Plug panic! Or, why you should sweat the small stuff

Hello out there! I’m Rebecca and I’m a part of the team designing the audio digitization lab at the University of Ghana. We’ve been working on this phase of the project for almost seven months; it is VERY exciting that it’s finally all coming together! From room design (and room redesign) to equipment selection to wiring diagrams, I’ve found it to be an enlightening experience.

As one of the team members involved with the prep, I can assure you that a lot of work is involved in setting up an audio preservation lab with equipment from all over the world. One of the more tedious and stressful aspects was the issue of plugs. Let me explain.

The University of Ghana began the project with:

  • 1 Revox B77 1/4 inch open reel deck
  • 1 Tascam 112B cassette deck
  • 1 pair of audio monitors.

In addition to this existing equipment, the team knew that we would also need the following items in order to get the audio digitization lab running at full capacity:

  • DAW
  • Analog-to-Digital Converter
  • Digital-to-Analog Converter
  • Audio Switcher
  • Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
  • Headphones
  • 12TB RAID for local storage
  • A myriad of other supplies needed for 1/4 inch open reel and cassette transfers

A few weeks ago, the equipment list was approved and sent to NYU MIAP Associate Director and APEX founder Mona Jimenez. Mona, along with Judith Oboku-Boateng, Archivist at the University of Ghana, Legon’s Institute of African Studies, were responsible for procuring all of the items needed to build the lab. Judith would be buying as much as possible, since all supplies bought in the United States would need to be brought to Ghana by team members in their luggage.

All was going smoothly until Kara Van Malssen, Senior Consultant at AVPreserve and a long time team APEX Ghana team member asked me if all of the equipment I had specified was compatible with a 220v power supply.

[Side Bar: Voltages! The United States, along with a few other countries throughout the world, uses 110 volt electricity. Most of the world uses 220 volt electricity. This is due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that Americans were originally ahead of the curve and are now cheap. Although many countries’ innovators contributed to the development of electric power technology, the United States led the charge in using that technology for practical purposes. At the time, electricity was mostly being used to power light bulbs, which tended to burn out much more quickly at higher voltages. Therefore, the U.S. began building power plants that generated 110v electric power. As the technology advanced, scientists discovered that power transmission at higher voltages was more efficient. As the rest of the world began building their own power plants they, starting with Germany, tended to choose a 220v system. The United States decided to stick with the 110v system in place as it would have cost a lot of money to make the switch to 220v.

For the lab in Ghana, we will be using a 220v system, meaning that all of our equipment will need to be rated for use with 220v. As much of the equipment was built in the U.S., this is a real concern. Plugging a 110v appliance into a 220v system would most likely trip an internal fuse in the appliance and it would stop working. This is actually a safety feature designed to keep your appliance from catching fire.]

Of course all of the equipment is compatible with a 220v power supply, I assured Kara. Nothing to worry about!

Obviously, I started to worry. I double and triple checked everything with an electrical plug on the equipment list. Wait. Electrical plug. Oh noooooooo. We need to be able to plug this stuff in.

Let me explain the panic. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) recognizes 14 different world plug types, Type A through Type N. In North America we use Type A; Ghana uses a mix of Types C, F, and G, none of which are compatible with Type A plugs. We were going to need adapters of some sort. I have never been to Ghana, but almost everyone else involved in the project has been, and has drilled into my head how hard it is to get these types of things there. That was why most items were bought in the U.S. and would be transported to Ghana in suitcases. If the team arrived and was missing something as important as the ability to power everything they needed, the project could be dead in the water.

I think the simple issue of outlet compatibility had slipped our minds because we were going to be using an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). A UPS serves the function of providing emergency power to a load when the input power source fails. At the onset of the planning stage of this project, members of the team had expressed concern with the reliability of power in Ghana so we worked a UPS into the plan. All equipment would be plugged into the UPS and the UPS would be plugged into the wall outlet. Judith was purchasing the UPS in Ghana so there were no worries that it would have the correct plug attached.

But the back of the UPS looks like this:


Not exactly standard U.S. plugs. As the feeling of panic began to grow, I immediately began to look up what power plugs came with every item on our purchase list, as well as the items already owned by the University.

Thus began my crash course in electrical plugs and outlets. What you see on the back of the UPS above is an IEC C13 connector. It needs an IEC C14 connector. Luckily, the DAW, ADC, and DAC all came with a removable C13 to standard three prong power cable so I just had to order a C13 to C14 cable for each. Easy!

The audio switcher had an attached power cable. Mr. Coleman was willing to change the cable, but only offered those that would work in the UK, Europe, and Australia. So no IEC C14? No big deal! I was able to find a three prong to C14 adapter and ordered a few, as the RAID would also need one.

Finally, all that remained were the three items already in Ghana: the open reel deck, the cassette deck, and the audio monitors. I already had photos of the equipment, but I could not see the ends of the power plugs. I could, however, see that the cassette deck and the monitors sported attached power cables, but the open reel deck had an IEC C10 connector.

I emailed Judith asking for more details on the cassette deck and the monitors. While awaiting her response, I went to work searching for a C9 (female connector to the C10) to C14 cable for the open reel deck.

The internet may be infinite and boundless, but I could not find any C9 to C14 cables. I’m sure I could have had one made, but we did not have that kind of time left. The team was heading out in three weeks and I needed to order a ready-made cable now. I resigned myself to finding an adapter and sent another email to Judith asking for a photo of the open reel deck power cable, too.

This is what I got back from Judith:

tape deck plug

Here we have the attached cassette deck plug. Victory! This is a C14 connector and will plug right into that UPS.


This is the plug for the audio monitors. Europlug. Got it.


Lastly, this is the power cable for the open reel deck. Err…what? Abandon hope, all ye who want to plug this or_deck_crop into this UPS_rear_crop.

So perhaps I am slightly dramatic. I did have a place to start, as I knew that the deck had come from Germany. After flexing my Google skills, I discovered that this type of plug is a CEE 7/4, commonly known as a Schuko plug. And the socket is also compatible with the Europlug. Two birds, one stone. Now I just had to find a CEE 7/4 to C14 adapter.

In my research, I had come across the CEE 7/7. Apparently, this has become the de facto standard across Europe as it will accept both the CEE 7/4 and the CEE 7/5 plugs, as well as the Europlug. The CEE 7/5 is identical to the CEE 7/4 plug in size, but with a grounding pin on the socket. The CEE 7/7 was developed with an extra hole to allow for this.

Since I had not seen the open reel plug in person, I decided to hedge my bets and get a CEE 7/7 socket to C14 adapter, rather than the CEE 7/4. I ordered a few of those to accommodate the open reel deck and the Europlug on the monitors.

Now there was just one more problem. The CEE 7/7 sockets are huge and I just couldn’t trust that they would fit nicely side-by-side with one another plugged into the back of the UPS. I ordered two power strips with C13 sockets and the appropriate cables to plug them into the UPS. And then I passed out.

Just kidding! As panic-inducing as this all was, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about electrical plugs and we were able to avert disaster by solving this before the team arrived in Ghana.

The lesson here might be: sweat the small stuff. It’s amazing to me how many little things there are to plan for when setting up a digitization lab and how huge the consequences of those little things can be. In fact, how did “don’t sweat the small stuff” even get to be such a widely accepted and used aphorism? Perhaps in the grand scheme of life it holds up, but in the grand scheme of preservation, it certainly does not. The little things make projects like this one possible and are therefore extremely vital to our continued access to audiovisual heritage around the world. Pay attention to the seemingly inconsequential “stuff” and always appreciate a great team that helps power you through!

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