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Two-pin plugs – it’s just not British

Two-pin plug

Have you ever been sent a household appliance with a two-pin plug – the type you’d find on mainland Europe? We’ve heard from a number of people who have – little do they know that this is against the law.

It’s actually illegal for UK retailers to sell most domestic electrical products (not for example shavers, electric toothbrushes or items with rcd plugs) with two-pin plugs under the Plugs and Sockets Safety Regulations 1994. Most domestic appliances must be fitted with an approved three-pin British plug or an approved conversion plug.

Plugs – when two-pins aren’t enough

We wanted to dig deeper to see how widespread this problem was. So we surveyed 1,321 Which? members and found that one in 20 had bought a product online that came with an incorrect plug. A third of those were Amazon (including its Marketplace) customers.

We asked Amazon about this and it pointed us to its returns policy. And although this is fairly generous (30 days for any items sold by, or fulfilled by, Amazon), the policy doesn’t address the fact that sending these items in the first place is in breach of two sets of regulations. These are the Plugs regulations mentioned before and the Sale of Goods Act. If you receive an item with a two-pin plug, you can reject it as unfit for purpose under the Sale of Goods Act. We’ll be taking this up with Amazon to find out what it’s planning to do to prevent this.

In the meantime, is this something that’s ever happened to you? What sort of appliance did you get with a two-pin plug, and did you have any luck getting it changed for a model with a three-pin British plug?

[UPDATE APRIL 2014] – due to the volume of comments made here we got in touch with Amazon to ask about the problem of products with two-pin plugs being sold on its website:

“At Amazon, we are committed to providing our customers with the best possible shopping experience. All sellers on Amazon Marketplace must adhere to our selling guidelines. Any seller found to contravene those guidelines will be subject to action from Amazon including removal of product listings and their account. The Amazon A-to-z Guarantee provides additional protection for customers who buy from Amazon.co.uk’s third party Marketplace and if a customer received the item, but the item was defective, damaged, or not the item depicted in the seller’s description, we will refund or replace that item. For more information on our A-to-Z Guarantee please visit our website.”

Comments
Member

I wonder why rechargeable toothbrushes and rechargeable shavers have a two pin plug when shaver sockets are generally not intended for more than short term use. Often there is a warning that they are not intended for charging anything and I have seen melted shaver sockets when they have been used in this way.

Meanwhile back on topic, I have received computer accessories supplied with two leads – one with two pins and one with a conventional BS1363/A British 3 pin plug. Like having an instruction book in 43 languages, it is not a serious problem even if it is a waste of resources.

Member
Kelly says:
14 December 2012

I bought a digital set top box for my TV from a local Euronics electrical retailer. The box was faulty and the manager of the shop was very reluctant to give me a refund, he refused for a long time and was rude. Eventually he agreed to give me a refund – by cheque.

Member

I hope it did not have a two-pin plug. The Euronics logo is – or was – a three-pin plug. 🙂

Member
Kelly says:
15 December 2012

Yes it did have a 2 pin plug, and there was some kind of converter thing in the box that I was supposed to fit to the plug, and screw closed. Not a happy customer, I’ll not be back in that shop again.

Member

I have an old Sony VCR like that. The lead has a two pin plug and that fits inside a rather large three pin plug. I wondered why the plug was so large so I took it apart to find out. It was also fitted with the wrong fuse, but that is not uncommon.

Member
William France says:
15 December 2012

I live in France. Here, although new installations have to be earthed, the majority of houses do not have earths. I have been here 14 years and I am still unhappy with the situation. The only argument I have seen or heard about the British system is that the plugs are so bulky. However they are infinitely safer.
I am sensitive to electricity. Twice at work, I have pointed out to the electrician that a machine is not earthed. To say the least they were upset, if not angry, that I was saying that they had not wired the plug properly. But I insisted and on examination, they found that the fault was in the machine, where the earth had not been connected properly. After that, they took my word on all things electrical!
The earth is needed. I can feel the earth leak in nearly all the electrical goods in my house. It is not immediately dangerous. all I feel is like the skin of a peach on smooth metal. However, it is a warning. If something goes wrong there may be no protection. I am a little less worried, because every house I have been in has a central RCD. I know an earth is not needed on double insulated apparatus, but the third pin is used to open the child protection on British sockets. I is needed and is often replaced by a plastic pin.
Another feature that is difficult to grasp here in France is the presence of power plugs in bathrooms. In the UK only fused 1 amp, two pin sockets are allowed in bathrooms. These take the continental two pin plugs, allowed on shavers and toothbrushes etc. This prevents things like electric fires being plugged in. (In France the bathroom is the favoured location for a washing machine thence the power sockets.)

Member

A two pin bathroom shaver socket has an isolation transformer, so in event of a fault you should not be able to electrocute yourself. That is better than an RCD, which only cuts down the risk of electrocution.

If you want to make an impression at work, take in a neon mains tester. It will glow orange when in contact with the equipment that you can feel is ‘live’.

One of the dangers of a two pin plug is that it can be reversed, so that a single pole switch in the appliance or lead can be in the neutral rather than live. It is possible to work out the ‘correct’ orientation and mark the plug, but that is hardly a satisfactory arrangement.

Member
William France says:
15 December 2012

I’m not sure that there is a neutral per say in France. The single phase we receive is from a three phase inlet into the house. Wires in the house circuit can be almost any two colours from red, black, yellow or blue. All lines are fused (two per circuit). Earths, where they exist, are green and yellow as in the UK. I am not an electrician but I like to know how things work.

Member

Try a neon tester on both wires and I expect that you will find that one is live.

I think we need some input from Dave D.

Member

This article is mis leading, There are generally two types of two pin plug, the one used on shavers referenced in the article, and the two pin plug shown in the photo in the article.
Many items sold in UK have two pin plugs fitted inside a UK converter adaptor.

This is off topic, but …
Sorry William you are mostly wrong here. It seems you are living in a very old house in France which is long overdue for a re-wire, you will need to get that done before you try to sell it. If you are getting earth leakage tingles then maybe you should get it done sooner rather that later.
In France grounding is not mandatory on old properties but is for new installations, it is strongly recomended in the regs, a simple ground spike works wonders. France very much does have a live and neutral. Neutral MUST be blue as in all of Europe (UK seems to like black also, always different from the rest), ground MUST be yellow/green as in all of Europe (that does include UK), live is usually brown, but in fixed wiring in general general may be any other colour other than blue, green or yellow. Most (modern!!) outlets in France are 3 pin grounded, all are safety shuttered. There are many old properties way past their safety age that ought to be re-wired.

Member
William France says:
17 December 2012

I bought a neon tester. sure enough one wire is not live. Thinking about it both could not be live without some jigerypokery with the phasing!

I checked several sockets, however, and the neutral seems to vary randomly. Not surprising when the plug can normally be used either way round. Interestingly, High current double insulated plugs have a bezel with two cut-outs so that even they can be inserted either way round.

Not all the appliances where my touch indicated a poor earth light up the neon tester, though most did.

Member

By conventional practice in France the live is left and ground pin down. If you look at it standing on your head it comes out the same way round as in UK.

Member
William France says:
17 December 2012

thank you brianac that is very informative. I have not checked the colours of the wires, only the position of the live relative to the plug (left or right). And yes, I do have an old house (1970). In the UK this would have had reasonably up-to-date wiring.

Member
William France says:
17 December 2012

There may be a convention, but as the sockets themselves are round and only gripped by claws, they are in practice omnidirectional. Many are sideways. Light switches too.

Member

If you look at a the back of a British socket you will see that the connections are clearly labelled L, N and E. I imagine that the same applies to French sockets.

In the UK it is easy to buy an inexpensive tester to check that sockets are wired up correctly. I imagine these are available in France too.

Member

There’s a Wikipedia page about the plugs and sockets used in each country at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mains_electricity_by_country including a colour-coded map. There are lots of countries that use the British system, particularly in the Middle East.

Member

I presume that Trading Standards should be informed about products that are fitted with the wrong plug.

Another thing to watch for is three-pin plugs with insulation on part of the earth pin (the largest pin). The smaller live and neutral pins should be part insulated but there is no reason for doing this on the live pin and it can mean that the earth is not connected to the socket, making a three-pin plug act as if it has only two pins.

Plenty of goods fitted with a three-pin plug are double insulated and the earth pin is not connected, or can be plastic. No reputable manufacturer will ever sell goods with a partly insulated earth pin.

Goods sold on eBay are often counterfeit and some are electrically dangerous. Plugs with the fault I have mentioned have also been sold via Amazon sellers.

Member

A universal plug socket… at last?
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18266022

Member
William France says:
17 December 2012

One problem with a truly universal socket is the earth. In the UK, the earth pin is in the plug. Here, in France, the pin is in the socket itself. It means that either appliances from France will not be earthed or that the UK plugs could not fit.

Member

There are other problems. Having sufficiently good connections to provide good earthing and low resistance to prevent overheating would be difficult when used with higher powered appliances. A fuse would be needed in every plug to protect the cable and the appliance. Then there is the problem of different voltages. Some items such as laptop power supplies can cope with different voltages but most cannot.

Member

Interesting to look back at the beginning of this conversation so long ago, regarding this particular aspect, see: http://universalsocket.org.uk/BBC_Complaint_Upheld/bbc_complaint_upheld.html

Member
Gerard Phelan says:
16 December 2012

A friend asked me to rewire a twinkling miniature Christmas tree tabletop light that had one of these ‘continental’ 2 pin plugs. She had been given it by a visitor from abroad, so that is one route such devices and their plugs will always get into the country.
HOWEVER I am very glad that I was asked. Yes it did have a 2 pin plug, but the prongs were sticking out of a transformer box that converted the mains into 5 volts for the light.
My friend knows nothing about gadgets and had been going to do this herself by cutting the box and its plug off and connect the wires from the light to a three pin plug. This would have resulted in 240 volts being connected to leads and light unit expecting 5 volts. She had no idea that the box attached to the plug was anything special!

Member

This would happen even if it were a 3 pin UK power unit and someone decided to change it.

Member
Coppetain says:
17 December 2012

Is there are difference between what is legal and what is safe? Is it just the plugs, or do the regulations require earthing through the plugs? On several occasions I have bought equipment in the UK with mains cabling ending in two-pin plugs that Wikipedia calls “C (CEE 7/16 Europlug)”, which in turn are enclosed in an adapter with three UK pins. This is great when using the appliance in Europe: you just remove the outer adapter.

Question: If the appliance is “Class 2”, is this practice safe? Is it legal?

Wikipedia: “Class 2 insulation means that the device is double insulated. This is used on some appliances such as electric shavers, hair dryers and portable power tools. Double insulation requires that the devices have both basic and supplementary insulation, each of which is sufficient to prevent electric shock. All internal electrically energized components are totally enclosed within an insulated body that prevents any contact with ‘live’ parts. In the EU, double insulated appliances all are marked with a symbol of two squares, one inside the other.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insulator_%28electricity%29#Class_1_and_Class_2_insulation

Member

Basically, Class 1 appliances are earthed and Class 2 rely on having adequate insulation to protect the user from electrocution. Often Class 2 appliances have no exposed parts but some do (e.g. an electric drill with a metal chuck). Class 1 appliances must have a three-pin plug and many Class 2 appliances do too.

Many appliances with two pin plugs have low power consumption and have thin cables. In the UK they would normally be used via an adapter with a 1 amp fuse. That is very necessary because the normal ‘ring main’ is protected by a 30 am circuit breaker or fuse. I don’t know about other countries.

Member

Bought a wireless adapter from Amazon. It came with two pin (EU) plug and extra adapter to connect up to UK socket. Quite a cumbersome bit of kit therefore. When I queried it with the supplier they said these were imported from Europe and they added the adapter for UK markets.

Member

UK no longer rules the world, we have to share it.

Member

The sort of adapter that Alan mentions is like the one on my Sony VHS recorder that I mentioned earlier in the conversation. There’s a photo on this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europlug

There is the danger that someone could put a 13 amp fuse in the adaptor, so I don’t like it. Apart from that the adaptor is larger than a typical 13 amp plug.

Member
William France says:
17 December 2012

I find this conversation interesting but I wonder why it is a problem. surely these continental two pins will not fit a UK socket. The only place they might be used without some sort of adapter is in a shaver socket. a two pin plug with british pins could not be used because the earth pin is needed to open the safety gate.

For visitors here in France, I find the tourist adapters are very poor they overheat and often do not fit properly.. I have bought two fused five socket extensions in the UK and simply changed the plug for a french one. I have similarly modified a french socket extension with a UK plug which we take on holiday. It may be a fool’s ignorance, but I feel much safer that way.

Member

I have seen 2-pin Europlugs pushed into UK 13 amp sockets and even seen this done by people who should know better. Thankfully the British shaver plug has the pins too close together to make this possible. It’s very easy to defeat the shutter on a 13 amp socket and I have seen electricians do this to establish if circuits are live.

As you say the adaptors are poor and your solution is far better, albeit not very portable.

Member

Two-pin plugs – it’s just not British Getting back on subject.
I always understood it was mandatory in UK for a moulded 13 A 3 pin plug to be fitted.
It follows then that there must be exclusions that allow, certainly shavers, and maybe other low power devices such as rechargeable toothbrushes to have 2 pin German types, not French type types, that fit into standard UK shaver adaptors.
It is perhaps a little unfortunate the title had a bit of EU bashing about it, as this fact was stated from the outset.
I have recently bought an electric hoist from Amazon which is very much not in the low power category. It had a 3 pin moulded European plug fitted into a 13A adapter. I wonder if this is classed as a “personal import” as it is not factually despatched from within UK. This will also apply to many items on Ebay which will often be sent directly from China.
I did think that a bit strange at the time but it fitted in nicely with my garage equipment which just happens to mostly use legacy French plugs with a French multiway distribution strip and expensive French heavy duty waterproof extension leads.

Member

@wavechange, yes, I do that myself. It is the only was I can charge my mobile phone.

Member

brianac

If the power adapter failed your only protection would be the 30 amp circuit breaker or fuse in the consumer unit. Maybe that is unlikely but it could be quite spectacular if it failed. I witnessed this when someone had connected a radio into a 30 amp cooker circuit. There was almighty bang and considerable devastation, with metal connection pins vapourised.

Member

The introduction is useful and explains the relevant legislation and consumers’ rights. What concerns me more is the potential danger if appliances with two pin plugs are used rather than returned. Many of us will find solutions and some are very unsafe.

I would be very grateful if Which? would draw attention to the hazards of unsafe, counterfeit electrical equipment and what action we should take. This should be more than asking for a replacement.

I assume that the trader should be informed. I did this when I was sent a counterfeit Apple power supply with an unfused 13 amp plug adapter. I was offered a refund but the company did not withdraw the product from sale on eBay, as I suggested. I considered informing Trading Standards but I have not found them helpful in the past. At the time I was shown a similar counterfeit adapter, also purchased online. This appeared to be fused but on removing the ‘fuse’ cover there was a strip of metal in place of a fuse.

We need some advice, please.

Member

Hello Wavechange, you would have the right to reject the item as it wouldn’t be as described, nor fit for purpose. You could also go the extra mile and report it to Trading Standards as you have said.

Member

What I can achieve alone is very limited. I can only look after my own safety and possibly help a few friends and family members.

Member
William France says:
19 December 2012

Trading standards, when I have contacted them could not have been less helpful. If it is not on their agenda, forget it.

Member

That’s my experience too, William. To be fair, I have never taken discussed a safety issue with them.

Member

I have bought several devices online that came with 2 pin European or US plugs. Mostly they also come with a separate adaptor, although I did have to ring up one supplier and get them to send one (by quoting the law at them, which they claimed to be unaware of).

Quite a few devices now come with neat snap-on adaptors for whichever sockets are in use, which seems a sensible compromise for international device manufacturers

Member

I’m not sure that this is a good solution. Were all your adaptors provided with the correct fuse? Will people think about using the correct fuse if they install an adaptor themselves?

Moving to moulded fused plugs has been a great step forward for electrical safety in the UK and I don’t believe that this should be debased for the convenience of manufacturers.

Member
Karin says:
20 December 2012

We have recently bought a coffee machine with a 2-pin plug (plus adapter) from Amazon Marketplace, sent by a German company. Is this illegal under the Sale of Goods Act or does it only apply if the item is sent from Amazon itself?

Member

I will leave this for someone else to answer but I would like to make a comment about electrical safety.

A coffee maker will contain an electric heater and the insulation in heaters commonly breaks down. Even if there are no metal parts, there could be a danger of shock because tap water is conductive. I would expect all coffee makers to be earthed, which would require a 3-pin plug. I am not an electrician but I would not be happy with a coffee maker fitted with a 2-pin plug.

I hope that your coffee maker has a Schuko plug: http://www.fam-oud.nl/~plugsocket/Schuko1.html

Although this has only two pins, there is a separate earth connection. Used with a good quality fused adaptor, this would be perfectly safe.

Member
Karin says:
20 December 2012

Thanks for your concern, wavechange. I’ve checked and it does have a Schuko plug, plus a fused adaptor which surrounds the plug, so we should be OK.

Member

That’s great. Enjoy the coffee!

I have cut dozens of these plugs off imported laboratory equipment (for which there are/were no rules) but I did not know what they are called until today.

Member
Boglost says:
21 December 2012

Bought a Plustek negative scanner from Amazon in July this year it had a two pin plug transformer on its cable. I didn’t realise that this type of plug was illegal in the UK and just considered it an inconvenience to use a two pin adapter. I shall be contacting Amazon regarding this matter, especially as when I have finished scanning my old negatives I will be unable to legally sell the device.

Member
Catherine FD says:
21 December 2012

Argos do this repeatedly. I also have electrical purchased from Australia, and like to travel, so I’ve always had adaptors on hand and never thought to complain.

Member
Brian says:
21 December 2012

Hi as a member I read with interest your article on illegal plugs. I purchased a Nilfisk C120 jet wash in August 2012 from Amazon it arrived with a 2 pin plug, as a retired electrician changing it was not a problem however what about the warranty, I contacted Nilfisk direct and was given the assurance if I was willing to replace the 2 pin for a BS 3 pin the warranty would not be effected so rather than the hassle of returning the washer I changed the plug and retained the name of the Nilfisk manager who sanctioned the undertaking in retrospect I probably should have requested confirmation in writing. Note:- The unit has the double insulated identification mark therefore the cable supplied is only 2 core so the earth pin is not used as advised the unit is connected using an RCD.

Member

I bought a TV from Pixmania online (3 years ago). It was supplied with a flat European 2 pin plug and an adapter for the UK. However the adapter was designed for a round European 2 pin + earth plug – such a plug could have been securely clamped in. The flat 2 pin plug could not be clamped into the adapter and therefore easily pulls out. I pointed out to Pixmania that this caused a serious electrical safety hazard because the live contacts in the adapter are easily accessible if the 2 pin plug is removed eg by a child. Pixmania seemed very reluctant to do anything but eventually (after 2 months) paid £3 so I could buy a suitable adapter in the UK. I will not use Pixmania again.

Member
Malcolm says:
26 December 2012

I have another Pixmania example, but from earlier this year (2012)

I bought a pair of LG computer monitors and they both came with the 2 pin plug and a very cheap nasty adapter. I took thisa up with them and asked them to send me 2 power leads (it was the ‘cloverleaf’ style connection) which I noticed they actually sold on their website. They refused and pointed to some very small print on their website for the item, saying it would come with these plugs. I took it up with them again, but they would not change their stance.

I ended up buying a couple of UK style power leads for the monitors and have refused to purchase anything from Pixmania again – just because of their poor customer service attitude.

Member

I have been sent two Christmas decorative lights from Fab.com Both came with two pin plugs. I was especially concerned as one is ‘suitable’ for external use, and both are presumably intended to be left on for long periods.