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Daily LifePower Conversion

By Brad Smith

Power conversion is the first problem you'll run into when trying to get your American stuff to work in France. Before worrying about video formats, or DVD zones, you have to plug the thing in. And this would be a good time to state the disclaimer: we take no responsibility for anything that happens as a result of what you do after reading this info!

Power in the US is half the voltage of that used in Europe and a slightly different frequency. A lot of things you buy in the US, however, can handle the European power as-is. Look at the power ratings for your device to see. If it says 110/220C, 50/60Hz, all you need for that device is an adaptor plug to convert your American plug to a French plug. If the device says 110V/60Hz, you will need to convert the power before plugging it in. If you don't do this, you will likely damage / destroy / burn up your device. I have personally seen this happen and it's not pretty, especially when it's your thing that's burning up.

If your device can handle 220V, buy an adaptor plug. You can get them in the US, and they're cheaper there, so get them before you leave. If your device does not mention the frequency (the "Hz" number), it's probably still OK. Few things actually care what the frequency is.

If your device requires 110V, you have two options: a power converter or a transformer. Power converters are small things that plug into a wall socket and provide "110V" output. Sounds safe and handy, but be very careful using them! They don't give a nice, simple 110V output, but a mutated waveform that is "sorta" 110V, and only certain devices can handle it. For example, curling irons and shavers are probably OK. But NOTHING with electronics can use them (see nerd info below to know why). I personally do not recommend using these evil things unless you know exactly what you're doing. (I'm still bitter about burning up my printer, can you tell?)

Transformers are bulky and heavy and more expensive, but they're probably still cheaper than replacing the thing you want to plug in. The Motorola ex-pats fried a TV and a couple printers using voltage converters before getting the religion of transformers. A transformer literally cuts the voltage in half and gives a "normal" output so almost all American stuff will work with one. Again, they're much cheaper in the States, so buy them before you leave. Fry's Electronics has transformers with Northern European plugs that work in France. The other nice thing about transformers is that they are bi-directional. You can use it in France to reduce 220V to 110V, then flip it around in the States and convert 110V to 220V so you can still use the electronics you bought in France (e.g., a multi-zone DVD player) after you get back home.

It is important to buy a transformer with a much higher power rating than you think you'll need. For example, if you're going to plug in a 300W TV and a 150W DVD player, that adds up to 450W. Yes, you can buy a 500W transformer, but best engineering practice is to buy one that can handle 1.5X or 2X more than you think you need. My personal experience is also that you change something later and end up wishing you had a bigger transformer. Don't get too carried away, though, because I'm told the wall sockets in France are rated at 1000W. -- no point going much beyond this capability with your transformer rating.

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