An unexpected danger of Expat life in the Czech Republic

Continental electrical wall socket © Ricky Yates

I have previously blogged about the issues that surround the fact that the United Kingdom drives on the left-hand side of the road in right-hand drive (RHD) vehicles, in contrast to the rest of continental Europe which drives on the right-hand side of the road in left-hand drive vehicles. However, it should be pointed out that the UK is not unique. Even within the European Union, three other member states also drive on the left in RHD vehicles, namely the Republic of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus.

However, another difference between the UK together with the Republic of Ireland, in contrast to the rest of continental Europe, is in the design and format of their respective electrical plugs and sockets. All over continental Europe, electrical sockets take the form illustrated here; to receive a plug with two round pins. However, in the UK and Ireland, all electrical appliances are fitted with a plug that has three square pins and all buildings in both countries have the appropriate wall sockets to receive them.

Most British and Irish people, who have taken holidays in continental Europe, are well aware of this. Simple adaptors that allow you to plug your UK or Irish mobile phone charger or hairdryer into a continental socket, are sold in UK electrical shops and also on the ferries that travel across the English Channel.

UK electical plug with three square pins together with continental adaptor © Ricky Yates

One extremely helpful piece of advice I was given by a British member of the Prague congregation was that you could never have enough of these adaptors if you were to move to live in continental Europe. So it was that, when we moved to Prague in September 2008, we brought several adaptors with us. And when a British friend came to visit us five weeks later and asked before she travelled, if she could bring something with her that we needed, we immediately asked her to bring more adaptors!

For nearly a year after our move to Prague, every one of our electrical appliances that we had brought with us from the UK, worked perfectly well with a UK plug inserted into an adaptor and then into the appropriate continental wall socket. That was until mid-August 2009 when our dishwasher stopped working in mid-cycle. Thinking that the problem must be the plug not being properly connected to the wall socket, I investigated, only to find that part of the adaptor had melted and was black! Fortunately, the damaged adaptor easily disconnected, both from the UK plug and from the wall socket. I duly replaced it with a spare adaptor, assuming that the first adaptor must have been faulty.

It was on Christmas Eve 2009 of all days, that once again, the dishwasher stopped working. The problem was exactly the same as in August, only this time, not only had the adaptor melted but, in doing so, it had also damaged the wall socket and the UK plug on the dishwasher. It was a major battle to separate the adaptor from the wall socket on one side and from the UK plug on the other.

The resultant damage meant we had no dishwasher to wash the dirty dishes from our Christmas dinner and, to ensure that there would not be an electrical fire, we had to isolate most of the power points in our lounge/kitchen, meaning we couldn’t even have our Christmas tree lights on!

The eventual resolution of these problems does illustrate a marked contrast, both in work practices and costs, between the UK and the Czech Republic. On Christmas Day at our Family Eucharist, as I shook hands with an English/Slovak couple at the door of the Church, I mentioned our problem to them as they had previously helped us to find appropriate people to resolve issues relating to plumbing and domestic appliances.

Continental heavy duty two pin plug © Ricky Yates

Through their good offices, on the afternoon of Monday 28th December, an electrician arrived at our flat. He rapidly repaired the damaged wall socket, thus allowing us to once more use every electrical socket in the lounge. Then, having ascertained that we were very happy to have a heavy duty continental plug and lead attached to our dishwasher, to replace the damaged UK one, he quickly went out and purchased one and returned to fit it. For all of this – parts and labour – I was invoiced for the princely sum of 645 Kc/approximately £22.00.

From this unfortunate experience I have learned two things. One is that, adaptors sold to allow UK electrical appliances to be plugged into continental sockets are NOT designed for heavy duty appliances such as dishwashers. They are instead, designed for phone chargers, laptop computers, hair dryers and the like. That having been said, our washing machine has worked perfectly well with an adaptor, for the last sixteen months, without any problem. However, I nearly always wash clothes at 40 degrees Celsius whereas, even on the Eco cycle which I always use, the dishwasher heats water to 65 degrees Celsius.

The second thing is that, most Czech tradesmen are much more prepared to work hard, for far less remuneration, than their British counterparts. This may well explain why most plumbers now working in the UK are Polish. British tradesmen have priced themselves out of the market or, are unwilling to work slightly unsocial hours. If I had had a the same problem in the UK, my guess is that it would have been the week beginning 4th January before anyone would have been willing to pay me a visit. And the total cost would easily have been in excess of £100.00.

15 comments to An unexpected danger of Expat life in the Czech Republic

  • Ricky an interesting topic. Electricity here is often an issue with a two blade system on the plug. I tried adapters initially but fried my laptop charging unit. Like you I now have standard local plugs fitted. The big problem is that there is no common earth here which always makes you wary when handling anything electrical.

    Most Thais admit to receiving an electrical shock at least once a year.
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  • So then are American and UK plugs exactly alike?
    .-= Karen´s last blog ..What Flavor Do You Associate with the Czech Republic? =-.

  • Hey Ricky…we have the three-pin plugs in Malta too ;). I am constantly carrying around adaptors from 3-2 and from 2-3 pin as not all my plugs are of the same type! However I have found that there are heavy-duty adaptors you can find in some stores, though changing the plug on the appliance is normally the best safeguard! GL with your electric circuit :).
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  • Ricky

    Mike – I love your description of your ‘fried laptop charging unit’. I likewise had a ‘fried plug, adaptor and wall socket’ on Christmas Eve. My only regret was that I never thought at the time, to take a photo for a future blog post! Certainly for heavy duty electrical appliances, the safest thing is to change the plug to a local one.

    Karen – Take a close look at the second photo in my post which has a UK plug on the left of the picture. My understanding is, (and you can correct me if I’m wrong), that American plugs have three pins but the pins are thinner and at different angles to those on a UK plug. I think I’m right in saying that the USA & Canada have plugs and sockets that are identical to those in use in Australia, (with which I am familiar having lived there), and which are also used in some other parts of South-East Asia – though clearly not in Thailand if you read Mike’s comment above.

    Ann – Yes I was aware that UK & Irish plugs and sockets are also in use in one or two other places. Please note I did say ‘continental Europe’ whereas Malta is like the UK, part of Europe but an island nation 🙂 Fortunately, despite frying the plug, adaptor and socket, there was no other damage to the rest of the electrical circuit.

  • thanks for the post..i am not familiar with the electrical goods. But often I face problem to plug my laptop. Thats why I always carry three pin adapter with me. Good job.

  • Im currently living in France and have faced the same problem (regarding the electrical plugs). I ended up buying an adapter at the airport which set me back about 30 Euros but at least now I can travel anywhere in Europe and be plugged in. This is worth thinking about if you’re planning on traveling over here some time.
    .-= Ian @ Illegal Alien Costumes´s last blog ..About Us =-.

  • In the past I’ve cut off the third prong to fit in a two prong plug-in. But now when I think about it I don’t think it was very smart due to the lack of voltage I prevented.

  • I have several different adaptors for when I shoot weddings oversea’s as I have so many chargers for my equipment. Up here in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands where the roads are much more traffic free, its quite common for drivers from oversea’s to ‘forget’ they should be on the ‘other side of the road’. I was nearly ran off a cliffside road en route to photographing a wedding by a tourist who came drifting around a bend on my side of the road! Please take care everyone.

  • I love reading stories like this from overseas.

    I wouldn’t think right off hand that a dish washer would use that much current but I guess it does. That heating element in there is just like one that would be in an oven, so it makes sense.

    One easy way to make a dish washer clean more efficiently is to turn the hot water on at the sink before you turn the dish washer on. This ensures that when you turn the dish washer on it instantly gets hot water to fill with. And we all know hot water cleans best.

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    First time I went to London, was also the first time I have be outside of the US, I was shocked that my plugs werent compatible. It shocked me as much as this post I thought there were only 2 types of socket plugs… European and American. This is really interesting.

  • I was going to move to Belize for a year and since it was previously a British colony (like 20 years ago) I thought they would have European outlets… so I bought a dozen or so plug converters and took them with me down there (considering I packed minimally, suitcase space was valuable) to discover I didn’t need them.

    I have invested in a portable solar charger ($20) for my phone/AA batteries now just to make sure I have my basics covered no matter where I go!

  • An interesting account of your time in Prague. There are two issues you have identified here, the first is the perennial tradesperson issue in terms of quality and quantity of work compared to the UK tradesperson and more importantly that these temporary adpaters should not be used for higher amp appliances. I hope by now you have changed out most of your electrical goods?

  • Hey Ricky,
    I’m originally from New Zealand but am now living in London. I was shocked at how different the UK plugs are compared to back home when I arrived here – they are so much bigger and have square pins (we have flat pins). Wouldnt it be great if there were worldwide universal plugs…

  • What, Scary stuff! I’ve just moved over to America from England and I wanted to find some adaptors, I will only use it for the small things I have though! Thats an amazing price for a tradesman only 22 quid! AND he had to leave to get parts! There are a lot of tradesmen in England willing to work hard my friend, however the prices are a lot higher yes! I guess every cloud has a silver lining!

  • Yea these plugs can really mess up your electronic devices if you’re not careful. I traveled to Vietnam last summer and plugged my laptop into the sockets at a hotel. 1 hour later, my power adapter fried. Luckily, my laptop turned itself off and nothing else was fried. Thank goodness.