Opinion: Finding a Decent EU to AU (Reverse) Travel Adapter

In the global marketplace that is the world of internet shopping, being able to buy things overseas has become a lot easier. Rather than having to take a holiday to another country and carry the items back, someone online is happy to send it to you via post and often at a price better than if you were to fly over and roam the streets yourself.

Despite the now ubiquitous switch-mode power supply being almost universal for voltage and frequency, the plug/sockets in each country remain incompatible, leaving to the need for a reverse travel adapter to use in your country – which is normally a slight inconvenience but one which we are happy to deal with in order to save some money.

Unfortunately, such adapters themselves do pose safety risks with poorly made adapters falling apart, being unable to handle the rated current or not meeting local safety standards. Finding a decent adapter can be slightly difficult depending on the type of plug you are adapting. In my experience, the UK “chunky” plugs and the US “thin” blade type pose very few problems – the blades could even be “bent” to fit the socket (at your own risk). But the EU types using round pins have been a different story, fitting so loosely in some adapters causing arcing and intermittent operation. This is not helped by wall warts which then hang some “weight” off the end of the pins.

So lets take a look at a few reverse travel adapters and how they have been “evolving” in the Australian marketplace.

Adapter #1: The Universal Cheapie

The classic “truly” universal cheapie adapter looks like one of the above. Roughly an ice-cube in size, some eBay sellers include variants of these within the packages that they ship to Australia. Often in either white or off-white plastic, the front is adorned with this “truly universal” arrangement which accepts almost every plug, often available for around a dollar or two. In this case, this is a slightly more upmarket unit with some brass contacts internally and some (likely falsified) safety compliance logos on the front. The holes themselves are fairly large as a result of needing to accommodate all the variations of contacts, so likely increases the risk of accidental contact with mains in case of inquisitive children.

The adapter is made by snapping together plastic parts, in which case, the rear clearly shows where the folded brass contacts are riveted to the “Australian-like” blade contact arrangement. This is a very cheap construction which could fall apart if not well made, but also, has live rivets when plugged in. The consistency of the pressure applied by the rivets (especially over time after some contact movement) is likely to be insufficient to ensure high-current devices can operate without melting the adapter.

While the adapter looks like it has an Australian pin arrangement and it will fit into our sockets, it’s not really compliant with our standards. For one, the blades themselves are thinner than the ones normally used here, with holes which approximate the thinner US-blade type instead. At least it doesn’t have a sheathed Earth pin, but the lack of sheathing on live and neutral would make it non-compliant already. The weakness of the pins is seen when you look at the adapter – they’re not even straight from the factory!

The big danger, however, is that this particular unit has such wide apertures that the metal inside isn’t springy enough nor shaped appropriately to grip the round pins of an EU plug, thus allowing it to “wobble” all about, creating intermittent contacts and arcing. Add to this the fact that different EU socket variations achieve earthing through either a protruding pin or wiper around the edge, using one of these adapters would defeat the earth introducing an additional safety risk.

In all, while the adapter is serviceable and isn’t as dangerous as some of the “death-dapters” that bigclivedotcom has seen which include the ability to have protruding live parts, this particular adapter is not great from a safety perspective. I wouldn’t recommend it, especially for higher consumption appliances with EU plugs – but normally they do a decent job with UK/US plugs, gripping fairly well, although still being flimsy and non-compliant.

Adapter #2: A Common Compliant Design with a Problem

Because the above adapter is relatively “dangerous”, you won’t find any compliant retailer carrying them. For a while, there was a multi-way “cube” adapter with different plugs on two sides that was a behemoth, often selling for a fairly high price, but I never obtained any of those. Instead, recently, with the trend to lower cost adapters, this design seems to have cropped up in several places.

While not shaped like a large cube, this unit is relatively guilty of being wider than we’d like, blocking adjacent outlets on most powerboards. This one was bundled with a grey import device obtained through Kogan, but similar designs have been sold at retail in the past. While the unit feels relatively solid with a screw-based construction, the biggest issue with the above type is that there is no provision for EU plugs at all despite being often sold as a “universal” travel adapter.

As expected, it has three pins and is sheathed on live and neutral. It even has an SAA approval number and feels much more sturdy than the low-cost cube above. Definitely not a bad adapter if US/UK plugs were all you needed to adapt.

Adapter #3: A Premium Design with Some Limitations

Since EU plugs were the ones causing me problems with most of the issues stemming from plugpacks featuring two-pin Europlugs, I looked for a more premium solution. The local Bunnings hardware store carried this HPM adapter for $9.32 which was designed for EU/US two-pin appliances.

Being a little expensive, I was willing to part with my money in the hopes of finding a decent adapter. True to the marketing, the unit is designed for two-pin EU/US appliances, with guide “rails” for Europlugs and extra standoffs to prevent earthed EU plugs from being mated with the adapter to prevent inadvertent defeating of earth connection. If safety is the priority, it’s clear that the design focuses on it.

As there is no earth pin to convert, there is no earth pin on the plug. The pins are sheathed as expected for compliance, but no SAA number is printed. The current rating is slightly disappointing at 7.5A but for Europlugs, this is more than sufficient.

Thinking I had stumbled on the holy grail adapter I had been after, I was sorely disappointed when I got home that the adapter still had a little “play” despite the guide rails. I put it down to the holes being sized for larger pins/US plugs resulting in less “grip” than I would have liked. While it didn’t have intermittent contact issues, jiggling the wires connected to the adapter caused some movement …

Adapter #4: A Recent Product that Does the Job

This problem with EU/Europlugs bugged me for a very long time. I wanted to post about it but I forgot entirely about it until I went shopping yesterday and came across this product in my local K-Mart:

Branded “anko”, part of their latest line-up of house-brand products, the adapter hung on the shelf, priced at a reasonable $5. The unit is purpose built for EU to AU conversion, which gave me some faith that this was the one. I bought a couple just to satisfy my curiosity.

A quick look at the adapter provides several reassurances – including the “ring” around the plug which offers earthing contacts for EU plugs, a 10A rating, guide rails for Europlugs and even shutters on each of the line/neutral pin contacts. The bottom also had the right regulatory logos and SAA approval number applied.

The adapter is slightly wider in diameter than the HPM but does offer the earth pin. The live and neutral are sheathed, but out of all the adapters, the plug felt most tightly held in this one. Sometimes, you don’t need to spend more to get a better design!

The only downside I’ve found is that the front plastic cover portion seems to be slightly loose, but despite attempts to pry it apart by hand, it remained firmly attached. Good enough and definitely better than a rattling adapter.

Conclusion

Plugs used in the EU including the Europlug have been a challenge to find a proper travel adapter for. Many universal adapters make poor intermittent contact with the pins due to their round profile and adapters often choose wider apertures for more “compatibility” without considering contact fatigue and sufficient contact pressure. Due to increase in safety concerns, approved “universal” adapters often lack EU compatibility altogether, and those that do have EU compatibility sometimes are still slightly lacking.

Through pure serendipity, I discovered that my local K-Mart stocked a new adapter that isn’t on their website and it proves to be a competent EU to AU adapter – at long last!

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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