Monday, August 22, 2011

Power struggles

This week I thought I'd say a little bit about electricity.

Back in England when you want to use something electrical, you take one of these...

...and plug it into one of these.

And that, pretty much, is that. What comes out of the wall is a nice, powerful 240volts and everything you want to plug in is also rated for 240volts - except when you need a transformer - but these days transformers are so small they're usually just built into the plug itself and so there's still nothing to worry about.

Over here in São Paulo things are not quite so simple. As a broad rule, Brazil uses a 110v supply, though in a few states it's actually 127v. This is not that big a deal as anything that runs on 110v will also run perfectly well on 127v. But sometimes they don't use 110v or 127v but prefer to go with 220v - as is the case in Fortaleza in the state of Ceará up in the Northeast.

In São Paulo, needless to say, we have all three. Some buildings, like the newer hotels and apartment blocks, seem to run on 220v. Many of the older houses are 127v. In our house we have both and unless there's something obvious I'm missing, there seems to be no way of telling which is which apart from trial and error.

The lights run on 110v, or 127v, as do most of the standard sockets around the walls. In the kitchen, it's also 127v, except for the cooker which is 220v. But then there's a socket which runs directly off the cooker supply so that's probably 220v as well - except that when I try to run something rated at 220v off it it runs as if it's actually 110v. And the water heater for the sink is also 220v which, given the wiring, must mean the water filter and the fridge/freezer are also 220v.

The fuse box is no help, unless the different colours mean more than simply that was what the electrician could get his hands on at the time. Also, the last time anyone did anything in there it was our landlord's handyman and not a qualified electrician so who knows what's going on in there?

Anyway, having gone round the house and done my best to decide that it's safe to plug things in I come across my next problem, which is... actually trying to plug them in. Some plugs are round pin, some plugs are flat pin. Some have two round pins, some have three. Some have two flat pins and a round pin. Apparently, there is now a regulation stating that all new electrical devices must have the new design three pin plug and all new sockets must be designed to accomodate it.

Which is all very well, except that we're not about to rewire the entire house and, surprise surprise, the new plug doesn't fit into any of our existing sockets.

So we turn to the ever-reliable adaptor. Now we can plug an adaptor into the old socket so we can run our new appliances. Except that there aren't enough sockets so we need extension blocks. And some of them don't take the new plugs either so we need more adaptors. And the adaptors take up lots of space so we can't use all the sockets in the multi-blocks so we need to plug a different extension into the multi-block and that has a completely different type of plug so we need a different type of adaptor and the sockets on this new block are different from the sockets on the first block so the new plugs still don't fit. But once we have the adaptor to adapt the adaptor to the extension and run this into an adaptor for the socket, we're there and we can finally run all our electrical goods.

Except the ones that only run on 240v. For these we have two options. Either pack them away in the cupboard for the next four years and buy a local version, or else use a step-up/down transformer. We've actually ended up doing both and both have been a qualified success.

Thankfully these days, most electronic equipment is capable of running on anything between 110v and 240v so as far as the computers and phone chargers go, it's just a case of finding the right adaptors and off you go. The only difference I've noticed from back in England is that certain external devices that charge off the computer via a USB cable no longer do. Or not always anyway. The iPods and iPads still charge off the desktop computer but not off the laptop. The camera now won't charge off anything except the mains.

Not all the electronic stuff is the same however. The DVD player and the Wii only run at 240v so they need transforming. This is fine as they don't really draw that much power and the rather expensive and somewhat ugly transformers you can pick up out here will do the job no problem. So far I've bought three and one of them is still going strong after eight months - the other two fell victim to a combination of overwork and user incompetence. And this would be a good point to remind anyone reading this for hints before moving out here... READ THE INSTRUCTIONS VERY CAREFULLY - even if they're written in portuguese. They only plug in one way round. And if you start to get the melting plastic smell, it's probably a good idea to unplug.

Also, things with motors just don't transform well. And this is doubly true out here where the supply comes in at 60Hz, unlike 50Hz back in the UK. A lot of stuff can work perfectly well with the different frequency, but not motors. We did know this before coming out so had the sense to leave behind all our white goods (actually, all our white goods are silver or stainless steel because we're flash) but I hadn't really thought about all the small stuff that would also struggle to work properly out here - kettle, toaster, sandwich maker, popcorn maker, hair clippers, hair dryer, etc. In fact, it was while trying to impress some of David's friends with my popcorn making magic that I burn out the second of the transformers.

And then there's the TV. We also knew before coming out that the TV wouldn't work out here as it was PAL and the system in Brazil is NTSC and anyway, our nice landlord left us with not one but five televisions and a sixth would have just been showing off. But, it's not just the TV of course. It's the DVD player as well. And the Wii. They also run on the PAL system - and they're much more fussy when it comes to running at a different frequency. We spent six months playing black and white and flickering games on the Wii and only watching DVDs on the computer before I bought my magic box of miracles. I've written about this before (back in January's "Home again, home again" post) so I won't go into details here, but it really is a fabulous piece of kit - and it even runs on 110v, 127v and 240v!

As mentioned earlier, the other solution to all these problems is simply to buy locally and we probably would have done a lot more of this if things hadn't been so stupidly expensive over here. But they are, so we didn't. As it is we've ended up having to buy a few things we really couldn't do without and I would be doing the Brazilian manufacturing industry a disservice if I said they were all rubbish, but it would have been nice if some of them could perhaps have lasted a little longer before falling apart.

But anyway, 110v is just rubbish. Our newest kettle takes so long to boil I quite often forget I've actually put it on, and as the automatic off switch packed up shortly after we bought it, it has, on occasion, merrily boiled itself dry before I remember. Our hair clippers struggles to cope with giving me even a modest trim every three months or so, despite the fact that (apparently) I'm nowhere near as 'full on top' as I once was, but it just gives up the ghost completely when we put it anywhere near the children's abundant thatch. And as for the fan heater...

Still, I really shouldn't complain. So what if it takes me a little bit of scrabbling around on my hands and knees and a bucket-full of different adaptors to get my stuff connected? At least we actually have electricity, which millions of Brazilians still don't, and we haven't even had any power cuts for, oh, weeks now!


  1. I was in Sao Paulo in 2007 for a short exchange (2 weeks) and I smiled a lot, when I read this post, because we had the same power troubles as well :).Moni

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    1. To watch movies you could simply connect your laptop to a flatscreen (HD)TV or a (HD)projector by using a HDMI (data) cable. Then you can watch DVD's as well as Blu-ray movies (the latter needs HD ready TV or projector supporting 720p or 1080p resolution).