What’s that burning smell coming from your quaint hotel outlet in Spain? Here’s how you can ensure you never find out that the worst has happened to your phone.
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare for their electronics: they check into their hotel overseas, decide to get a little work done and plug in their laptop or smartphone. A few seconds later, the smell of acrid ozone fills the area and smoke curls from the outlet. The adapter or device might even catch fire. In either case, it will never work again.
What happened? The simple truth is that the unfortunate traveler should have had an electrical adapter with his devices to prevent such a catastrophe. However, to understand what happened, you need to know why you need an electrical adapter for Spain.
Everything that plugs into an electrical outlet receives whatever voltage is supplied to that outlet. Voltage is the electrical potential between two points and is best thought of like the pressure inside a water hose. The higher the voltage, the more pressure there is for the electricity to move from one point to another.
Electrical appliances are configured with specific settings, and not everywhere is the same. Therefore, if you plug your device into a place that doesn’t match, you can get some bad results.
Too much voltage leads to excessive pressure inside your device.
While the voltage is the pressure or potential difference of electricity between two points, amperage is the measurement about which you have to worry. Ohm’s Law shows that there is a direct relationship between the level of voltage and the level of amperage, or electrical current. In other words, one amp is equal to one volt passed through one ohm of resistance.
Because the resistors, diodes, and other components remain constant, it stands to reason that an increased voltage means an increased amperage.
Copper wires, aluminum contacts, and other metal parts can only take so much strain. Electricity, as the flow of electrons between two points, exerts physical pressure on the contacts. Friction between electrons heats the metal, and if there’s too much current, it can ignite. Therefore, you need to have thicker contacts if you want more current.
So How Does This Translate?
The problem ultimately lies in the difference between typical voltages supplied by the electrical outlets in Spain versus that supplied in America. In America, the typical voltage output for an outlet is 110 volts AC at 50 hertz. The hertz measurement is just the frequency at which the voltage changes direction. The voltage itself is the problem.
Devices meant to be used in America, therefore, are designed with a 110-volt power source in mind. So how does this translate to Spain?
Differences in Voltage
In Spain, like in many European countries, the voltage output is far greater than in American outlets. You get 220 volts coming out of an outlet in Europe, sometimes at 60 hertz. When you try to plug a 110-volt appliance into a 220-volt outlet, you’re subjecting it to twice the voltage and twice the current that it otherwise would be designed for.
In other words, you’re likely to fry whatever you plugged into the more powerful outlet.
Why the Difference?
The more voltage you have, the easier it is to send power over long distances without having a loss in power or a voltage drop while using the same diameter of the wire.
Actual electrical power is measured in watts, which is calculated by multiplying voltage by amperage. Therefore, to get the same amount of electricity, you don’t need to produce as much current and therefore don’t need the wires to be as thick. In Europe, where the economy and infrastructure wasn’t as robust as America’s, it was necessary to save expenses.
It’s simply taking time for Europe to switch to the 110-volt standard if many countries decide to do so.
What Does an Adapter Do?
You need an electrical adapter for Spain to lower the voltage coming out of an electrical outlet before you can use it to power your appliances. Frequently, an adapter is a simple plug, or a box, that you can hook into the outlet and then plug something else into that. It works by the concept of a step-down transformer.
In other words, it brings the voltage to a safe level. Generally, it keeps it at a constant level. Some advanced adapters may be part of a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) unit that can function even in the event of a blackout or brownout.
Adapters are often cheap, so you should have little trouble getting one. Make sure, though, that you know what voltage it’s designed to take, as well as what it will convert to. The standard adapter converts 200 to 100, but you have to be sure. Also, make sure it has a ground plug.
A ground plug allows extra electricity to travel back into the circuit and the ground wire embedded in the earth. Without this, you risk having a power surge destroy your device, and that would likely ruin your further vacation plans.
Here are the factors you need to check out when looking for an adapter:
Do You Need an Adapter?
Although we’ve mentioned the need for an electrical adapter for Spain, there may be some circumstances where you won’t need one. Some hotels, for example, may be wired up with American-compatible outlets that put out 110 VAC. Ask the receptionist before you use any plugs if you have doubts.
Your electrical device might also not need an adapter because it has dual-voltage settings built in. If you open a desktop computer, for example, and look at the power supply, you might notice a voltage switch. This switch allows you to convert between the two as needed. Just be sure when you plug it in that you have the right voltage selected.
If the power supply is set to operate at 110 volts and you plug into 220, you’ll have a dead power supply. If vice versa, your power supply just won’t work.
How to Safely Use Adapters
When you buy electrical adapters for Spain, make sure they will fit in continental European outlets. Unlike American outlets, their European counterparts have round plugs instead of flat ones. Getting the wrong adapter will be useless.
Don’t attempt to force the prongs into the outlet if they don’t work. All you’ll achieve this way is bending the prongs of your adapter and possibly even damaging the outlet, making it useless for the next occupant of your hotel room and leaving you with a hefty fine. Look at the adapter before you buy it online; many sites offer pictures from multiple angles to get a better idea.
Always check outlets and plugs for signs of burning, loose contacts, or similar issues that could cause a safety hazard. When you have something plugged in, pay attention to any burning smells, smoke coming from outlets, or excessive heat. Too much heat means you’re likely to have a fire.
You should also know that many hotel rooms in Europe only have a single electrical outlet. If you’re lucky enough to find an adapter with multiple plugs, you can use it to power multiple things, but for the most part, you’re stuck with one, and you have to determine what should take the most priority.
For most travelers, that’s likely to be a mobile phone. Given the ability of a phone to do most things a laptop can do, most people don’t see the need to take along large, bulky computers. People who are staying longer or doing more complex work may feel differently. In the case of a smartphone, some may just opt to charge via a USB port on a laptop.
The best place to get an adapter is probably the airport where you land. Many airports have shops or kiosks where travelers can purchase travel necessities. As the times change, these have come to include mobile phone chargers.
If you don’t want to pay airport prices, you’re better off getting one from speciality hardware or electronics store before you set out. However, unless you travel frequently, it may not be worth the effort of finding one. At the worst, you can ask your hotel receptionist if there are any compatible outlets nearby.
For some appliances, like hair dryers or something similar, it’s better to use what the hotel has to offer, provided you can figure out how to make it work. The controls might be different, but with help, you can figure it out.
Unless your electronics work for multiple locations, which is unlikely, you’re going to need to get an adapter for your destination in Spain to prevent possible electrical damage or fire. Look for adapters marked 110-220 or something similar. If you aren’t sure, ask the vendor or sales provider, or look for alternate solutions online.
When dealing with electronics, you need a sure answer to prevent serious damage, injury, or death. It’s better to have not enough power coming from an outlet than to have too much. A lower voltage usually means that the device won’t work at all or will simply work more slowly.