn't fit, because it is a Euro plug. Therefore, you have to use an adapter plug, which is where our handy dandy universal adapter plugs come in. But since we use the same adapter plugs for our U.S.-based appliances, we've created the situation in our house where the same looking outlet supplies two different voltages, one directly from the wall, the other behind a transformer. If you get what I mean.
  7. By the way, another thing that won't work with a transformer is a radio alarm. This is because electronic clocks are often calibrated around the frequency, and that also varies between countries (i.e. 50 Hertz vs 60 Hertz). Running your American alarm clock on a transformer here in South Africa will make it go too slow. As I've mentioned elsewhere, you best buy a battery operated alarm, or use your cell phone.
  8. And just if I haven't managed to be confusing enough, TV standards are yet another Pandora's box. There is NTSC in North America, and PAL elsewhere, and a TV running on NTSC will not function here in South Africa, unless of course it is a multi-system TV, as all TVs should be, but sadly aren't. So even if you figure out the whole power thing, your TV (and DVD player) might still not work here. Since TVs are so much cheaper in the U.S. than here, it is well worth your while to acquire a multi-system one before moving here, which you should then be able to use when you move back.
Typical power outlet situation in our house

Whew! I'm glad we had our little power talk. I might have discouraged you from moving to South Africa, ever.


Jozie Days said...

Sine, thanks for this interesting and informative blog. I just want to add - DVDs bought in the US often don't play on DVD players here (different regions -so check if you are ordering something on Amazon - it may be better to get it from the UK store) Also PlayStation games from the US do not work on the South African Sony Play Stations (gifts from friends), same goes for PSP games. We have so many different universal adaptors/transformers and other plugs around the house! And if I get a new appliance in South Africa with a 2 pronged plug I just cut it off and put a 3 pronged plug on - saves me running around and looking for an adaptor when I want to plug it in.

Anonymous said...

Great info Sine!! WOW, so much to consider. Did all of your tv's come from US? What size transformer and type do you need to handle large flat screens?

Will the US based xbox 360's and Wii's work in SA with a transformer, or will we need to purchase one from there?


Sine said...

Yes, playstation and xBox and Wii games from one region don't work in the other, a major pain in the butt. That is just one of those things that can't be helped.

Eileen, we have several smaller transformers and then we had two big ones (sorry, don't know the size, perhaps something like 2000W?), and one of the big ones is parked in the game room for the flat screen TV and xBox etc. It seems to be handling that just fine, so I'm not sure that that much power is even needed. Just check the manual or power supply for the TV and find out how many watts, then get a transformer that can handle that.

However, as I said earlier, that doesn't mean your TV will actually work. You can use it for the game consoles but not to actually watch cable. For that you'll need the multisystem TV that can handle PAL.

And yes, the xBox and Wiis work with the transformer, however I think only in conjunction with the NTSC TV, I don't think they'd work on a PAL TV. But I'm not 100% sure of this. It is so nice to not have to be in charge of SOMETHING in my house, and the video games are that one thing I leave to other people:-). Just remember, as Jozie Days pointed out, that you'll have to keep getting the games from the US.

SABound said...

Thanks for the helpful information! We are preparing to move to Pretoria. Sounds like we'd be wise to bring our U.S. TV to use with our US Wii and buy the proper transformer - would you agree? ~ Vicky

Sine said...

Hi Vicky - yes, that is exactly what we did. And you don't need a super big transformer, just check the number on your TV and Wii to see how many watts it is, and get a transformer slightly bigger. and make sure you always turn on the transformer before the other stuff. Good luck with your move!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I knew most of this stuff already and have been planning to do #8 as I have a multi region dvd collection already. That said you did a great and entertaining job of explaining the situation with clarity.

Why there isn't a single standard is a great mystery but not so much on DVD's. Companies want to strictly limit where their products can be sold so as to control release dates and to make more money. I am a constant defender of free markets but I am well aware than businesses can be ornery which is why I want to see a world with REAL free markets someday.

Sine said...

To be fair, I don't think it's only to make more money per se but to control piracy. At least that's what they say, Somehow keeping the standards separate combats piracy, although I've never understood how that is so. Doesn't it, quite on the opposite, encourage it?

W. A. Jeffrey said...

As far as I know using different region codes and formats does next to nothing to stop piracy. Controlling access to content is a big part of what major media conglomerates do. I have no problem with the companies making as much money as they can. It is their property after all. I was just trying to get at the real reason behind formats and region codes.