December 22, 2014

What is a “Shavers Only” Electrical Outlet?

I have solved one of life’s little mysteries: The explanation and use case for the “Shavers Only” electrical outlets found at many hotels.

This outlet is not just for shavers anymore…

I’ve long puzzled over the meaning and origin of the “shavers only” electrical outlets found at many hotels. They’re ubiquitous in Europe and Australia, and appear to offer 110 volt AC with an American-style two-prong socket. They’re always found in the bathroom, where I’ve even spotted them in older American homes!

An Electrician Explains the Shaver Socket

It’s very tempting to plug American devices into these sockets when traveling, especially when (as is so often the case for me) a suitable converter is unavailable. But should they be used for anything but shavers? After all, they are very clearly labeled. And what’s so special about shavers anyway?

Chatting with a seatmate on my long flight to Australia, I discovered he was an electrician who works in commercial sites. I jumped at the opportunity to inquire about this hotel electrical puzzle, and he quickly laid bare the mystery.

Simply put, these “shavers only” plugs are indeed suitable for most other modern electronics provided they do not draw much power and are not sensitive to frequency differences. In other words, it’s probably fine to use most “shavers only” plugs for most small solid-state electronics, including phone chargers. But you should avoid using them to power laptops, hairdryers, curling irons, or other high-draw devices.

Shocking History

I find the “shaver guy” pictogram to be particularly charming

So why are most worldwide hotel bathrooms equipped with a special low-power outlet? It’s not at all shocking. Literally! Before the invention and widespread use of Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) devices in the last few decades, there was great concern about providing electrical power near water for fear of electrocution. An electrical outlet in the bathroom was an accident waiting to happen.

Since the 220-240 volt systems common outside North America increase the danger of electrical shock, many of these countries adopted a special low-power outlet for bathroom use. The UK and some others use a “Euro style” two-round-prong plug, while many other countries use the American flat-prong plug or their local style.

Regardless of the plug or socket used, these “shavers only” sockets share another common feature: They severely restrict power output using a fuse or modern GFCI device. UK sockets are supposed to limit output to just 200 mA, while other standards allow a range of 20 to 40 Watts (which is pretty much the same thing in different units). Either way, we’re talking pretty limited power – an iPad charger can draw twice this much, and a laptop far more!

One more thing: Although these outlets step the voltage down to 110 V, they do not modify the frequency. So shaver outlets in countries with 50 Hz power systems will have the odd 110 V, 50 Hz combination. This is no problem for most modern DC electronics, but might cause issues for older electric appliances that sync to the power line frequency.

What’s the worst that could happen? You could get electrocuted and die. Barring that, it is very unlikely that electronics will be damaged by these sockets. But high-power electric devices could overload the socket and blow a fuse.

Stephen’s Stance

I will not advise others to risk life and limb through improper use of electrical power. Now that I know that “shavers only” sockets are indeed fairly standard, if limited-power, 110 V AC sources, I personally will not hesitate to plug my phone charger into them. But everyone should be very careful with electricity, especially in wet and unfamiliar environments like hotel bathrooms!

  • http://twitter.com/standaloneSA Matt Simmons

    >What’s the worst that could happen? You could get electrocuted and die.

    It’s amazing how often that answer comes up in my life.

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    I believe that’s called “lawyering up!”

  • deemery

    Seriously, you have a phone that did not come with a switching power supply?? I’m trying to remember the last portable device I got without a multi-voltage (110-250v/50-60 cycles) power dongle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/simonrwaters Simon Waters

    Strictly speaking we are all going to die, so electrocuted and die earlier than expected. I use my shaver socket to run a battery charger and suspect the transformers are not intended for long operations as some seem to run quite hot. So burn the hotel down might be added to the worst case list.

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    Of course everything has a switching power supply these days. But unfortunately, the world has no standard for the physical form factor of electrical plugs, and I often find myself without the correct one when traveling. It’s nice to know that just about every hotel is fitted with an American style electrical plug that can be used for powering your phone!

  • deemery

    I carry a heavy-duty “US” extension cord and one of the appropriate plug adapter(s). So all of my switching supplies go into that extension cord, and it gets plugged into the normal local power output.

  • Greg Dupe

    A nugget of information I’ve wondered about numerous times. Thanks for educating us !

  • richwiss

    what a good idea! i struggle with never having enough adapters.

  • http://www.marlockelectric.com/?p=465 Commercial electricians Roches

    Very good post thanks……………….

  • Anonymous

    These sockets can also be found in the bathrooms of some Belgian trains.

  • Rob

    I used a 110 shaver in Sweden and it blew up the battery on my iPhone 4s. I do not recommend using a shaver outlet for anything other than a shaver. Coincidence, maybe, but I suggest caution and buying a ‘normal’ plug converter gadget for a couple of bucks for traveling.