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Overseas Electronics Essentials: Voltage Converters and Other Terms You Need to Know

When you decided to take that dream vacation in Europe, the last thing you expected was that you'd need a course in electronics and power. If you're planning to use any of your U.S. electrical items on your trip, though, there's a good chance that you'll have to get familiar with terms like voltage converters, step up and step down voltage converter/transformers, wattage, amperage, voltage and hertz cycles. Here's a quick overview to help you understand what you're reading when you're trying to choose among the many types of voltage converters and transformers on the market.

The Basics: Voltage Converters to Plug Adapters

Voltage is a unit of measurement that describes the amount of power carried in an electrical circuit. The higher the voltage number, the more powerful the charge is. Different countries have different standards for electrical delivery, and those standards are expressed in terms of voltage. In North America and much of South and Central America, as well as in Japan and a few other Pacific countries, power is delivered at 110 volts, usually written as 110V. In most of Europe, power is delivered at 220V. You'll often see voltage expressed as a range, such as 110-120V or 220-240V.

Amperage measures the rate of an electrical current's flow.

Wattage measures the amount of electricity delivered to or used by an electrical item.

Those three may sound like they're all saying the same thing, but each of them measures a specific aspect of an electrical current. More simply, voltage is how powerful, amperage is how fast and wattage is how much.

Voltage converters change the power of the electrical current that flows through them. There are three basic flavors of voltage converters: step up voltage converters increase the voltage from 110V to 220V; step down voltage converters decrease the voltage from 220V to 110V; and step up and step down voltage converters/transformers can both increase and decrease the power depending on the needs of the appliance and the current it's drawing from.

For the purposes of determining if you need a voltage converter, the important number is the voltage. If you're going to be using a 110V electrical item in a country with a 220-240V electrical system, you'll need to be looking at step up voltage converters. You'll need a step down voltage converter if you're going to be running a 220V appliance in a country with a 110V electrical system. If you regularly travel between countries, you may do best with a step up and step down voltage converter transformer.

When choosing among the voltage converters on the market, you also need to choose one that will deliver the correct amount of electricity to your appliances or electronics. Every voltage converter carries a wattage rating that tells you how many watts it's capable of delivering to power your devices. It's listed on the label as a number followed by a W.

Every one of your electrical devices will also show the amount of watts it needs to run, though you may have to do some math to get the figure. Check the label for a number followed by a W, such as 165W. If it's there, you're golden. If it's not, look for a number followed by an A, which is the amperage rating for the appliance. To get the wattage, multiply the amperage by the voltage to get the wattage. If your label says 1.5A and 110V, multiply 1.5 by 110 to come up with 165 watts.

The voltage converter you choose has to be capable of delivering the amount of watts needed by all of the appliances plugged into it - and since many devices pull extra electricity at some points in their cycles, you need to add about 25% to the wattage rating to be on the safe side. Thus, if your device needs 165 watts, you should be looking at voltage converters that deliver at least 200 watts of power. If you're going to plug in more than one item to your voltage converter, add up the wattage needed by each of them and then add another 25%. And if one of those devices is something like a coffee maker, which needs extra power when it's pumping water, you should be looking for voltage converters that can deliver double the wattage listed on its label.

Your best source of information about voltage converters is often the manufacturer, who can help you choose the right voltage converter transformer for your needs.

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