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What’s the Difference Between North American & European Cord Sets?

by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor

Jenny Knodell Author Pic

Last winter I was visiting family in Germany. The first morning of my vacation, I woke up, showered and unpacked my hair dryer. But when I went to plug it in, something odd happened. My hair dryer’s electrical plug did not fit into my Aunt’s outlet because there was a different number of prong holes, which were round instead of flat. This is a problem that international travelers often encounter. There are many differences in the construction and type and strength of the current that electrical outlets are made to manage in cords and outlets in North America and most of Europe.

The type of current differs between countries. North America uses an alternating current, which reverses direction in electric circuit at regular intervals. Europeans use a direct current, which has a unidirectional flow of electric charge. This factor necessitates a difference in the way electrical outlets, cords and plugs are constructed, which created the problem at my Aunt’s house. American cord sets generally have 2 prongs, or 3 for products with higher voltage. One prong is generally larger than the other, and they are both flat. Overseas, the amount and arrangement of prongs varies quite a bit among countries. Generally, they are all rounded and about the same size. This makes American electrical products’ cord sets incompatible with European outlets, and vice versa.

Power Plugs
Electrical Plugs
Images courtesy of Quail Electronics, Inc.

However, there is a solution for unprepared travelers. I brought my hair dryer situation up at dinner that evening, and my uncle provided me with an adapter. These adapters are simple, inexpensive products that provide conversions from any country to any country. The next morning, I plugged the adapter into my hair dryer cord, which fit perfectly into the outlet. When I turned it on though, I was blasted with a huge rush of hot air, a higher pitched sound and the smell of burning hair. The problem was, again, a difference between American and European outlets—the voltage varies between countries. In North America, plug-in electrical products are between 110 and 120 volts at 60 Herts, while in Europe, their standard voltage is between 220 and 240 volts at 50 Hertz. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can be done about this difference, except, if possible, to set your electronic product to a lower setting.

Black Cord Adapter
Cord Adapter
Image courtesy of Signal and Power Delivery Systems, Inc.

Although there are many different voltage and current differences that vary by country, most of them have their own unwavering standards that haven’t changed in a long time. There are also many cord set companies that produce and sell cords and outlets from a number of different countries, including Quail Electronics, KingKord, Americord and Signal and Power Delivery Systems. Many even offer adapters. So the next time you’re going on vacation to a different part of the world or having international guests, purchasing their standard cord or adapter might be a good idea.

Electrical Cords
Electrical Cord
Images courtesy of KingKord.
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