CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
Outlets, Volts, Transformers, Adapters… Oh My!
Voltage: Electricity is not all the same! American appliances run on 110-120 voltage, but the electricity coming from Germany plugs is 220-240. Not quite the same! Here is some information and some tips that hopefully will save you and some of your appliances.
Outlets and Plugs: Start at the beginning. The first and most obvious difference when you look at different appliances are the plugs. American plugs have parallel flat prongs. German appliances have smaller round pins. Your American plug will not fit into a European outlet.
Adapters: This is where adapters fit in. The adapter simply changes the shape of your plug so that you can make it fit. Beware! That is all that adapters can do! They will not change the voltage flowing through the outlet!
Transformer: More than meets the eye! A transformer does just that, it transforms the voltage from one type to another. In our case we, need step down transformers. Transformers, also know as voltage converters, will take the voltage coming from the German outlets (220-240V) and brings it down to the voltage (110-120V) that our American appliances can handle. Transformers are more expensive and much larger than adapters.
Transformers can handle various amounts of wattage (the amount of electricity an appliance uses). Check your appliances; they should be labeled with the amount of wattage they draw. Also, even with a transformer, the current alternates at a different cycle than with 110. Things with a small motor, like a vacuum, will work, but their motors may burn out eventually.
Don’t overload your transformer. For instance, do not plug an appliance that draws 300 watts into a transformer that can only handle 100 watts. On the other hand, electricity on the economy is expensive and transformers will constantly draw the amount of wattage they can handle. It would be unadvisable to leave a 1000 watt transformer constantly plugged in for your 50 watt clock.
There are transformers for a whole range of wattages. The FMO (Furniture Management Office) may have some available that you may borrow for the length of your assignment. We were able to get two, one 1600 watts and one 1000 watts. You can buy additional transformers at your local Exchange. Remember that at the end of their tour many people won’t need theirs so you may be able to get a better deal through classified ads or thrift shops on base.
Check your appliance: Only you can prevent home fires! Some appliances are made to handle different voltages. If that is the case, you can use and adapter and safely plug this appliance into the German outlets. Check the back of your appliance or its packaging. For example, the Apple representative at the Ramstein Exchange told me that the Apple computers that are sold there are rated for both types. They are ready, with an adapter, to plug in here. Some appliances may have a small switch for changing the voltage, this is usually found in the back.
Always check, but here are some rules of thumb:
• Most appliances with rechargeable batteries (laptops, cell phones, cameras…) have chargers that can handle both and only need an adapter.
• Newer desktop computers and AV equipment most often have a small switch on the back of the device that you can switch to which kind of power you are using.
• Small appliances that create heat (curling iron, toaster, hair dryer…) are usually made for one kind of voltage or another. You will need a new appliance or transformer.
• Special wiring is needed to use an American washer or dryer in Germany. It’s best to use a European brand if your hook up is German. FMO will supply a washer and dryer and hook them up.
• AV (Audio/Visual) equipment may need other precautions before you use it abroad. For example, DVDs or video games bought on the economy in Europe may not work in the system you brought from the States.
• Appliances that cool (refrigerator, air conditioner…) may need special transformers to handle the condenser. Again FMO will supply a refrigerator and/or freezer if needed.
• Most lamps can handle both kinds of electricity if you use an adapter and the correct lightbulbs.
Some on-base housing has American wiring, some has German, and many have both. The Exchanges sell small appliances in both voltages; be sure to check carefully when you buy so that you get the correct kind for your situation. Also, many Americans have been here before you and are now heading back to the States. They may be looking to get rid of some of their 220V appliances. Check the thrift stores, classified ads and on-line market places.
Some final warnings: Europe does not have the same electricity standards from country to country. If a plug doesn’t seem to fit in an outlet there is probably a good reason. Also, the wrong voltage could cause a ruined appliance or even a fire. If that’s not the kind of firework show you’d like, please be careful! Also, your surge protectors from home will not protect your electronics here. They are made to protect 110 watt surges and will not help with a 220 surge.
One final tip from a friend, when traveling from country to country in Europe, they bought and use a small power strip that runs off of the cigarette lighter in their car. They use it while traveling to charge their laptops, iStuff and phones. That way they don’t have to worry about ruining their portable electronics.