Or: the Trials and Tribulations of an Uptown Girl with a Boyfriend from Old Europe

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Location: Basel, Switzerland

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Power to the people

I've decided: no matter what happens with the job situation, I'm going to Switzerland at the beginning of the year. If I have to, I'll stay for 3 months on the tourist visa. If I'm still not gainfully employed by the end of that period, I'll either leave for a month and return, or apply for a long-term residence permit.

So the past few days have been occupied with headache-inducing move-related tasks: finding a mover that isn't sleazy and unreliable, for one, and trying to figure out whether to take my beloved kitchen appliances - into which I've invested a minor fortune - over to Europe, for another. Swissy Pie may have lots of dishes and knives, but as I recall, he doesn't have much in the way of Hausgeräte. (Today he couldn't even find a can opener, and had to resort to a Swiss Army knife.) Besides, have I mentioned that I really, really love my KitchenAid mixer?

I knew that Europe (and the rest of the world) runs on a higher voltage than the US - the 220V range instead of the 100-120V range. I knew that some electronic goods, like laptops and cell phones, can run on both - those just need a plug adapter. But how can I tell what items can accomodate both voltages? What to do about my computer, which has a grounded (3-prong) plug, when all the travel adapters I've seen only accept 2-prong ones? And what about the rest of my stuff?

Once again, Google came to the rescue. As I discovered, Europe is not only on a higher voltage than the US, it's on a different frequency as well. The frequency doesn't make that much of a difference - motors run slightly slower, but that seems to be about it. The voltage, though, is critical. Some electronic devices that are designed to be portable, such as my laptop, automatically detect and switch between the two voltages. Other (generally electric) devices, such as my travel hair dryer, need to be manually switched. But the vast majority can't use the higher voltage at all.

So, depending on the device, there are several solutions of varying expense and unwieldiness.
  1. Plug adapters - These don't change the voltage, only the shape of the plug, so they only work with things that can run on both. Both grounded and ungrounded adapters are available, though travel stores only seem to sell ungrounded ones.
  2. Converters - These somehow reduce the voltage electrically and can only be used with electric devices - ones that don't have computer chips inside, such as hairdryers. Furthermore, they can only be used for short periods of time, and I've yet to come across one that accepts a grounded US plug.
  3. Transformers - These are the most robust solution, and can be step-down only (for using US devices in Europe), step-up only (vice-versa), or step-up/step-down. The transformer's power capacity should be the total power needed for all the devices that will be simultaneously run off of it, plus some slack.
After a few fruitless minutes of wondering - and cursing - whoever came up with such a harebrained scheme, I got down to business. Each electric or electronic device has a UL label which specifies voltage limitations and either wattage or current requirements. All I had to do was make a list of all my devices, track down each item, find the label, and record the information. Then I could figure out what kind of adapters I needed.

The job proved more difficult than I expected, partly because I couldn't remember everything I owned, and partly because those UL stickers hide in the most unobtrusive - and therefore inconvenient - spots. Some were on the plug, which would be behind the desk. Others were on the back of a difficult-to-move object. But the one for my flat-panel iMac was the worst: it took me three attempts and a magnifying glass to make it out, because it - along with a bunch of other information - was engraved in tiny block letters that formed a ring on the metal bottom of the computer.

By the time I finished, I was dusty and sneezy, but at least I knew: only my computer and my hair dryer can run on high voltage. If I want to take the rest of the stuff - like Swissy Pie's wireless router, or my laser multifunction machine - I'll have to spend a good chunk of cash to purchase some heavy-duty step-down transformers.

Something to think about over the next few days. In the meantime, it's back to The Ripoffreport and the Better Business Bureau to weed out more about those dodgy movers. At this point, I can't imagine how I'd have managed before the internet.

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