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Plugged in overseas

A guide to using laptops, hair dryers and other appliances abroad

Plugged in

By Jennifer Merin

(Los Angeles Times) -- Seven-thirty Monday morning. In preparation for a business meeting, the guest in room 206 at Milan's Four Seasons Hotel sits down at the desk in his room to review notes and statistics stored in his computer.

He plugs the laptop's adapter into a transformer, connects the transformer to the wall outlet, opens the laptop and turns it on. There's a crackling sound and burning smell, and instantly the adapter is fried and useless.

In a panic, he calls the concierge, who locates a substitute transformer in the hotel's business center and delivers it to the room.

"It happens frequently when guests are in a hurry or tired from jet lag or preoccupied," says Danilo Malvenuti, chief engineer at the Milan Four Seasons. "This gentleman doesn't travel often to Italy and is unfamiliar with our electricity. His transformer is the wrong type. We've also had hair dryer blow-outs and, more seriously, problems with medical devices."

Fortunately for guests, the hotel can provide substitute adapters and transformers on a limited basis, as well as hair dryers and other small appliances, and its electricians will even try to make small repairs. But many hotels cannot offer the same level of service.

Learn about electric systems

To be on the safe side, travelers who plan to use electrical devices from home while they are traveling should learn about the electric systems -- plug configurations, voltage and alternating cycles -- in the countries they're visiting.

Easiest to deal with is plug configuration. The standard two-prong plug used in the United States is common throughout Canada, Mexico, most of the Caribbean, some of South America and Asia (especially Japan, Korea and Taiwan).

However, in some places, wall outlets don't have a third round hole required by two-prong plugs with a third round "grounding" prong. You'll need an adapter, or add-on plug, with openings that fit your appliance plug on one side and prongs to fit the outlet on the other. These are available at most hardware stores for a dollar or less.

You'll need an adapter for most of Continental Europe, where most outlets require plugs with two round prongs. You'll need a different adapter for Great Britain, Ireland, Singapore and present or former British colonies, where outlets require plugs with three flat prongs; and still another for Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and China, where sockets also require plugs with three flat prongs - but in a different configuration.

Not all hotels provide adapters, but you can be prepared for all socket types if you stow a set of different adapter plugs in your suitcase.

Consider the voltage

The second consideration is voltage, or the pressure under which current flows through an electrical system. While most U.S. appliances work at 110 volts, many foreign power companies generate electricity at 220 volts. Some appliances have a toggle switch that allows them to work with both voltages, but for non-dual voltage appliances, you'll need a converter to "step down" the 220 electric current to 110 so your appliances won't burn out.

There are two different types of converters -- one to run heating appliances (such as hair dryers, curling irons or clothes steamers) that use a lot of power, and another for motorized and electronic appliances (such as razors, laptop computers, radios and recharging camcorders) that run on less power.

Power consumption, measured in watts, as indicated on the appliance or its AC adapter unit. Appliances using more than 50 watts require high-power heating converters. Those using 50 watts or less require transformer converters.

If you travel with both types of appliances, you can carry two converters -- or one converter with a toggle switch. However, when using the toggle-type converter, make sure the switch is on the appropriate setting; otherwise your appliance -- or its AC adapter unit -- will probably burn out.

Many converters (including most toggle types) are not designed for continuous use. If you're plugging in a laptop, recharging a camcorder or some other device that must be plugged in for a long time, be sure to buy a heavy-duty transformer designed for that purpose.

The third system difference is the number of times an electrical current changes directions each second, or its alternating cycle. In the States, the alternating cycle is 60, but in Europe and other parts of the world, it's 50. This disparity doesn't affect heating gadgets like clothes steamers; but computers, video equipment and other items designed to work with an alternating cycle of 60 may overheat and be damaged if used with an alternating cycle of 50.

Carry a transformer

To guard against damage, carry a transformer that allows 60-cycle electronic items to work with a 50-cycle system. Ask the appliance's manufacturer whether you'll need to do this.

Adapter plugs, converters and transformers are available at luggage shops and travel boutiques. And Magellan's, a Santa Barbara, California-based catalog of travel essentials, has a department to help you find products that suit your particular needs. Several pages of Magellan's catalog are dedicated to electrical and telephone conversion devices that will facilitate use of and protect your equipment.

"Before selling converters or other electrical products, we ask where clients are traveling, what appliances they're taking, how many watts the appliances use and how long they will be using the appliances at one time," says Magellan's electric current expert, Lynn Staneff. "That way we can provide them with exactly what they need to use all of their equipment effectively. We also recommend surge protectors for travelers who wish to use their computers abroad and, for computer users, detection devices to let them know whether the electrical currents used in foreign telephone lines will be compatible with their modems."

There is no extra charge for Magellan's advice. To obtain a catalog, order or ask about converters and other equipment, call 800-962-4943.

(c) 1998, Jennifer Merin. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


• Magellan's

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