Giz Explains: Why Power Outlets Look So Weird In Other Countries

Getting foreign gadgets to play nice with the local power grid is a nightmare anytime you travel internationally. Here's why every country on the planet (except yours) totally screwed up indoor wiring.

In the early days of the electricity craze, just after Nikola Tesla and the Westinghouse company wiped the floor with Thomas Edison's DC power scheme, inventors around the world began working on ways to harness the fantastical energy for household work. Everybody had a different idea of how to do so. In fact, when Westinghouse standardised its operating frequency 60Hz, it snuffed out nine other potential frequencies. The same is true for the worldwide standard of 120V and 220V-240V systems — these two beat out 10 other options to become the de facto voltages.

However, Germany paid little heed to the US's choice of a 60Hz frequency. They instead decided on a 50Hz standard because that's what was already being used by the BEW company, which held a monopoly on German power generation and transmission, in 1899. The 50Hz scheme spread through Europe while the 60Hz spread through North America. They became competing, nearly universal standards — 120V at 60Hz in North America, 220V-240V at 50Hz in Europe.

The other problem with early electrical systems: There was no easy way to tap into the power supplying small appliances. If you had a table lamp or a hair dryer or some other low voltage gadget, you'd have to knock down a wall and hard-wire it into the house's electrical grid. Amateur inventor Harvey Hubbell is credited with creating the first appliance with a "Separable Attachment Plug". However, instead of the cord remaining attached to the device, it would be hard wired into the system and would disconnect from the base of the gadget.

While Hubble's preliminary plug and socket design prevented access to live wires from the home grid, many other inventors stepped up to improve his pioneering design to reduce shock and fire risks through the inclusion of grounding and electrically insulated pins, polarised shapes and additional cut-off switches.

The most momentous of these added features arrived in 1928 at the hands of Philip F. Labre. Until then, it was uncomfortably common to receive an electrical shock when removing plugs because the pins (or prongs) would short easily short when the plug was partially pulled out of the outlet. The electrical current could travel through the person into the ground. By integrating a third pin slightly longer than the other two, Labre was able to direct all potential short circuits safely to the ground rather than through a person.

The problem with Labre's design is that the triangular plug can be inserted into the socket in three different ways, two of which are wrong. This creates what's known as an unpolarised plug. So engineers developed plugs that could only be fully inserted into a socket when properly oriented, thus guaranteeing a safe, polarised connection.

There are a few ways to design such a plug. In North America, prongs are different shapes and sizes. In Europe, they are angled so that the plug only fits in one way. Throughout Asia, the shape of the prongs dictate how the plug fits into the outlet.

While plugs and outlets the world over all share the same basic safety features (for the most part) how those features are implemented varies by region and country. Here's a quick rundown of the plugs in your neighbourhood.

Australia

The power point sockets in Australia are characterised by three identical pins — one grounding (the bottom one) and two that carry electricity at a 30-degree angle. Unlike North America, wall power points usually have on/off switches for safety reasons.

North America

The US, Canada and Mexico rely on two standardised plug styles (of the 13 such primary standards) known as Type A and B. Type A plugs — aka NEMA 1-15s — use a pair of 15A, 125V ungrounded prongs. These are common throughout North America and along the South American Eastern seaboard and have been polarised since the 1950s, though many older homes still use the unpolarised outlets. More recently, the Type B (or NEMA 5-15) grounded standard has been adopted. They are very similar in shape to the Type A's and also work at 15A, 125V, but they also include a ground pin. In addition to North and Central America, you can also find these plugs throughout the Caribbean, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

Fun fact: In the mid 1950s, the US government briefly entertained the thought of converting its 120V system to match that of the European standard. While the US never actually made the switch, the US implemented Edison's old three-wire system — the positive 120V wire, the negative 0V wire and a third 120V wire so that heavy home appliances like refrigerators and washing machines could access the larger 240V range (known as Class II appliances) without overloading smaller voltage appliances that ran on the 120V standard (Class I appliances).

Many outlets in North American bathrooms, where appliances like hairdryers, electric shavers and other accessories are commonly used around water, are now outfitted with Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) receptacles. You can spot these sockets by their red and yellow "reset" and "test" buttons on the cover. These devices measure the flow current, and if a sharp difference is detected, kill the power supply to the outlet, before the electrical short hits you.

Europe

Most of Europe uses the Type C plug, more commonly known as the Europlug, utilises a pair of cylindrical, unpolarised prongs and is used almost exclusively by devices that require 2.5A or less. It is employed throughout the continent as well as the Middle East, Africa, some parts of South America, central Asia and the many ex-Soviet satellite states.

But Germany, on the other hand, uses the Type F "Schuko" 16A, 250V outlet. It looks a lot like the Type C except that it is polarised through the inclusion of a pair of grounding clips. Other Schuko users: Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Republic of Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukrain, and Uruguay.

Most of the United Kingdom relies on Type G (aka British Standards 1363 or BS1363) plugs for its power. This pin uses a trio of grounded, polarised pins set in a triangular shape with an integrated safety fuse. This makes them among the safest (and most cumbersome) on the planet. The United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and Hong Kong use the Type G. Cyprus, some parts of Malaysia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia also use plugs compatible with this standard.

In Switzerland, folks use 10A, 250V Type J plugs. These closely resemble Europlugs, however they are not necessarily insulated per the Swedish standard. To compensate for this shock hazard, outlets throughout Switzerland are recessed into the wall to minimize the danger.

And in Italy, people use the Type L, which allows for either a 10A or 16A receptacle with differing prong diameters.

[Electrical Outlet - Wikipedia 1, 2 - USC]

Map: SomnusDe


Comments

    Well that's certainly intresting. Pictures of them all would be nice.

      Just go to the link at the bottom
      http://electricaloutlet.org/electricaloutlettable

    Whilst it may appear that we are out on our own, it should be pointed out that China uses the same plug/pin standard as we do. Of course, so do the Kiwis but that is hardly noteworthy.

      The pins are the same but I believe that the pinout (ie the wiring behind the switch/plug) is not the same, so you can't plug an Australian appliance directly into a Chinese socket.

        Yeah you can. Those adapters you buy for $1 including postage from eBay are Chinese type. It is illegal to sell Chinese plugs in Australia because the pins are 1mm longer and are generally not insulated properly, but they work. Argentina uses the same plug/socket too (afaict), but they swap active and neutral, which is generally not a problem for double insulated non grounded devices.

        But china also uses an unpolarised us/euro socket too. Wiki it!

    First sentence, second para doesn't ring true. My understanding is that tesla and Edison were competitors.

      Yes, that is what the sentence is saying, Westinghouse (having been given a lot of support/patents from Tesla) was a proponent of AC, while Edison was pushing DC. The statement that Tesla/Westinghouse wiped the floor with Edison's DC is indicating that Tesla/Westinghouse won out and AC became mainstream for primary household power delivery, while DC was pushed aside.

        So it should read 'tesla/Westinghouse wiped the floor with AC, and Edison's DC lost out.'

          Ergh no. Think this through for a second. Would wiping the floor with someone be a positive or a negative for the person being used as a floor cloth? Clearly a negative. So it reads correctly. They wiped the floor with Edison - ie they beat him so comprehensively that they used him as a mop.

    Type G's are awesome, although beefy.
    There's a cool trick (possibly dangerous) where you can fit a Type C plug into a Type G socket. Takes a little bit of force, and you need to push the earth lever with something (preferably non-conductive), but it can be extremely helpful when traveling through Eur/UK.

    Hmmm...

    Most of Europe uses the Type C plug, more commonly known as the Europlug,

    orly?

    Other Schuko users: Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Republic of Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukrain, and Uruguay.

    There's an awful lot of European countries in that list. Looks to me like the split between the Europlug and Schuko in Europe is around 50/50.

    I do find the UK plug to be the best, simply because the pins don't bend! Nice thick brass pins. Also, even more painful to stand on than Lego.

      Yeah, and the US ones are the worst. Tiny flimsy things, usually without the ground pin, and thus most sockets I've dealt with don't hold the plug in the wall.

    I find ours is one of the best designs, when travelling through SE Asia using the little round pins, they barely stay in the socket, awful design.

      I agree.
      The only annoying thing about ours are that we don't get funky fold down adapters like the Euro and US get, but that's due to the 30 degree angle which is also a feature to help you align the plug correctly.

    I still think our plugs are the most useful design, compact, simple and elegant!

      Nah, bloody awful things they are! They only fairly recently moved to insulating the base of the live and neutral pins, which further weakened them. We almost need a "pin protector" to prevent the plague of bent pins people get unless they mollycoddle their plugs. Add to that the fact that the live and neutral pins are *on top* when it's in the socket, leaving open the possibility that something could fall down and short the pins if the plug is not flush with the socket (this is why the feeble pin insulation was introduced to the standard, though there are hundreds of thousands of older insulation-free plugs still in use).

      I can only think of one positive aspect to them - you can remove them from the socket without bending down to pull them out, just yank the cable. This, of course, is also a negative aspect - moving an appliance that little bit too far can result in the damned thing unplugging and you end up staring at it wondering what the hell has happened.

      Give me a decent British plug any day! By the way, if anyone feels strongly enough, it is perfectly legal to replace all your plugs/sockets with British style units as they meet (actually exceed by a long way) Australian electrical standards. It would just be a major expense and massive hassle whenever you bought a new appliance and it would mark you out as a bit of a loony.

        No it isn't legal to replace sockets in Australia with British sockets, I am an electrician and I am sure there are no British sockets that are approved for use here.

          There are plenty of sockets approved for use in Australia that don't conform to the same standards as the normal 10A design that's used almost everywhere. Whilst it may not be something you've come across, it is legal. You could, if you wanted, populate your house with 32A IEC309 sockets and swap your appliance plugs to match. You'd be a bloody idiot if you did, but it is totally legal. "Not seen it" doesn't equate to "illegal" any more than "you see it all the time" equates to "legal".

            IEC sockets are legal, british sockets are not.

              Wow, you wait almost a year to reply and yet add nothing to your previous reply.

                He does so because he still stands by his previous comment. I.e., that he believes British sockets are not legal in Australia. And, grod, dewy7777 is not saying he has "not seen it", he is saying he believes or even knows it to be illegal to use British sockets/plugs.

    Can we just change to USB soon at the wall plugs? Not for everything but a few things. Like in the bedroom or kitchen or man cave

      Nothing stopping you from doing it yourself (well, other than potentially a lack of knowledge and/or certification) ! http://www.4cabling.com.au/products/USB-Wall-Plate.html

        Ooooohhhh. Me like! Just found a tutorial about it too, and all of the stuff is in my dads workshop. Weekend project time :)

    "Germany paid little heed to the US’s choice of a 60Hz frequency. They instead decided on a 50Hz standard because that’s what was already being used by the BEW company, which held a monopoly on German power generation and transmission, in 1899."

    How was it not the US then who paid little heed to what Germany was already using?

      this. if bew was there first and it had a standard that was already being used, why change?

    Proves the great thing about standards is there is so many to choose from.

    The title said "Why".
    But there is no real "Why" in the article, just statements.

    For example, Australia chose three flat pins instead of round because they made better contact.
    Round ones wear easily so that the contact area becomes smaller and the plug or socket heats up.
    Flat have more surface area to carry the current. This does not change with wear.
    And the pins were angled to ensure that the plug could only be inserted one way.

    I think irrespective of the plug type, all wall sockets (as well as those on power boards) should have an on/off switch for safety reasons. When I lived in the US I could see the shorting of the connection every time I had to disconnect my electrical device from the wall socket.

    On/off switches would also reduce wear on the pins and socket, since you're not having to disconnect it all the time. And it could be easier to reduce power consumption, since you can just turn it off at the mains rather than having to pull it out, and either leave it there (being untidy) or putting it away (I know, lazy, but you make it easier and people will do it).

    The thing that bugs me about the UK one is that the ground is on the top of the plug, but most devices outside of the UK use ground at the bottom - sucks to plug in stuff into sockets (I live in Singapore and have all my Australian devices plugged into UK sockets). The orientation is all stuffed up and when I plug my Australian devices into the UK socket with a converter, the plug has to be upside down (difficult when the Australian plug is a flat plug with the cord from the side). At least there are on/off switches on the wall sockets.

      Switches only 'hide' the arcing from site. Switches arc as well. There is nothing inherently unsafe about having a plug live or not. All the switch does is cut power to that point, but all the claims that it's safer are bogus at best. For instance, for kids sticking things in sockets, well the switch is right there. So they can stick something in and turn it on. No safer there. At least in the US on the outlets that are switched, the switch is up higher on the wall. I don't think I ever unplug something that I've plugged in unless I'm moving it or taking it somewhere. I don't unplug something to be safe or to save power. Most if not all appliances have a switch on them and when they are off, they are off. The circuit is broken. There are no fuses in the outlets. There is a fuse box on the outside of the house somewhere.

      So the idea of safer is only in the minds of people who don't understand things. The switches on outlets are an inconvenience and another point of failure.

    I feel nervous pulling a plug out without first switching off at the wall, (sometimes necessary on a powerboard) and I never understood countries that don't have this as standard.

    My favourite is the Danish socket. It's such a cheerful little chap! :D
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Danish_Wall_Socket.jpg

    Last edited 12/01/13 9:51 pm

      That makes no sense at all.

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