Over the years I’ve been on tours overseas where we have blown up Furmans, taken out 120 volt UPS battery backups, and even (as funny as this sounds) had plugging in a simple US power strip take down a 400 amp 3-phase main breaker at a venue in Japan.By: SPL’s Resident Gadget Guy Jim Roese

I’m pretty sure most anyone who is reading this and has the pleasure of touring the world either owns or has used some sort of pass-thru power adaptor to plug their multi-voltage device into a power outlet overseas.  It used to be that we had to carry a small bag of different adapters, then came the cool new toys that seemed to cover every country in just one small pass-thru plug.  I remember the first time I saw one.  It was in a Dixon’s at Heathrow airport.  Sure, it cost me like 30 pounds, but I didn’t care…it was badass compared to the bag of adapters I’d been carrying for years.  That was quite a while ago, and since that day, I’ve never traveled overseas without one….well, I take that back….that was always the plan, but sometimes I didn’t know I’d be making a trip as a fly date from somewhere on tour…so now I have like 3 or 4 of them, and I always bring at least one with me, even while out in the US with my passport.  You never know what might pop up for a gig where and when, right?

For years I always thought they were perfect, as they always seem to work.  The thing I didn’t know was how world wiring varies in pin configurations.  Who knew that the hot and neutral pins in the US and the UK are on the opposite sides?  Not me until last year.  Why should I know?  It wouldn’t make any sense for them to be backwards…or so I thought.  Now think of 2 pin plugs from Europe.  Those can plug in either way.  I always just picked the way that my adapter didn’t fall out of the wall.  Hey, it works both ways right?… and AC really doesn’t care about polarity to work.

Over the years I’ve been on tours overseas where we have blown up Furmans, taken out 120 volt UPS battery backups, and even (as funny as this sounds) had plugging in a simple US power strip take down a 400 amp 3-phase main breaker at a venue in Japan.  I’ve had the days where we just couldn’t find out why our readings across neutral and ground were scary, and the days where a tech never checked but figured out it was high when they leaned on another grounded chassis!!!  

Last year I had a gig in the UK.  We were not carrying US power, as it was advanced at all the venues.  I had a few “Oh Shit” buckets with me (a 5000va and a 3000va).  This was a day we would need them as the advanced power ended up partially unusable for our needs.  The transformers we were carrying were heavy, but this gig made carrying them as backups worth it.  Between two of the supplied buckets and the two we had, we could make the show happen.   

I hadn’t needed to use them in the past and they were purchased in the US, so they both had US Edison plugs on the ends.  This didn’t phase me in the least…I was prepared…I had two pass-thru plug adapters…no problem….or so I thought.  I went out to our bus and grabbed my adapters from my hotel bag, then headed back into the venue for what I thought would be just a normal day from that point on.  

Once I had tipped my console and dropped my stage looms, I set up the buckets next to my desk.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m pretty OCD when it comes to the stage, so I ran all of our 110 volt stage power in our riser looms to avoid having the big ugly c-form blocks all over our stage.  I plugged the local buckets in then plugged my transformers into my adapters and did the same.  Everything powered correctly…until I metered my power.  My readings across neutral and ground were not only unusable, but unsafe.  

I drew a mental map in my head and realized somewhere the power getting thru my transformers had to have the neutrals and hot’s reversed.  I knew it wasn’t the power in the building.  My tech that day had one of those simple plug in 240 volt testers so we knew power was good at the outlet also.  The adapter COULDN’T be the problem (so I thought), as it was a straight pass-thru.  I ended up taking apart both transformers to see if some idiot in China had wired them backwards, even though it seemed strange to me that would happen on both.  I then thought to myself that maybe, just maybe, they had used cheap power cords from China that had been built with the color-coding wrong.  That was the only thing that made sense.  My monitor tech that day, Kim, said she had a few old UK 13A plugs, so I decided that if I cut off the US ends and hard wired the UK plugs onto them reversing the colors, it would fix the problem.

Kim brought me the plugs.  I unscrewed them so that I could wire my transformers to them.  As soon as I took off the cover, I immediately noticed that the internal fuse on the plug was on what would be the neutral side on a US Edison plug.  That was when the bell went off in my head.  I stopped what I was doing and jumped online to confirm what I already knew.  Yup, the straight pins on a UK 13A plug are opposite that of a US 15A Edison!!  My mind immediately jumped back to all of the times in the past that tours I were on that by power someone had either taken out gear, gotten shocked, or had voltage issues.  In most of those scenarios, we had been using some sort of adapter in the chain, and the thought of an adapter being the culprit for such a problem was just too simple to think of….and in turn, was overlooked.

I mentioned earlier that AC doesn’t care about polarity.  That is true, it’s just looking for the alternating sine wave.  Where that polarity is in regards to neutral and ground does matter when it comes to safety.  I now am conscious of the fact that using adapters that don’t take into account for polarity can not only be dangerous, but have been a time consuming thorn in my side at many a gig.  That being said, I now carry a simple plug-in AC tester to check for polarity overseas and a few (as weird as it sounds) Edison phase reverse cables that I made out of old IEC cables and female ends from home depot.  I also carry 2 UK 13A to Edison female adapters that I made the same way to confirm the polarity is correct.  I don’t, however, foresee being the victim of this again.  I’m a gadget freak and addicted to gear.  Me figuring this out by taking an adapter apart only makes sense…it’s such a fitting manner…lol!  Hopefully for you all, digesting my gift of gab here will be enough of an experience for you to either slap yourselves in the side of the head realizing you didn’t know either…or if international travel is new to you, this will help you know in advance and avoid any shocks in the future!  ☺

Moby Feints After Getting Shocked on a Gig (Video)