The truth about SA’s “new” electrical plug standard

An electrical plug and socket standard, SANS 164–2 recently became the preferred standard for new installations, replacing the unwieldy triangular configuration used in South Africa.

This new recommended configuration uses the “Europlug” diamond shape commonly seen on cellphone chargers, but adds an offset earth pin near the middle of the plug.

Conforming to this standard shape is one of the touted features of SANS 164–2, as you would no longer need an adapter for devices that use Europlug.

However, even though it is noted as the “preferred configuration for new installations”, it is not mandatory nor expected that builders will be rushing to use the standard anytime soon.

The Electrical Contractors’ Association of South Africa (ECASA) recently told its members on its website that news of the imminent demise of South Africa’s venerable electrical outlet is an exaggeration.

ECASA also said that the “new” electrical standard is also not so new, dating back to as early as 1993.

Willa Breed, manager for electrotechnical standards at the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) confirmed this assessment, saying that the international standard that SANS 164–2 is based on was developed in the ’90s.

A version of the SANS 164–2 standard that dates back to 2006 is readily available online, but Breed said that the first mention of the configuration as part of South Africa’s wiring codes was in version 1.8 of SANS 10142–1, which was published in 2012.

She also confirmed that the SABS standards for the wiring of premises, part 1: low-voltage installations (SANS 10142–1), only notes that SANS 164–2 would be the preferred configuration for new installations and not mandatory.

SA electrical socket adapter
SA electrical socket adapter

“The nice things about standards is that you have so many to choose from” – Andrew Tanenbaum

The SANS 164 family of standards includes specifications for a number of plug and socket configurations that may be used in different types of installations in South Africa.

These include SANS 164–1, the three-pronged standard we all know in South Africa; the so-called “red plug” where the top of the normally round earth pin of SANS 164–1 is flattened; and even a version of the “Schuko” standard used in some European countries.

Many of these SANS 164 standards may be used both in plugs and wall sockets depending on the type of installation being done, though the version of the Schuko plug we adopted is an interesting exception as its socket may only be used in adapters.

Breed said that in many places throughout SANS 10142–1 they use wording that lets builders and electrical contractors use either the SANS 164–1 or 164–2.

Schuko plug
Schuko plug

Gradual switch-over

“We’re all excited for SANS 164–2 because it’s safer and will probably be cheaper when the manufacturers are all in line with the new standard,” Breed said.

However, the process of phasing out the old plugs will be a gradual one that could take “20, 30, or even 50 years,” Breed said.

With no manufacturers using the new standard on their devices, there is very little incentive for South African home owners to go to the expense to change their old sockets for new ones. And since there is still a very low uptake of the new socket in South Africa, there is little incentive for manufacturers to switch to it.

While this is a dilemma, it is not completely a catch–22, as some hotels and other establishments that see a lot of international travellers have already started adopting the standard and Breed said others are “really considering it”.

This is because the already widely-used two-pin Europlug fits into the SANS 164–2 socket, Breed said.

“But for normal households it would not make a difference which socket is installed right now,” Breed said.

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Article thumbnail image from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons 3.0 Unported license

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The truth about SA’s “new” electrical plug standard