Shock news: Universal outlets are unsafe!

By Mark Mayne, Technology Writer

There are some gadgets you don’t want to leave home without. The average traveler, for example, might carry a smartphone, a tablet or laptop, a DSLR camera, a pair of wireless headphones (noise canceling, naturally), an e-reader, maybe even some travel-friendly curling irons.

The question then is: How do you keep them all charged? The answer usually involves carrying a tangle of different chargers, bulky power strips and international adapters. 

Indeed, it might seem that the easiest solution would be for all international hotels and guesthouses to install universal power outlets, like those you typically find on airplanes. But this doesn’t work for two reasons. First, most power systems on planes are limited to 110V of power per seat. Second, more powerful universal outlets often violate basic safety standards and are rarely officially certified by any standards bodies around the world.

Global voltage variations 

One of the biggest of these potential dangers is that international electric supply voltages vary, with the UK and EU generally using 230V, as opposed to North America (110V) or Japan (100V). Having a ‘universal’ socket that allows a 110-120V appliance to be plugged directly into an EU hotel’s power supply could easily result in overheating and resulting in fire or personal injury. 

So, it is vitally important to identify the power requirements for a device before plugging it into a wall socket. Appliances such as a hair dryer, or devices such as a cell phone, may specify a dual-voltage rating for 110V and 220V. This means that they don't require a power converter in many countries - only a plug adapter for the outlet. If the device doesn't specify a dual-voltage rating, it is a single-voltage appliance

An insurance policy against plugging a device or appliance into the wrong outlet is the diversity of plug socket designs and sizes across the globe, making such accidents much less likely. However, not only does a universal socket increase the potential risk of plugging in voltage-incompatible devices, it also makes the plugging in of compatible devices much more of a safety challenge. 

With plug designs varying from the basic two pin shaver-style plug, through a bewildering variety of variations to three-pin models, each of which have different ‘blade’ section profiles, the ability of a ‘universal’ socket to accommodate them all safely is almost impossible. As [1] points out:

“Universal outlets can be outright dangerous for a number of reasons, such as exposure of live pins, lack of required earth ground connection, voltage mismatch or lack of protection from overload or short circuit. Universal sockets never meet all technical standards for durability, plug retention force or temperature rise of components.” 

Shock concerns of universal outlets 

In many plug designs, it is possible to touch live metal on the plug as it is pushed past the safety shutter. One formal test report [2] conducted for the UK Electrical Safety Council on four different universal sockets found that it was “possible with all the samples tested to touch the live plug pins of a Schuko or US plug whilst inserting and removing these plugs from any of the socket-outlets. This represents a significant risk of electric shock to the user.” 

Another central point of difference with global plug designs is the presence of, and method of connection to an earth terminal/ground, a vital safety feature in case of a short circuit in the device. UK and NEMA plugs use a third pin for this, but the Continental European plug design uses grounding clips on the sides of the plug to achieve a good earth connection. These clips are usually not present on universal sockets, leaving the usually safe design unearthed, and thus dangerous. 

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Elsewhere, some territories have visually similar plugs that are polarized, or in other words have specific wiring of the live and neutral lines - something that a universal socket cannot take into account, and allows devices to be potentially plugged in incorrectly.

New charging standards: Safer, faster, better

However, there are now solutions in the market that can offset the bulk of these challenges, certainly from the perspective of the globetrotting traveler. Key advancements include the increasingly common provision of built-in USB A and USB C charge points, allowing hotel guests to use their own standardized cables to juice up devices, but without having to tangle with the intricacies of the local voltage. 

Another rising star here is wireless charging, which allows travelers to rely on globally agreed charging standards (such as Qi), and charge smartphones or tablets directly, again without needing to worry about the local voltage. Many devices are also designed to be dual voltage (‘INPUT: 110-240V’), so you only need to carry a certified adapter. Finally, make sure that any adapter you carry is certified and labeled UL (US), CSA (Canada), CE (Europe) or has a Kitemark to BS 8546 (UK).

These universal low-voltage standards not only offer simple and straightforward solutions for power-hungry travelers, but also avoid the genuine dangers of universal adapters at a stroke. It’s a win-win for hotels and visitors alike. 

Brandstand’s power and charging products are safety tested to meet UL and IEC standards. It’s part of the Brandstand Difference. 

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