Thursday, September 11, 2008

How to Not Electrocute Yourself in London

Electrical outlets in the UK have been something of a mystery to me since we moved to London. I knew the voltage differed (220 volts in the UK vs. 110 volts in the US) and I was aware of the big clunky plug design, but why did every outlet have it's own switch?

Why all the switches?

Are power surges so common that everything needs redundant breakers? Do people in the UK have such low esteem for the quality of their local electricians that extra safety is deemed necessary? I couldn't figure it out. I occasionally mocked the switch.

I've had a bit of experience with getting shocked in the past. While doing research in the South Pacific some years ago, I found that my eyes got hot and tingly and the world started looking pinkish when I used a microscope. The microscope I was using was plugged into an old hulking transformer and somehow a bit of current was running through the metal frame of the scope right into my eye sockets. Not recommended.

Here in London, I've had ongoing trouble with my laptop power adaptor. I use an Apple Powerbook, and one of the adaptors I have for connecting a US plug to a UK outlet somehow transfers a bit of current to the metal computer frame and makes my fingers tingle. In fact, right now, if I touch the left side of my computer next to where the power adaptor plugs in, I get a little shock. I recently ordered a real UK Apple power cord to try to avoid this problem. Unfortunately, the new plug was poorly manufactured and the prongs were all a fraction of a millimeter too large to fit comfortably in the outlet: I could get the plug into the outlet with a little extra pressure, but I had a hard time getting it back out.

This is when I should have used the switch.

I wiggled the plug. I shimmied it. I cursed at it. I tugged on it. The plug suddenly cracked open, my hand fell straight onto to bare metal leads inside the plug, and 220 volts of pure pain went surging through me. I yelled something along the lines of "Haggadafiggidah!!!" and jumped 5 feet backwards.

Broken plug, with switch now in the proper position to prevent electrocution of Andy

I had been getting ready to go to bed, but after getting severely shocked I found that I couldn't fall asleep for a few hours and that I was uncomfortably hot for no particular reason (well, other than the 220 volts that had been coursing through my body). When I woke up in the morning, I found that I had 4 evenly spaced white burns on my finger. I'm always looking for new experiences in life; this was one I could have done without.

So the moral of the story is this: use the switch. Apparently the switch is there to prevent idiots like myself from electrocuting themselves.


cabernet said...

I'm really sorry you shocked yourself, but I still laughed my ass off reading about it! I feel that I am now properly educated and ready for my visit to the UK. I"m a coming soon!!!

Steve said...

Eh... Remember the story of me building a "battery recharger" when I was a kid and plugging it in? Of course that was only 110...