My Life as a Swiss Criminal

It started with the clothes dryer

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I became a criminal during my first week of living in Switzerland. No, not by sneaking French wine past the border guards to avoid paying duty – everyone does that. I’m talking about something more serious.

It began when I moved to Switzerland for an expat assignment. I was told that I needed to supply my own clothes washer and dryer. And because Swiss appliances are ridiculously expensive, I was advised to buy a washer and dryer in the US and ship them over with the rest of my household goods.

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

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

I was all set. Or so I thought.

When my 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 wasn’t sure why, something about Swiss energy conservation standards.

I called the village electrician but he could only come during the day. I was working then so one of my neighbors offered to let him in. No problem, I thought, until I got home and learned that the electrician couldn’t do the wiring. There was some complicated technical explanation that my neighbor hadn’t understood. I was stuck.

The next day I talked to the head of facilities at my company. He agreed to send out one of the electricians who had wired up our factory, Monsieur Jeanneret. I was assured that he was the best – no silly clothes dryer could stop him.

I met M. Jeanneret during my lunch hour. He walked into my laundry room, inspected the dryer and his eyes got big. Uh, oh. Then he went down to the basement to check the main electrical panel. When he walked back up the stairs he was shaking his head.

I hadn’t yet learned much French so I didn’t understand his long explanation. But I spoke enough to understand “big problem” and “very expensive.” Now I was the one shaking his head. The esteemed M. Jeanneret, master electrician, left without doing any wiring.

The facilities manager spoke to M. Jeanneret later that day and explained the problem to me. It had to do with amperage. Wait, what? I’d covered all the specs, hadn’t I?

Guess again.

It turns out that voltage and hertz and phase describe the kind of electricity something uses. But amperage describes how much. The higher the amperage, the more of an energy hog an appliance is.   And mine was the biggest darned hog that M. Jeanneret had ever seen.

How big? The dryer drew 30 amps of electricity when it was set on high heat. That’s no problem in an American home, which is typically wired for 100-200 amps of electricity. But my cozy little Swiss house was only wired for 25 amps.

This meant the dryer could use more electricity than the entire house was wired for!

It put into perspective for me how much energy we Americans use without even realizing it. 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 standard outlet and set it to the lowest possible heat. That worked and it seemed like a good solution. But it was deeply illegal.

Why?

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

One way they do this by requiring that all dryers be wired into special circuits. These shut off electricity to the dryers from 10am to noon.

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.

Photo by Jusben at Morguefile.com

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com

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