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My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Monday, June 30, 2008

Adventures with Electricity: The Technical Details

I am not an electrician or anything approximating an electrician, so bear with the technical generalities and please forgive any mistakes, but there is a story I just have to tell. There are technical details regarding electricity that have a bearing on the story, so this entry provides those details. The next entry tells the story. I divided it like this to make it easier for people who aren’t interested in the technical stuff, or who already know it, to skip to the story.

Back in the United States, we use 110V/60Hz electricity. In Egypt, they use 220V/50Hz. The relevant part is the 110V-220V distinction. This means that Egyptian electricity has twice the power of American electricity. If you plug an Egyptian hair dryer, toaster, or microwave oven into an American outlet, there will not be enough power for it to run. If you plug an American hair dryer, toaster, or microwave oven into an Egyptian outlet, it may catch fire, or at the very least, it will “release the magic smoke” (a euphemism used by my husband) and never work again. To use an American device in Egypt, you must use a transformer, a device that takes a 220V power supply and converts it to 110V electricity, minus some overhead losses to heat.

Another technical detail: In America, we generally use a ground with our 110V electricity—the third pin, the round one, on a plug, if it’s there, is the grounding pin. While for most low-power devices (i.e., hair dryer or toaster) this isn’t absolutely needed, it’s a good safety measure, so that if something in the device breaks and electricity is going places it shouldn’t—like into you if you’re touching it—it will be diverted down the grounding pin instead. High-power applications (i.e., ovens, computers, and transformers) need a good ground in order to function correctly, and in some cases won’t operate at all if the ground connection isn’t present or isn’t good. In Egypt, there is not always an understanding of the importance of a good ground, since many of their appliances don’t use it, and electrical safety in general tends to fall under the “Inshallah” principle (basically “if Allah wills it” or “whatever happens is Allah’s will”; in some cases, this means “if Allah wills it, I’ll survive”). [Okay, I admit it, Jeff just wrote most of that paragraph because all I know is this: The ground is important.]

In America, most of our plugs are designed so they only fit in the holes one way. Not so in Egypt. This matters when it comes to the transformer. If something is plugged in backwards, the 110V outlet’s wiring will be reversed. In Egypt, it doesn’t matter because the 220V outlets are designed to work either way. However, when plugging in transformers, it matters a great deal—friends here have destroyed expensive computer equipment because they plugged the transformer into the wall and the computer into the transformer without checking for correct wiring. Turns out they had plugged the transformer into the wall backward, the wiring was reversed, and the magic smoke was released. So we bought a little tester thing that will tell us if all the wires are connected properly; it also tells us if there’s a good ground. It tells us this by the pattern of lights that light up when it’s plugged in. There are three lights: one red and two yellow. The only correct pattern is the red not lit and both yellows lit. If any other pattern occurs, this is bad. Plugging in an American electrical device could release the magic smoke and may cause a fire.

I think that’s it for the technical details. See the next post for the story.

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