Across the Hall and Across the Pond: The Useful Conversion of Power Supplies

by Breana Cronk, IQS Editor

In the summer of 2008 I made my first trip across the pond to intern at a gallery in the United Kingdom. Having met my now fiancé there, I have since made several Trans-Atlantic trips, each one a learning experience. One aspect of international travel I thankfully learned early on in my first trip two years ago was the importance of frequency converters. These seemingly less than convenient little items actually provide a much more important service than many know, unless of course they have had the unfortunate experience of not using them, the consequences of which generally include some sparks, a bit of smoke and a completely fried appliance. This is because in the UK, like many other countries, outlets provide electricity at a voltage between 220 and 250 V while the main current in the United States operates in a range of 110 to 127 V. Although very necessary in using foreign appliances, converters and transformers are also commonly required for applications in the same country and even factory. This allows the optimal operation of several different machines and appliances, with several different electrical requirements, off of the same standardized power supply.

While the changes needed for global travel involve a difference in voltage, many power supply applications in the US and elsewhere require AC to DC converters or, though perhaps less common, power inverters, which reverse that equation. Both types of electrical current, AC and DC, involve the flow of electrons moving along a conductor in order to harness the energy. The difference is how those charges are moved. Direct current, DC power supplies surround wiring with a magnetic field that causes the electricity to flow in one direction as they are repelled and attracted by the poles of the magnet. AC power supplies create an alternating current by rotating the magnetic field. This means that the electrons move back and forth creating more sustainable electricity with less loss of energy.

For those of us who are less than tech-savvy, the relevance of this explanation may seem slight. Understood or not, however, power supplies play an important role in the lives of most Americans. Even if the difference or engineering behind it is unclear, it is essential to know that the main power supply made available to homes, office and factories across the nation is an alternating current. The trouble is that many appliances, such as computers, camera chargers, heavy machinery and even telephone answering machines operate on DC currents. Luckily, rectifiers are now available for and even built in to many appliances to make conversion as simple for domestic applications as is the addition of an outlet adapter to protect devices used abroad. What’s more is that many of these converters also shield against unexpected surges or falls in electrical currents ensuring that the figurative and often literal melt-down so commonly experienced by travelers does not occur at home.

Until I was forced to either learn even the slightest bit about power supplies or risk the loss of my laptop, camera, phone and hair dryer; I, like many, knew little about the significant role they play in my everyday life. Even now, I know more what I need to get to protect my appliances than the reasons why I need them, but at least it is a start. As power supplies and power conversion is a highly complex field of study, many of us will forever remain relatively unaware of the engineering and design behind the power that flows nearly all around us. Still, it is important to take the time to consider power supplies in each electrical endeavor we undertake, whether it be moving abroad as I will next year, or simply moving across the hall as I might later tonight.

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