One of my original purposes in writing this blog was to be of practical help to Fulbrighters who come after me. So let me take up a very practical topic, namely electrical power here in Sri Lanka (or at least my little corner of Sri Lanka).
I will not try to be exhaustive on the subject since there are much more complete web sites out there, mostly catering to travelers. I will write a bit about things that are of interest to those spending more time than just a two week vacation, however. I have found “Electricity around the world” to be a useful site, for example. It contains a comprehensive list of countries with details on the standard outlets and plugs as well as the AC voltage and frequency used in that country.
So, if you look up Sri Lanka on the “Electricity around the world” website, you will find the information that the country uses 230V, 50 Hz AC and that the standard plug is the British standard BS 546 pictured here. Each specification of this is different from the US standard, which uses 120V, 60 Hz AC and the NEMA 1-15 (two pins) or NEMA 5-15 (three pin) plug shown here. (Actually, “Electricity around the world” does not mention that there is a higher power outlet in use in Sri Lanka. It looks very much like the BS 546 outlet, but is bigger, and therefore incompatible with the BS 546 plug. Since this outlet is used only for high power devices like ranges and ovens, I will not consider it further here.) That Sri Lanka has single standard makes planning easy in principle, but in practice there is some good news and some bad news.
One piece of really good news is that modern electronics, like digital cameras and laptops, are perfectly happy with either 120V, 60 Hz AC or 240V, 50 Hz AC. These new devices can sense the difference when they are plugged in and adjust themselves appropriately. All the user has to do is to find an adapter to change one plug type into the other. These are cheap, lightweight, and readily available either in the US or Sri Lanka. I got a set of travel adapters from Radio Shack in the US and had no problems during our travels to Sri Lanka. (There is a small problem in Sri Lankan households. See the paragraph on “shutters” below).
Another piece of good news for travelers is that many hotels either provide wall plugs that will accept several styles of plugs or will loan you adapters. So even if you don’t bring a set of adapters along, you can still recharge your laptop or camera.
Planning ahead also helped. For example, Kris bought a travel hairdryer that was both compact and had a switch to enable it to be used with either 120V or 240V AC power. I chose a battery operated electric razor as AA batteries are a universal “standard” and available everywhere. We brought battery powered, travel alarm clocks. By planning ahead to bring nothing that absolutely required 120V AC, we have not needed to pack or buy electrical transformers to convert 240V to 120V AC. Transformers are heavy, bulky, and modestly expensive.
One final warning in the “planning ahead section”: Any electrical device that contains a motor may be incompatible with the change from 60 Hz AC to 50 Hz AC. It may not help to convert the 240V to 120V with a transformer because the fundamental speed and power of some motors is inextricably tied to the AC frequency, not the voltage. If you need to bring some motor-containing appliance (sewing machine, food processor, vacuum cleaner, refrigerator, air conditioner, etc.) you should check very carefully to be sure that it will work on 50Hz power. Do not take any salesperson’s word on this. Kris and I shopped for a portable sewing machine to take with us and I could tell that all of the salespeople were completely clueless on this subject. Partly for the uncertainty over whether or not a sewing machine bought in the US could be made to work in Sri Lanka and because shipping costs are so high, we did not bringing a sewing machine with us, instead we purchased one here and intend to leave it in Sri Lanka. (Sorry. It is already spoken for.)
Now for the bad news part. Actually, the bad news is pretty minor, more annoying than anything else. The first bad news is that if you come to Sri Lanka to set up housekeeping, you will likely find that there is only one electrical outlet per room (with a few more in the kitchen). So, after you get here, plan to buy about one power strip per room to accommodate the greater number of gadgets Americans tend to own. (Of course you should be careful to not overload an outlet. The standard outlet here is rated for 5A, which at 240V is about 1200W. 1200W is enough for a single hairdryer, toaster or microwave on one outlet. More than one low power device can be plugged into a single outlet. We are running a fan, a printer, two laptops, an external CD-DVD drive, and our wireless cable modem on one outlet right now, for example, but I would want to do the math before adding any more.) The other great thing about power strips is that they are often designed to accept several plug styles. A good choice of power strip style can eliminate the need for many adapters.
Another feature of the standard BS 546 wall outlets in use here is that they often have “shutters.” Shutters are plastic pieces hidden in the outlet that block the insertion of the two smaller round pins of the BS 546 plug until they are moved aside by the longer, bigger, round pin. This is a safety “feature” to ensure that only three prong plugs are inserted into the outlet and to protect children who might be tempted to insert a pointy metal object into the outlet. But Americans are used to inserting a two pin plug into a three pin outlet.
And that brings us to another subject. Many electrical devices sold in Sri Lanka do not come with the standard BS 546 plug, usually because the devices are imported from a country with a different standard plug. For example, many low power electrical devices made in Europe come with the CEE7/16 plug. For historical reasons, the two round pins of the CEE7/16 plug would fit neatly into the two smaller round holes of the Sri Lankan standard BS 546 outlet. However, the outlet shutters prevent this and your travel adapter set probably does not have an adapter with the third pin.
There are some work-arounds. First, you can trick the plug by inserting a (preferably non-conducting) round object into the large round hole to hold open the shutters while you insert the two pin CEE7/16 plug. Once the plug is in, you can remove the round object from the third hole.
Another strategy is to use an adapter purchased here in Sri Lanka. In my experience this works satisfactorily only some of the time. I find these adapters to make inconsistent connections and often fail completely. Sometimes you can get them to work by carefully draping the cord in such a way as to get the plug to lean just right so that the plug makes electrical contact with the adapter. In one case, I had to smash one adapter apart with a hammer to remove our coffee maker’s plug, when some insulating plastic melted and prevented the removal of the plug from the adapter. These adapters are probably fine for a short trip, but annoying to deal with for an extended stay.
Medium power devices and power strips often come with BS 1363 plugs. This style of plug is often accommodated in the locally sold adapters, with the same problems noted in the previous paragraph. An interesting aspect of these plugs is that the plug itself has a fuse. Another type of plug on similar, medium power devices is the oblique, flat blade type. It turns out that this type of plug is also accommodated in the locally sold adapters, but I embarrassed myself in front of my Sri Lankan physicist host when I could not figure out how the plug went into the adapter’s socket!
I have started a program of installing standard BS 546 plugs onto as many of my devices as I can. My goal is to eliminate the need for any adapters at all. You can get BS 546 plugs at a hardware store or Arpico.
The outlets here in Sri Lanka have a feature that I wish was included on outlets in the US. The outlets are switched, i.e. they have a switch mounted in the socket front plate that turns the power to the socket on or off. For the small price of the inconvenience of having to make sure the outlet is switched on when desired, you get an increase in safety when inserting or removing plugs and the convenience of turning on or off several devices at once at the socket. Also, if you are energy-conscious, switching the power off at the switch eliminates the energy used by devices like TVs to enable them to respond to a remote control even when “off”. Similarly, “power bricks” for laptops and other electronic devices use energy even if the brick is not connected to the device.
A common misperception in the West is that electrical power in Asia is not to be relied on because it goes out so often. I can not talk authoritatively about Asia in general or even all of Sri Lanka, but I have not found the situation radically different here than in Gambier, Ohio. Gambier probably has more outages than average in the US, but one learns to live with it by having a UPS for the computer and a stock of flashlights and candles. We have had a couple of outages here, but have not been much effected. Laptops have an advantage when it comes to surviving power outages compared to desktops. A power glitch immediately reboots a desktop often with loss of whatever it was you were working on at the time. But a laptop’s batteries keep it from rebooting and the power has often returned before the laptop batteries die.
To summarize my advice for the long term visitor to Sri Lanka:
1. Plan ahead to avoid bringing devices incompatible with 240V, 50Hz AC power.
2. Buy power strips to multiply the number of outlets in a room (being careful not to overload the outlet) and to provide outlets that can accommodate the multiple plug types found on electrical devices purchased in Sri Lanka.
3. If you have the minimal skill involved, install standard BS 546 plugs on your electrical devices to further decrease the number of unreliable adapters that you depend on.