International Relocation: Power Implications

I've moved between the USA and Europe (the Netherlands) three times now, and I've faced challenges sorting out the electrical power for all my music studio equipment. 

 

Here, I want to share some lessons I've learned in hopes that anyone else moving abroad will have an easier and more efficient transition, whether you have a music studio or any other power hungry devices you want to bring along.

The main points:

1. A lot of equipment can easily handle the 240 V, 50 Hz power, and those can be plugged in directly to the wall after using a plug converter.

2. Some equipment requires 120 V (cannot handle 240 V), and a step down transformer will be needed.

3. Leave your US power strips with surge protectors at home - they will blow fuses in Europe, even if placed after the step-down transformer.

The details:

Many pieces of electrical equipment have DC converters built in to their power cables or within the housing of the equipment. These rectifiers can typically handle 100-240 V and 50-60 Hz of input power.  Generally, this is clearly labeled on the converter box, or on the housing of the device, and is easy to audit before moving.  Typical examples of this situation are power cables for laptops, external hard drives, video monitors, audio input boxes, and other electrical instruments.  For these devices, all that is needed is a plug-converter, where the USA 2-prong, or grounded 3-prong, plugs can be converted to the size and shape of the plug to fit into a European receptacle.  Examples of plug converters are shown below.  They are surprisingly expensive (EUR 10-20 a piece) especially given that they are just plastic and metal, and they can be found at travel stores or purchased online.  I used adapters like these for my Acer monitor, my Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) audio input box, and my external hard drive (G-Drive).  Before buying these, it's important to check if your USA plugs are polarized, i.e., with one plug prong larger than the other.  Some of these expensive plug converters can accept polarized USA plugs while others cannot.  In each picture below, one plug receptacle allows polarized US plugs and the other does not.  I've destroyed one of the non-polarized receptacles trying to force a polarized plug into it:19 EUR wasted.  So do be careful here. 

If you're like me and have a lot of equipment to plug in, then you're going to need one to several European power strips to plug everything in!  The plug converters shown above can sometimes be pretty bulky (especially the Samsonite plug), and the result is that it blocks a neighboring receptacle on the European power strip.  The white, round converter shown above fits nicely into a socket without blocking neighboring sockets; but it does not accept polarized USA plugs.  Also, some of the 2-prong converters (shown on the right above) seem a bit wobbly when plugged in, leading me to worry about a loose connection.  So, I only use these adapters when there are no other options.

Where possible, I replaced the standard USA 3-prong power plugs with the European version of that cable shown below.  These were only EUR 6 per cable; so these cables were not only more robust and stackable in the power strip, but also less expensive than the small plug adapters above!  I used cables like these for my Mac Pro, my Dell monitor, my CalDigit Thunderbolt station, my Avalon U5, the phantom power source for my Vanguard V13 microphone, and my Universal Audio Satellite.

A couple pieces of equipment in my studio were not rated to handle 240 V.  This was true for my Fatar Studio 1100 keyboard, my two Yamaha HS80M studio monitors, and, less surprisingly, my DVD/BluRay player.  The solution is to buy a voltage converter, that steps the 240V line voltage down to 120 V.  When we moved to Europe for the first time in 2016, I expected to run my whole studio through such a converter, so I purchased the Bronson AVT-1500.  It can accept and convert up to 1500 W of power.  We purchased one for my music studio and a second one for the kitchen, which was used to power the KitchenAid stand mixer and CuisineArt that we brought with us.  It has a European 2-prong plug for the wall outlet and 2 American-style polarized 3-prong receptacles on the front panel that deliver 120 V power at 50 Hz.  While the studio monitors, keyboard, and DVD player mention that they require 120 V power at 60 Hz, I haven't seen any issues yet with these devices receiving 50 Hz power.

My initial plan, upon my first move in 2016, was to daisy chain multiple USA surge-protected power strips from one of the USA-style plugs of the Bronson; the total output power and number of receptacles should have been fine for the equipment of my studio.  But this failed dramatically!  Simply plugging a surge-protected power strip into the Bronson immediately caused the lights in the room to go out; I had blown a circuit breaker.  After much experimentation I found that any power strip with surge protection will immediately cause the circuit breaker to flip.  It doesn't matter if nothing is plugged in to the surge protector strip or whether it is set to the ON or OFF position!  I've confirmed with a hand voltage meter that the European wall outlet give 230s V RMS and that my Bronson correctly outputs 116 V RMS; so a blown fuse from the surge-protector after the Bronson is not because the voltage is too high.  I've seen a report that this could be due to the orientation of the 2-prong European plug of the transformer at the wall outlet; plugged in one way the surge protector seemed to work, but flipped 180 degrees led to immediate fuse breaks.  I haven't tested this explicitly, but I've never seen things work after multiple random tests.  Finally, it also doesn't matter if I skip the Bronson entirely and plug the surge-protector strip directly into the European wall outlet using a plug converter; this led to an immediate circuit flip no matter the orientation. As stated on the website, this could be because the 230 V is too high. Another possibility that would be consistent with these finding is that the surge protectors simply can't handle 50 Hz; power at this frequency could just be getting shunted to ground no matter the voltage (116-230 V).  Without seeing circuit diagram for these particulr device, or without running some tests using a frequency generator, I'll never know.   Regardless of the reason, all surge protector power strips that I brought with me are trash; I haven't found a way to use them in any capacity.  Examples of such fuse-blowing surge protectors are shown below.   

These all blow fuses

Thankfully, I had also brought some less fancy power strips with me: ones without surge protection.  These types of power strips (shown below) could be safely plugged in and used with the Bronson, or even directly into the wall using a plug converter.  For my current studio set-up, I only needed one of these power strips coming out of the Bronson since I only had 4 items strictly requiring 120 V power.  

These are all OK

I felt a bit uneasy about using both 230 V and 120-V-converted power among the different equipment in my studio.  I was worried that I'd have some sort of a ground loop or fight with noise.  Thankfully, everything sounds good and I haven't noticed any issues with my system.  For reference, my power and cable connections are shown in the diagram below.  The key is:

  • Gray lines: 230 V power

  • Green lines: 120 V power

  • Red lines: MIDI cables

  • Blue lines: Audio cables

  • Purple lines: Digital cables