RELOCATION: Electrical goods are a compulsory part of modern life. Who amongst us would seriously think of life without a TV, computer, coffee-maker, electronic toothbrush or hairdryer? Being very honest, that only covers about a tenth of the items I use that need electricity to run. Yes, I am no minimalist when it comes to life’s luxuries. Nor am I a technical person. So the challenge of working out what electrical goods we could take to the USA from our home in Sydney was a big one.
Fortunately my husband K is a little more clued in than me on this area. Even for him, though, working out what Australian electricals could work in the USA, was like solving a 10, 000 piece puzzle. When we tried to sort out what to do, there was just patchy stuff here and there on the internet. Most articles seem to talk about taking US electricals to Australia, which isn’t that helpful for Aussies relocating the other way. There was some seriously tedious stuff to sort through and it was frustratingly difficult to get clear answers on what to do.
Why couldn’t someone who had done this before explain it all in one place? Well, I’m about to try!
The information provided below is based on our experiences, what we have been told by others, or read. By no means is it expert advice. I don’t even differentiate between true ‘electricals’ and ‘electronics’. I’m just talking about anything that needs electricity to work. That’s what mattered to me, as I expect it will to most of you. So below is an overview which will helpfully make it easier for others.
All that aside, you should understand that this article is not an infallible guide. While my intention is to be as accurate as possible, I make no promises that this information is correct. You will still need to check out your own equipment via the specifications provided or even with the manufacturers themselves.
The Three Basic Differences between the Australian and US electrical system
Well, you have probably at least worked out by now, that when moving to the USA, electrical goods cannot just be packed to go without a second thought. If you haven’t even got that far, then here’s why. The electricity system in the USA is very different than Australia.
There are three basic differences between residential electricity in the USA versus the Australian system:
1. The voltage in Australia is 240 volts (now moving to 230 volts to match Europe) while the USA is standardly 110 volts. Although going from a higher voltage to a lower voltage is generally safer than the reverse, there is no assurance that this is risk free.
2. The frequency of electricity (measured in Hertz or Hz) in Australia is 50Hz versus 60 Hz in the USA. The lower Hertz level of Australian electricals means that they will generally run faster on the 60 Hz system, if at all.
3. USA electrical plugs have 2 and 3 prongs but are very differently shaped than Australian plugs. This is the least problematic difference and it can be overcome by using suitable travel adaptors.
Well, then can’t you just buy adapter plugs for every electrical so they can be plugged into US electrical power points? Unfortunately, no…
Like many things to do with relocation, the answer is more complex.
Major problems with using Australian electrical goods in the USA
1. Not all Australian 240v goods work well on the USA’s 110v system
Often electricals that are made only for 240 volts either don’t work effectively or at all, on 110 volts. A converter or step-up transformer is required to manage the difference in voltage. Some electrical equipment though does have the capacity to cater for both Australian and US systems by having dual voltage. An indication of this is usually put on the electricals baseplate or in the instruction manual and may read something like ‘110/240v’ or ‘110v-240v’. This removes the need for a converter or transformer to adjust voltage; however there is still the frequency issue to contend with.
2. Some Australian electricals with 50 Hz frequency specs don’t work well on the USA’s 60 Hz system
As the electrical frequency levels are also different between countries e.g. 60 Hertz (USA) versus 50 Hertz (Australia), electrical equipment that is sensitive to Hertz differences, may not function very well. For example, clock radios frequently have trouble keeping the right time due to this issue. Some motorized electricals that use frequency for timing also will not work properly. Even with a converter or transformer, there may be issues with some electricals that have motors, moving parts or heaters. There is no converter or transformer that adjusts frequency.
Items such as hair dryers, blenders, toasters, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, fan-driven heaters, paper shredders and lawn hedgers, will possibly have problems working effectively. I say possibly, because there is no way of judging every different model and brand that is available and most information available is only from people’s individual experiences.
Fortunately, quite a few electricals are made to cater for both systems i.e. both voltage and frequency systems, and will probably be OK to try using over here. Mostly these are true ‘electronics’. For example, many laptops have this flexibility inbuilt and just need an adaptor plug to work.
3. There are format differences between Australia and the US in TVs and videos.
Aside from electrical issues, there are format differences between Australia and the US in TV and video. Although both countries have now switched from analog to digital broadcasting, some people still refer to the older analog terms of ‘PAL’ (used in Australia) and ‘NTSC’ (used in the USA) to describe these format differences for everything.
Digital television in fact has virtually replaced analog TV in both markets. Australia uses the DVB-T system for TV and the USA uses the ATSC format. However, even with the move to digital TV, there remain differences between how both countries’ TVs and videos work. This is because the standards used for digital TV and HDTV are rooted in the old PAL/NTSC analog systems. So even without any electricity compatibility issues, there are possible problems with resolution and refresh rate.
Electrically compatible Australian TVs may have other limitations if used in the US. They may also be unable to pick up US broadcast TV stations. However, they still have their uses. We have used our Australian TV to receive US cable TV; play DVDs (US and Australian) from our Australian DVD player; and to play an Australian Playstation (PS2); all without issue. That said, we also purchased a US TV to be compatible with US equipment e.g. a Playstation 3 purchased here.
DVDs and Blu-Rays are still classified as having PAL or NTSC standards. PAL format discs will need either an Australian PAL format player or a multi-format DVD/Blu-ray player that plays PAL formats, to view it. Most Australian DVD players can often play both ‘PAL’ and ‘NTSC’ discs, assuming there is no region coding issue (see below) although the reverse is not true. PAL format discs won’t play on standard DVD/Blu-ray players sold in the US. Check your machine specifications before you leave or if you are contemplating buying something in the US.
4. DVD, Blu-Ray and Video game hardware can be limited to the region where purchased
DVD and Blu-Ray manufacturers, have an artificially imposed ‘region system’ worldwide, which limits the use of their products to the region where they were purchased. In concept, if you take the DVD or Blu-Ray from one region and try to play them on a different region’s player, they will not work, as they have the wrong region code. Australian DVDs are Region 4 while US DVDs are Region 1. Australian Blu-Ray Discs are Region B while US Blu-Ray Discs are Region A.
This system was implemented by manufacturers to control release of movies or content in different markets so they would not be viewed outside their distribution plans. This is called region lockout. Region free players for both DVD and Blu-Ray Discs have been manufactured in Australia and elsewhere in the world. They were made without the ability to enforce region lockout (RL). More modern DVD players often have mechanisms that disable RL or may play all regions (ALL or Region 0).
Video game hardware also often has region lockout. This varies depending on the brand of video gaming hardware but Sony Playstation (PS2), Xbox, Wii and some others are region-locked. Playstation 3 however, is region-free. There is considerable variation amongst, as well as within video game brands themselves.
You need to check the specifications of your equipment to determine what capabilities are possible.
5. Parts for Australian electricals are very difficult to obtain in the USA
Australian goods will often need parts replacing. Lamps need bulb replacements and printers need new printer cartridges. Compatible replacement parts are not easily available in the USA and some printer cartridges even have region lockout. The suitable parts need to be shipped from Australia (quite an expensive task) or brought to you by Australian visitors who are willing to transport these in their luggage.
So what does all this mean?
Given these problems, how do you decide what would be worth taking or to leave behind? With so many variables in the equation here, you can see why it’s unfeasible to give a carte blanche yes or no, for most things. It is even more impossible to list all the varying nuances for every type of electrical in just one blog post. In next week’s post (part 2) of this article, I will provide some top-line guidelines to help you sort this out.
What is your personal experience with using Australian/European electricals in the USA?