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Power Technology

Plug vs. Plug — Which Nation's Socket Is Best? 1174

Posted by timothy
from the one-vote-for-three-prong-american dept.
CNETNate writes "Is the American mains socket really so much worse than the Italian design? And does the Italian socket fail at rivaling the sockets in British homes? This feature explores, in a not-at-all-parodic-and-anecdotal fashion, the designs, strengths and weaknesses of Earth's mains adapters. There is only one conclusion, and you're likely not to agree if you live in France. Or Italy. Or in fact most places." (For more plug pics and details, check out Wikipedia's list of the ones in current use.)
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Plug vs. Plug — Which Nation's Socket Is Best?

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  • Swiss (Score:3, Interesting)

    by drsmithy (35869) <drsmithy@NOSPam.gmail.com> on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:14PM (#29983338)

    Of the various plugs and sockets I've spent time living with (Australian, US, European, British), my personal favourite is the Swiss one. Small, secure, strong and aesthetically pleasing. The habit the Swiss have of also integrating a socket with most light switches is also quite useful.

  • Better idea (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Wonko the Sane (25252) * on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:15PM (#29983362) Journal

    If there was some move to rewire the entire world with a single residential standard I'd vote for NEMA L15.

    Single-phase power is a hack.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by schnikies79 (788746) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:26PM (#29983606)

    They sell 2-prong to 3-prong adapters because you typically attach the ground to the cover screw via a small prong or wire. Since ground and neutral are tied together in the breaker box, you have the same safety of the a 3-wire system in a 2-wire system, minus the redundancy of an extra ground.

    The problem is people don't hook up ground adapter.

  • by Kell Bengal (711123) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:32PM (#29983708)
    I find the low score for Aussie plugs surprising. I wonder if they're examining the new (shielded conductor) plugs, or the old unshielded ones.
  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jridley (9305) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:34PM (#29983772)

    I started doing that when I saw them installed consistently like that in an industrial situation, but I didn't fully understand the reason. I do know that plugs are less likely to pull out due to weight on the plug like that.

    Finally I asked an electrician. He said the reason is that if something falls on the plug, pulls it partly out, and makes contact with the prongs, it hits the earthing pin first rather than possibly hitting the hot lead first.

  • Re:Swiss best design (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mini me (132455) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:46PM (#29983996)

    This is a pretty ingenious solution to the bulk problem of the UK plug: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6DvjKkGT6s [youtube.com]

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Grishnakh (216268) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:47PM (#29984004)

    Your electrician screwed up, but not badly. There's no real standard about which way they must face, but there is a convention: they usually look like a face. However, if the outlet is switched by a wall switch (usually for plugging in a table lamp and being able to turn it on from the switch by the door), the outlet is supposed to be inverted so it's obvious which outlet is switched.

  • by DomNF15 (1529309) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:51PM (#29984098)
    everything from the panel to the wall plates got changed out. Bedrooms now require AFCI protection at the panel or in the first outlet of a run, GFCIs protect any outlets near water (kitchen & bathroom, and 1 GFCI can protect a number of other connected outlets downstream), the non-GFCI outlets have "shutters" on them and 3 prongs. I don't quite understand why anyone would think a fuse (what year are we in anyway) is better than a GFCI/AFCI breaker. Furthermore, those thicker UK prongs are probably a bitch to plug in/out and have to almost guarantee that tripping/yanking on a wire will result in the entire flippin outlet getting ripped out of the wall with it. Thanks but I'll stick to what we got here in the USA. Oh yeah and whoever mentioned that appliances don't have grounds was kinda sorta right. My 240 volt central A/C has two hots (120 + 120) and a neutral, no ground, it was just installed a few months ago.
  • Re:No. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rei (128717) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @03:53PM (#29984124) Homepage

    I kind of like Australia's socket design. In the US, our NEMA sockets are designed so that a plug for a 30A socket can't plug into a 15A socket or vice versa. In the Australian design, a higher current plug can't plug into a lower-current socket, but a lower-current plug *can* plug into a higher current socket. Which only makes sense.

    Of course, all of them are pretty weak compared to EV charging connectors like J1772. Designed for 10,000 connect/disconnect cycles, and the power pins don't go live until the data pins confirm a connection. And the data pins can talk with the device to determine what kind of power to deliver.

  • Re:Really? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 1s44c (552956) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:00PM (#29984244)

    Stuff hasn't come with just bare wires for ages. I hesitate to suggest an actual number of years, because someone will come along and prove to me that there's one appliance left that still comes with bare wires for some odd reason or another, but I'll stick my neck out and say it's been well over a decade!

    I think it's 15 to 20 years. I'm sure it was made illegal to sell domestic appliances without a plug. Manufactures used to sell things without plugs to cut costs and improve profits. The shops didn't mind because wiring plugs was a nice easy money spinner for them.

    Even then plugs were totally standard the GP's claims that unwired plugs were due to there being a number of different plugs to choose from is total bull.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ephemeriis (315124) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:02PM (#29984286)

    Sounds like the UK ones are massively overengineered, inconvenient, and introduce extra points of failure unnecessarily.

    Hm?

    I don't know that I'd say that...

    The UK ones typically have a bit of insulation on the prongs. This prevents you from accidentally touching live wires or shorting anything if the plug isn't fully inserted. And I doubt if it costs too much just to add a half-inch of plastic/rubber to the prongs.

    The prongs themselves are much thicker and sturdier, they aren't just metal blades. They don't fold over without a lot of effort. I'm sure those cost more than the flimsy things I've got in my house... But just about every plug in my house is at least slightly bent from use.

    The fuse in the plug is very nice. For some reason we here in the US don't worry too much about that... About the only GFI outlets you'll see are in bathrooms. A lot of times you'll see outlets that aren't properly grounded. You can buy all sorts of adapters to convert lightbulb sockets into electrical outlets... Or to plug a 3-prong cord into a 2-prong outlet... It's fairly easy to do something unsafe and, at best, trip a breaker - at worst, do some real damage. Putting a fuse in the cord/outlet itself means you can stop the damage before it even gets into your wall. Again, I guess this probably costs more... But I'd gladly pay a few cents extra for the safety.

    UK outlets also usually have some kind of safety flap thing, that prevents you from sticking a fork in the outlet. Again, I'm sure this extra bit of plastic costs a bit more... But I think I'd be willing to pay for that added safety.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sadtrev (61519) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:03PM (#29984300) Homepage

    Having lived in the US, UK, Malaysia and France, I would concurr that the British plug system is far better. It was properly thought, and universally implemented across the country 50 years ago using an act of parliment on the premise that using anything else was dangerous and therefore potentially negligent. More features have been added since then (including household earth-leakage trip sensing).

    I've had problems with a French pin snapping in a socket leaving an exposed live pin for my 3-year-old son to play with (luckily I spotted it in time and managed to cover it).
    In the US I almost got used to the risk of shocks off electrical appliances. I also had a lab fire destroy some of my work because somebody had knocked out the cable of the pump supplying the coolant.

    In Malaysia where the national standard specifies the british plug type, the biggest issue was that cheap Chinese imports sometimes didn't use it.

    When basic safety is involved, I don't think that it's over-engineering. Your comment about extra points of failure doesn't make any sense.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hey! (33014) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:05PM (#29984374) Homepage Journal

    Sure, but belt-and-suspenders is a good philosophy when it comes to something like this. When you take your laptop and plug it into the hotel outlet, you're trusting whoever wired that outlet to have done it to code. It almost always is, but the one time it isn't could be the one that damages the laptop or takes your life.

    GFI and fuses are apples and oranges. Fuses and circuit breakers are current overload protection. Ground Fault Interruption protects against current moving in a path it was not intended to (e.g. between hot and ground rather than hot and neutral). There are plenty of ways to kill yourself with current moving between hot and neutral as intended. You can use more current on the cord than the circuit is rated for. You plug your 2A cord into a 20A circuit, and you can start a fire by drawing 10A and the GFI is happy as a clam. Your laptop is off and your frayed cord is drawing one amp because of the current that is currently melting the plastic in the cord. In that case not only is the GFI and circuit breaker happy to let you start that fire, the 2A fuse in your plug is too. You need arc-fault detection.

    GFI units include a circuit breaker, so yes, there is redundancy. I'm assuming the UK codes don't let you wire buildings without circuit breakers, so it's not like the UK relies on plug fuses exclusively and the US on circuit breakers. If I am correct, then the UK has redundant current overload protection where the US does not. GFI handles ground faults, of course, but that's almost not relevant in many cases, e.g. non-grounded equipment which is supposed to have an electrically isolated case. Of course you'll want GFI if you're in the habit of using your laptop in the bathtub, but in most cases arc-fault interruption would be even more desirable.

    Imagine a world where you have overload protection in your device (e.g. laptop), in the power cord plug, in the circuit breaker panel; the breaker panel also provides arc and ground fault protection. People would *still* die from electrical faults in that world, although many fewer. If you assume everything works perfectly, you can install all your protection at the breaker panel. In fact, in such a perfect world, all you'd need is current overload protection at the panel, and the odd GFI here and there to protect the people who use their laptop in the bathtub. But in the real world, you can't count on anything working, as advertised, including any of the fancy stuff you install in the panel.

    In any case, the outlets in the US design wear out too quickly, in my opinion. It's a lot like the original USB design, which was fine for plugging your printer in and leaving it plugged in for the life of your system or your printer. The plug was not designed for lots of connect/disconnect cycles.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by greed (112493) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:06PM (#29984400)

    Compare "Major Appliances" to "Appliances". Hand mixer, blender, kettle, coffee maker, bread machine, coffee grinder, countertop boiler, ice cream maker, and so on. Plenty are made without a grounded cord.

    Ground isn't "instant safety", though. Depending on circumstances, ground can make a fault worse. That's why the shift to double-insulated power tools with ungrounded plugs. (Say on a drill: the chuck is insulated from the motor, and the motor is insulated from the housing. So if you drill into a live wire, the circuit DOES NOT COMPLETE through the power tool to either ground or you--or both. (If you hit a Big Cable, it will be too much for the 16 gauge ground, so there'll be plenty of current to go through you, too.))

    Mind you, I had a paper shredder "fail dangerous" when the double-insulating piece that insulated the cutters from the motor failed... and the motor fell out of its mounts... and turned on... and shorted hot to the control panel. (That unit should not have received ULC and CSA safety approval with a design that brittle. The motor should have been bolted to the case, not "propped" in place by a plastic widget.)

  • by Rising Ape (1620461) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:16PM (#29984562)

    The simple fact of the matter is that the pins on the US plug are so short that by the point it is far enough out of the socket to expose enough of the pins to touch them with your fingers, it's unplugged. No partially insulated pins or other wacky design contrivances are needed.

    But is this true for a child's fingers?

    Insulating part of the pins is simple, obvious and effective - hardly a "wacky design contrivance". Why *wouldn't* you do it?

  • 12V (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MrLint (519792) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:17PM (#29984584) Journal

    Id like to see some kinda standard for domestic DC. USB is common for chargers, but they all are wall warts for AC of some type.. Mebbe an outlet with 1 AC and 1 DC with an internal rectifier?

    I cant see using USB for things like your TV of DVD player, so something a bit more robust might be in order.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Xtravar (725372) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:38PM (#29984948) Homepage Journal

    I thought they sold those adapters for guitar amps. Not really. If anyone can explain why a "ground lift" helps reduce signal noise on amplified sound, I'd be glad to hear it.

  • by slimjim8094 (941042) <slashdot3@@@justconnected...net> on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @04:45PM (#29985104)

    Admittedly, I'm an American but I will back up my points.

    220V is too much for everyday electronics. Why does your vacuum cleaner or table lamp need 220V? I do understand that the amperage is lower (half) for the same wattage. However, if there's a fault in an appliance, and the current carrying lead is exposed, you can touch the conductor without anything more than severe discomfort (wouldn't even call it pain - this has happened to me with a bad light socket). I doubt you could pull this off with 220V. Obviously completing a circuit on either is a bad thing (touching between current and ground...)

    Second, ring circuits are for very specific things. I understand the UK uses a ring circuit for pretty much every floor. In the US, we use home runs for important things and limit ring circuits to, say, the 4-5 outlets around the perimeter of the room, generally one room, about a foot off the floor. Those usually run at about 15 amps - enough for a powerful vacuum cleaner, but generally not a microwave. Those run off a (dedicated) 20A circuit, same as a fridge. Other appliances, generally those with electric heating elements (such as a range, water heater, furnace, machines such as a tablesaw) run off dedicated 220V circuits.

    The upshot of this is the US has many more circuit breakers, and a lot more granularity. A typical house has about 30-40 circuit breakers, maybe more. But a circuit breaker controls, say, half of a room - instead of the entire first floor. UK plugs are fused, so the appliances are about as safe, but that doesn't fix the problem of not wanting to disconnect a whole floor to work on the electrical system. And you start limiting the current from the distribution point - if you drive a nail through a wire, it will only be carrying 15, maybe 20A before the circuit breaker blows. That's opposed to the 220V at 40A...

    Basically, in general there's a lot less current flowing through people's walls. The appliances that need more power get their own entire circuits. I can't help but feel that this is safer, and it allows us to reduce the complexity of our plugs.

    I'd honestly like to hear why people disagree - as I'm sure they will.

  • Re:No. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Artifakt (700173) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @05:04PM (#29985530)

    I live in a sixty-five year old American house, which is all circuit breakers, and was originally built with at least one set of 3 prong, grounded outlets in every room. It didn't come with enough outlets for modern needs, but what it had, were mostly implemented well - it would have been damned hard to electrocute yourself by dropping a radio into the tub even when the house was first built.
          I've replaced all the remaining 2 prong (non-polarized and non-grounded) outlets with 3 prong polarized throughout (Ground wires were provided to all the 2 prong boxes, and were metered by me to make sure during the upgrade, but every one was installed correctly by the original electricians). I've added GFI circuits to the baths and kitchen and removed two of the original 240 V circuits (the ones for the oven and dryer circuits, as we have a gas oven and dryer, and I needed the current for additional 120 V outlets), but that's about it. I still have a 240 V circuit that I upgraded in the 1970's from NEMA-10 series to NEMA-6-30 dual outlets, for some the basement power tools, but NEMA-10 was actually a very safe grounded system the way most contractors installed it, way back in the 1950's.
          (Usually, people put NEMA-10 circuits in to work with all metal cased large appliances, with the case wired to the third pin for ground, even though they didn't technically have to by code, and the ground technically was only for neutral on various AC Motors inside the cases.). Many appliances were manufactured only with this system already in place, and often came with instructions to make sure your home wiring had already been done compatibly. Sure, the code didn't actually demand all that, but the typical person wiring up their own 240 volt dryer probably RTFM'ed back then, and anyone who bought the kind of power tools I still have on 240 V and didn't, probably died when the 44" inch bed planer/jointer ate their arms, usually long before they managed to get electrocuted (And I shudder to think what kind of accidents are possible with the arc welder whether it's grounded right or not.).

            Comparing electrical codes doesn't tell you that much - at a guess, most places in the US that needed 240 seriously exceeded code back when NEMA-10 was common. The British code has ring-mains, and single drops off of rings. Supposedly, you're not supposed to wire a new line tee'd off of another line, just directly off of the main ring. How much would anyone bet that got followed often enough to make their systems actually safer?

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @05:11PM (#29985678)
    I confess. I took the 12-step plan to recovery and although I will always be a connectoholic, I'm all right so long as you don't get me started on the subject.

    The best system in the world, for real, is a combination of the Europlug and the Schuko plug. Proper Europlugs and Schuko plugs have bodies which fit partly into the wall so the load is not taken by the pins. The Europlug pins are partly insulated so if you can see metal, it's safe. You can fit lots of them onto a power strip, so a strip for electronics can have many connectors in a small space while a power extender can give you 16A in a small footprint.

    The reason the UK still has the BS1363 plug is because it has square pins, and the manufacturers thought the Chinese would not want to invest in special tooling to make them when they had the world of round pins or cheap strip pins (as in US) to go after. Then Mrs. Thatcher came along and they decided to let the Chinese make them anyway.

    Every time you buy a computer in the UK you get a BS 1363 to IEC lead and a Schuko to IEC lead. That's how cheap they are: manufacturers throw them away rather than be bothered to have two different SKUs.

  • by BikeHelmet (1437881) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @05:48PM (#29986380) Journal

    Another perk: Touching a US power prong partly into the wall probably won't kill you.

  • Re:No. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by operagost (62405) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @05:55PM (#29986482) Homepage Journal
    Well, he also thinks that a country that loses many times more people to cancer than the USA-- and has people with life-threatening conditions on waiting lists for months-- has a great health system. So I agree with your assessment on his ignorance.
  • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@nosPam.gmail.com> on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @06:15PM (#29986808) Homepage

    You might say, well, the US plug can't carry as much current for heavy loads. It's true that you can't get as much power through a single US plug as you can through a UK 13A plug, but that's because the voltage is higher. The US plug can carry 15A at 125V all day long. My wire feed welder works just fine plugged into a normal US 15A outlet - the plug doesn't even get warm.

    I was about to say much the same thing - what they hell are the Brits plugging in that they need so much current? My woodshop has nothing but 110V [pro am level] equipment, and I have no problem whatsoever.

  • Re:No. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @06:15PM (#29986814) Homepage Journal

    An American created open source. A Finn couldn't figure out how to get write an OS and talked other people into doing it for him.

    Are we going to keep doing this nationalist crap, or can we realize it take people from every country to progress?

  • The plug was designed so that as well as unfolding to plug into british sockets it could plug into special sockets while still folded.

    Not that I think they have much chance of getting it past the regulators and produced in sufficiant quantities to make a difference. The article doesn't even make it clear if they have a functioning prototype yet or just mockups.

  • Re:US vs UK... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ChrisMaple (607946) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @08:32PM (#29988692)

    Apparently, it's a common feature in the UK to have a single high current line supplying most of the house. In the US, there would be several breakers and several wires for the same purpose.
          I like the UK scheme. It's more economical and more rugged. Protection is provided where it's needed, at the individual plug. The big disadvantage is that if you do manage to make a good solid short at one outlet, you trip the main breaker and the whole house goes dark.
          The UK uses 240 V, which also reduces wiring losses in the house This is a big deal in these days of conservation, and it's nice not to have the lights dim when you switch on a vacuum cleaner.

  • by ChrisCampbell47 (181542) on Wednesday November 04, 2009 @09:12PM (#29989140)
    Making the rounds of the blogs and TV shows is the story of William Kamkwamba [wikipedia.org], a young man from Malawi who, at age 14, taught himself enough about electricity to build a windmill generator for his house. But what kills me is that he made a GFCI from ... nails, wire and a magnet. Look at this video of his appearance on The Daily Show [thedailyshow.com] last month, specifically starting 2 minutes in, and note his description of what it does. (here's a picture [hackaday.com]) He calls it a circuit breaker, but that is functionally actually a GFCI! Jesus H. Christ, that is brilliant!

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