My Life as a Swiss Criminal

It started with the clothes dryer

I became a criminal during my first week in Switzerland.

It began when I moved there for an expat assignment, back before Val and I started living in Provence. We needed to supply our own clothes washer and dryer. And because Swiss appliances are ridiculously expensive, we were advised to buy a washer and dryer in the US and ship them over.

There was only one problem: Swiss electrical standards are different than ours. So I found a specialty store that carried “international appliances” and confirmed the specs.

  • 220 volts? Check.
  • 60 hertz? Check.
  • 3-phase electricity? Check.

We were all set. Or so I thought.

When our stuff arrived in Switzerland, it was easy to plug in the washer. But the dryer was another story – an electrician had to wire it up.

I called the village electrician but he could only come during the day so my neighbor let him in. When I got home that night I learned that the electrician couldn’t do the wiring due to some mysterious technical thingy. I was stuck.

So I talked to the head of facilities at my company. He agreed to send out the electrician who had helped build our factory, Monsieur Jeanneret. I was assured that he was the best – no silly clothes dryer could stop him!

I met M. Jeanneret during lunch hour. He inspected the dryer and his eyes got big. Uh, oh. Then he went to the basement to check the electrical panel and as he walked back up the stairs he shook his head.

I hadn’t learned much French yet so I didn’t understand his long explanation. But I understood “big problem” and “very expensive.” M. Jeanneret left without doing any wiring.

My facilities manager spoke to him later that day and explained the problem to me. It had to do with amperage. Wait, what? I had the right voltage and hertz and all that, didn’t I?

Well yes, but they only describe the kind of electricity. There’s this other thing called amperage that describes how much. The higher the amperage, the more of an energy hog an appliance is.  And mine was the biggest, fattest, hungriest hog that M. Jeanneret had ever seen.

How hungry? The dryer drew 30 amps of electricity. That’s no problem in an American home, which is typically wired for 200. But my cozy little Swiss house only had 25.

This meant the dryer used more electricity than the entire house!

It put into perspective how much energy we Americans use. And how energy conscious the Swiss are.

So now I faced a dilemma. I could buy a Swiss dryer (very expensive.) I could rewire the house (very, very expensive). Or I could become a criminal.

I went with criminal.

I plugged the dryer into a wall outlet and set it on low. That worked but it was highly illegal.

Why?

The Swiss are clever. They know that lunch is the big meal of the day. Millions of stoves cooking at the same time creates peak electrical demand and the Swiss government wants other big appliances off the grid; otherwise they need to build new power plants.

One way they do this is by requiring that all dryers be wired into special circuits that shut off electricity around lunchtime.

My dryer, my lovely big American dryer, was not connected to one of these special circuits.

I was a Swiss outlaw.

My crime was never discovered, thank god. I didn’t care to experience the rigors of Swiss prison life.   Rumor had it that Swiss prisoners are deprived of Lindt chocolate and forced to make do with Hershey’s.

In Switzerland, that’s considered cruel and unusual punishment.

 

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