Plugging Into New Electrical Standard Is Tough : Utilities: Adopting a universal outlet system to replace the 50 types in use around the world has proved a daunting task.


Sparks are flying in the long quest for a universal electrical plug-and-socket system to replace the 20 varieties in Europe and 50 around the world.

The goal is simple--a small, easy-to-make and safe system that doesn’t give a commercial advantage to any country. But the search for a remedy has progressed slowly, and any conversion would be long and expensive.

“Everyone was in favor of the universal system, provided it was their own,” said Bjorn Folcker, chairman of the International Electrotechnical Commission committee that has struggled for more than 20 years on a design.


International travelers now cope with an array of plugs and sockets, from plugs with pins that are flat or round, fat or thin, to sockets with variously placed holes, so that even plugs with the same-shaped pins don’t fit.

It’s as if a U.S. traveler needed different plugs in Washington, Oregon and California. Adapters can solve the problem, if you pack the right gear for your destination--or destinations. But adapters are weighty additions to bags.

“I have yet to have my hair dryer work overseas,” said Maureen Piche, the well-traveled vice president of business development strategy for NYNEX Network Systems Co., the division of NYNEX Corp. that handles international projects. She is based in White Plains, N.Y.

Two universal standards are actually needed: one for 250-volt electricity systems, covering Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South America, and another for 125-volt systems in the United States, Canada, Japan and a few other countries.

Standards for the universal 125-volt plug-and-socket system are still being written. Two have been proposed for the 250-volt parts of the world.

First came the model invented in 1986 by the IEC, representing 80% of the world’s population. Recently, the Brussels-based European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization, known as CENELEC, offered its own.


The committee initially judged that a system for its 18 member countries wasn’t worth the expense, which it calculated at $125 billion.

But standardization--from cheese to tax rates--is the coming thing in the 12 nations of the European Union, and the European Parliament encouraged the committee to reconsider.

“Technology has moved on, and so should we,” said Simon Hossack, inventor of an adapter that would simplify Britain’s transition to a universal plug.

Folcker of the IEC added that costs can be curbed by phasing in the changes over 30 or more years--putting the new standard into new houses and buildings and into old places that are rewired.

Both the IEC and the European models use molded plugs with two round pegs--or three for large appliances such as washing machines that need to be grounded.

CENELEC is slated to decide on the process for adopting a universal standard for its members beginning May 31 in Dublin, Ireland.

It won’t be easy. The committee’s proposed two-pin plug wouldn’t work with the sockets now in Italy, which has at least four different systems, nor in Switzerland, Britain and Ireland. Switzerland is the only country that could use the proposed three-pin plug without an adapter.

Further, some countries still oppose the entire idea.

The British Standards Institution and British plug makers argue that either of the proposed plugs would give other countries an advantage and would be unsafe in some older sockets.

“We would have to invest a lot of money to catch up to our continental counterparts,” if Britain’s rectangular pegs are replaced with Europe’s more common round pegs, said David Dossett, director of Britain’s plug-making association.

“The CENELEC plug is suspiciously like the French-German system,” complained Nigel Griffiths, the opposition Labor Party’s consumer spokesman.

But German and Belgian plug makers also oppose the plan.

“I think we will create more problems than (we) resolve,” said Herman Looghe of Fabrimetal, a Belgian association for manufacturers of large appliances.

The Nordic countries, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France and Ireland are enthusiastic.

“The issue is not what’s best for manufacturers and exports, the issue is what’s best for the consumer,” said Luc Jacquemin, chairman of a CENELEC technical committee who also works for DOMERGIE, a French manufacturers’ association.

And some see profits in standardization.

“If we make electric plugs for 5.1 million (Danes), we could make plugs for 320 million people in” the European Union, said Gunnar Marup of Denmark’s electrical standards board. “And for the whole world, too.”