What to do if you can’t get the stovetop in your London apartment to turn on

Raymond Chen

Raymond

During our family summer vacation, we found ourselves unable to get the stovetop in our London apartment to work. The oven worked, but not the stovetop (known as a “hob” in England).

The property management company did leave the instructions for all of the appliances, and we found the instructions for the stovetop in what seemed like every European language except English.¹ I pulled out the German instructions, followed the steps, but the stovetop still didn’t work.

One of my friends replied to my online appeal for help: Look around the kitchen for a switch that doesn’t seem to do anything. That switch may very well control the stovetop.

Note that the switch may be nowhere near the stove.

I found an overlooked switch in the corner of the room. I turned it on. The stovetop started working.

Bonus chatter: The previous tenant appeared to be a vampire,² because many of the lamps had been rendered inoperative in various ways.

England appears to be partial to switched wall outlets, so trying to get a lamp to work involved trying out all eight combinations of

  • the switch on the lamp itself,
  • the switch on the outlet which controls the lamp, and
  • the switch on the wall which controls the outlet.

There were two lamps which resisted even this brute-force algorithm.

One of them I never figured out. Maybe the bulb was burnt out, or the lamp was defective. Fortunately, there was more than enough light from the other lamps in the room that the loss of that corner lamp was not significant.

The second troublesome lamp didn’t work because it had been unplugged. The mystery is that there appeared to be no outlet nearby for it ever to have been plugged into! The only nearby outlet took a BS 546 plug (round prongs), but the lamp plug was a BS 1363 (rectangular prongs).

Bonus chatter 2: In addition to driving on the opposite side of the road compared to the United States, England’s switches are also the opposite of the United States. In England, down is on, and up is off.

In response to my confusion, a British colleague explained that it should have been obvious, because when the switch is in the on position, a little red light turns on.

Ah, but that’s the problem: It was a red light. Does a red light mean “Stop! Don’t use this outlet! (But I’m a light so you know that it’s working.)” Or does a red light mean “Look, I have power!”³

It depends on which you consider to be more important: The fact that it’s red, or the fact that it’s a light.

Bonus chatter 3: A different friend confessed that she had been living in Ireland for six years before discovering that the stovetop be shut off from a wall switch.

¹ I later found the English instructions in a different cabinet.

² More likely, the previous tenant couldn’t figure out how to turn off the lights, so they just unplugged everything in sight.

³ I have the same problem with car door locks. Does switching to red mean “Be careful! This door is locked!”? Or does it mean “Be careful! This door is unlocked!”?

 

Raymond Chen
Raymond Chen

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38 comments

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  • Avatar
    Mary Branscombe

    everything electrical has to have a fuse – because, we have everything earthed, because we like the whole breathing thing. that means everything needs a switch that turns off the power to the place where you change the fuse. for the hob, that’s in the wall, so you don’t have to wrench your fitted hob out of the countertop if the fuse happens to blow 😉 turning stuff off at the wall when you go away just in case: hey, have you seen how high our power bills are? 

    • Raymond Chen
      Raymond Chen

      That explains why the hob has its own outlet switch. But why lamps? You can unplug the lamp to change its fuse. (In the States, entire rooms are switched on and off, rather than individual outlets. Blowing a fuse is a rare occurrence, so we trade off inconvenience of fuse-changing for convenience of not-having-to-deal-with-ten-switches-in-a-single-room.)

      • Avatar
        Kenny Biel

        I suspect the switched outlets are used because most residential wiring in the UK uses ring circuits for each room or application. Since each circuit breaker serves a ring, they tend to be rated for higher amperage than our US branch circuits which are typically rated at 10 amps for a bedroom and up to 20 amps for a kitchen. Having a higher rated breaker means a plugged in appliance can draw more current and unplugging a load would have more arcing. Using a switch to ensure the load is disconnected before unplugging is a nice feature to eliminate arcing.

        • Avatar
          Mike Morrison

          In the US individually-switched outlets are quite rare.  I’ve seen a lot of homes where all receptacles in a room (or, such as in my house, one-half of each receptacle in the room) is switched, as a replacement for switched overhead lighting.  Rather than having a light fixture in the center of the ceiling (my preference) some builders/electricians installed switched outlets with the expectations that floor lamps will provide general lighting in the room.
          Also, most circuits for receptacles in US residences are rated at 15 or 20 amps, not 10, with 20 being more common in new construction or extensive renovations of older homes.

          • Avatar
            Kenny Biel

            Up here in NH, having the lower receptacle of each outlet controlled by a light switch is actually very common even when there is overhead lighting. That was a bit of a culture shock when I moved up here.

          • Avatar
            Mike Morrison

            By “individually-switched outlets”, I mean ones with a power switch right on the receptacle face.  I wasn’t referring to a group of outlets controlled by a common wall switch; that is rather common.  It’s the ones with a switch on the receptace face that are not common in the US but I understand are common in Europe.

          • Alexandre Grigoriev
            Alexandre Grigoriev

            10 amps in UK gives you same power as 20 amps in US, because of 220V.

      • Avatar
        smf

        Apparently when we used to have DC the switch was necessary because of arcing when hot plugging.
        When AC came in we’d got used to the benefit of switches and then demanded them.
        They aren’t mandatory, but I wouldn’t get a socket without them.

  • Avatar
    Jonathan Kroupa

    Do not fear me human. My red LED eyes just mean that I am currently powered on. 

  • Avatar
    Antonio Rodríguez

    In Spain, we drive in the “right” side (pun intended), but still switches are turned on when they go down. It may be an European thing. In my mother’s kitchen there are two industrial switches, one for the dishwasher and another the owen (the stovetop runs on butane, as is ussual in older homes in Spain). Those switches are turned on when down, but are also colored the “wrong” way: they are red when on and green when off. Maybe green is for “safe” and red is for “warning: appliance active”. Fortunately, both of them are next to the appliances they control.

  • Avatar
    Kenny Biel

    For our UK and European friends, traveling around the US can produce similar learning opportunities. A few things that I learned upon moving to New Hampshire: a) In Texas and the Southwest having a light switch controlling one or more outlets is a luxury, but is common in most living areas and bedrooms in New England. Most rooms have two switches, one controlling the ceiling light(s) and another that controls the lower outlet of all the double outlets in the room. b) If the central heat is not working, look for a light switch with a red plate usually near the basement door. Every house with oil or gas heat has one of these. c) For some reason, powder rooms (2 piece, toilet and sink only) bathrooms typically have the light switch outside the room next to the door. Sometimes other, full bathrooms also have this arrangement. I still do not understand the reasoning for this other than my kids had fun pranking each other when one was in the bathroom.

    • Yuri Khan
      Yuri Khan

      In Russia, toilet and bathroom light switches are outside, too. As I understand it, there are two reasons:
      * These rooms have water. There is a safety rule that prohibits installing electric switches in the 0.6m zone around a bath or sink, and only IPx4 equipment in the next 2.4m. (The typical bathroom dimensions are smaller than 0.6+2.4, so that last limit actually means “in the whole bathroom, except the 0.6m zones around baths and sinks”.)
      * These rooms have no windows. That means, when light is off, the room is dark, and if switches were inside, they would be hard to find.

      • Avatar
        Kenny Biel

        Interesting. We have no such restrictions on switches near water fixtures (or sinks at least). In fact we have outlets even nearer the sinks though they have been required to be GFCI protected for the last 20-30 years. It could be that the switch location now is a hold-over when there was a regulation like that in the past though. Having lived in another part of the coutry for most of my life, I would not know. As for bathrooms being interior, that is actually more common back in Texas where homes a designed with at least one completely interior room to hide in during tornados. As that kind of weather is uncommon up here but short days in Winter are more common, most bathrooms have a exterior wall and window.

          • Avatar
            Michael Dunn

            Ugh, I detest interior bathrooms. They were not allowed by the building code of the area that I grew up in, so I only ever saw them in hotels, and I thought they were a hotel thing. Then I moved elsewhere and learned that the area I imprited on (like the x86) is the oddball one.

          • Yuri Khan
            Yuri Khan

            My reality is that of multi-tenant apartment blocks, rising 9 to 20 floors high. You could say we cannot afford windows in the bathroom, as perimeter is limited and normally given to living rooms and kitchens.

            The issue of moisture is solved this way: There is a ventilation shaft in the wall between the kitchen and the bathrooms. It goes up to the last floor, just under the roof. (The last floor is purely for technical needs such as this one; no apartments there.) The difference in atmospheric pressure between the level of windows and that of the roof creates an updraft through the shaft, so moisture is sucked away. No fan required; it just works naturally. (Unless the shaft is clogged, in which case one is supposed to file a cleaning request with the maintenance company.)

  • Avatar
    Jeff Bean

    My family lived in London in the late fifties and early sixties. To light a burner on the stove you had to use a wand that was connected to the stove via a flexible tube. Pulling the wand out of its holder would turn on the gas to the wand and at the same time generate a mechanical spark that lit the wand. You then used the wand with its small flame to light the burner. Also the oven had a temperature control that was calibrated with numbers ranging from 1 to 6. I think number 3 was approximately equivalent to 350 fahrenheit.

  • Avatar
    Mike Morrison

    I’ve been puzzled by the LED lights on GFI receptacles of late.  I know that the latest NEC revisions require a status light on it, but I can’t tell if the light is supposed to be lit when a ground fault is detected, or if the light is supposed to be on all the time and be off during a ground fault.  I’ve had receptacles of different makes do both recently (and they were bought new in the last few years, not some 20-year-old first-gen GFCIs).

  • Yuri Khan
    Yuri Khan

    Don’t even start with me on the on/off up/down issue.

    Since early childhood, I am used to this convention: on = stick pointing up or top edge or button pressed in; off = stick pointing down or bottom edge or button pressed in. When I was seven years old, we moved to a new apartment. My father got up the ladder to install the lighting fixture after turning the switches down. There were sparks and possibly a bad word or two. (No casualties or damage, luckily.)

    Now that I am a grown man and have directed two renovations of my own, I finally managed to get all switches in my apartment in the correct orientation. Ironically, my plumbers installed the water pipes backwards — in the one faucet that connects directly to the wall pipes, lever to the right turns on hot water rather than cold. I had to have all the other (hose-connected) faucets reversed because consistency trumps correctness.

    I have also seen light switches with a red LED that glows when light is off. The explanation I have heard is that the LED helps you find the switch in the darkness. (And if that’s true, then it’s natural for it to be red because that is easier on the eyes at night.)

  • Avatar
    Boris Zakharin

    In my house (in the US) there are two lights that have two switches (one at both ends of a hallway and one at both ends of a staircase). In both cases, the switches must point in the opposite direction from each other for the light to turn on. Not sure how common that is and why.

    • Avatar
      Kenny Biel

      I don’t know if electricians wire three-way switches to be opposite or not on purpose; I suspect it’s random. If you take one switch out of the wall (after ensuring power is off to that circuit &c) and find that it connected to white, black, green/bare, and red, you should be able to swap the red and white to make both switch point the same direction for on, opposite for off.

      • Avatar
        Peter Cooper Jr.

        Can you not just take one of the three-way switches and flip it upside-down?
        This is a serious question, I have replaced a “normal” switch before but that’s the extent of my experience. I’ve been slightly annoyed by a pair of switches where “opposite means off” doing this in my house and have been meaning to get around to flipping one upside down but just haven’t bothered yet, and it hadn’t occurred to me until reading your comment that it might be more complicated than flipping it around. Do switches have a standard “up”, or is there some need for all the switches in a panel to all be oriented the same way, such that it takes rewiring to get this fixed?

      • Avatar
        Ron Parker

        It’s even easier than swapping wires: just flip the switch over and reinstall. 3-way switches never have the “OFF” and “ON” legends molded into the switch, since it’d be useless, so they’re perfectly symmetrical. That’s also how you can tell that “up is on” is the standard: if a typical SPST switch is installed so that down is on, the molded-in legends read “NO” and “ℲℲO”.

    • Avatar
      Zander Brown

      Here’s a fun one:
      Upstairs you have a double switch
      Downstairs you have a triple switch

      The two upstairs switches are linked to two of the three downstairs switches in the == is off, != is on arangement
      These switches control the lights in the hall (downstairs) and landing (upstairs)

      What about the 3rd downstairs switch? Well that’s the light besides the front door of course!
      That 3rd switch acts just like a normal switch

      Your challenge: Turn on/off the correct light without giving the street a light show

      Alternative challenge: Figure out if the light is on/off before attempting to change the lightbulb

      • Avatar
        Ron Parker

        The first challenge is simple: the light for the street will have “ON” and “OFF” molded into the switch lever, because it’s (probably) not a three-way switch. The second challenge is best met by just using a dry fiberglass ladder, changing the bulb with one hand, and not licking your finger before you stick it in the empty socket.

      • Alexandre Grigoriev
        Alexandre Grigoriev

        >Morty, I need darkness to prime these optical inductors.Hit the leftmost light switch by the door for me. The left. Okay, lights on. So, did I just hear three distinct light switch clicks?
        >W-W-What do you mean?
        >I feel like the three sounds I heard could be explained by an initial erroneous flipping of a switch on the right followed by a hasty, corrective flipping of the requested switch. Then during the resultant darkness and silence, a third, shameful unflipping of the initially flipped switch. Is my assessment accurate?
        >Yeah, that’s that’s basically how how it all shaked out.

  • Avatar
    Natalie Vincent

    In Australia, all wall sockets are required to be switched, and down is on. I’ve never seen a house with a switch that turns on the outlets that may be used for lamps here.
    Red is a signal for “Danger! The circuit is live!” here. Red is commonly painted on the top of a switch to show this, and in fuse boxes when the breaker is on there is a patch of red paint, mostly with the word “on” or a “1” (with 0 being used for off). Ironically, breakers are up for on and down for off. Nothing like consistency.

  • Avatar
    cheong00

    [The second troublesome lamp didn’t work because it had been unplugged. The mystery is that there appeared to be no outlet nearby for it ever to have been plugged into! The only nearby outlet took a BS 546 plug (round prongs), but the lamp plug was a BS 1363 (rectangular prongs).]
    My guess would be you can find a BS 1363 to BS 546 adapter somewhere in a drawer near socket that is not in use, or socket near a table.
    People will try to unplug an applicance that they’re not using to plug their hair dryer or so on if the socket type does not match, and then they found an adapter on wall. And when they finished with it, they put it inside a nearby drawer instead of putting it back where it should be, so in the second or third day they can get it easily.

  • Avatar
    cheong00

    [England’s switches are also the opposite of the United States. In England, down is on, and up is off.]
    When I visit my relatives in Taiwan, I gave up seeing what position the switch is, because all lamps on corridors are “two way lamp switches”. (Depending on the state of the switch on the other end, up may be on, or off)

  • Avatar
    Oliver Lippold

    I was completely unaware that it wasn’t standard globally for all switches to be down for on as it is here in the UK. Our house is a bit of an exception though, as some work was done by a not completely legitimate electrician, so some of our light switches have been reversed. We’ve got three switches in a row in our living room done by this electrician, two of which are down for on, and one is up (or it might be the other way round – I can never remember). The upshot of this is that even after living here for over 10 years, it still takes several attempts to get the desired lights on. 
    Maybe this is partly why computer UIs have switches as horizontal rather than vertical – so that there’ll be no confusion as to which means on.

    • Yuri Khan
      Yuri Khan

      Oh there will be. For example, do you flip them in right-to-left locales, so right means off and left means on?

    • Avatar
      Peter Cooper Jr.

      You can still find plenty of poor horizontal switch UIs on computers. Especially the ones labeled “On” or “Off”, and it’s not clear whether the labelling indicates the current state or the state that it will become if you toggle it.

    • Avatar
      Mike Morrison

      The convention of down=off really applies only to two-way switches.  In the US, on old-style two-way switches (not the decora (TM) ones), you’ll see ON and OFF written on the switch body (decora ones may have ON/OFF written on the switch’s mounting plate, which is of course covered by the face plate.  Those markings are only a guide to the installer not to the user).  For three- or four-way switches, down=off does not always apply, because the powered state depends on the other switch(es) on the circuit.  Many of the switches in my house are three-ways, and thus I have no innate memory of up=on, down=off.
      I’ve also heard a story about the reason why for down=off.  It was thought that if the switch contacts were degraded, of if the switch were in any way worn-out, gravity would pull the switch down into the off state, which is safer then pulling it into the on state.
      I recently installed some horizontal switches in my house as an upgrade for a ceiling fan.  I honestly couldn’t care at all whether left or right = on.

  • Avatar
    James Sutherland

    Interesting – I don’t recall ever seeing a wall switch which controlled an outlet in the UK, except in stage lighting setups where all the lights are controlled from up in the lighting room. (I was in London most of the summer too, I’m in the US now, and have adjusted to most differences – but having an outlet controlled by a light switch still seems quite bizarre.) We used the round pin sockets for stage lighting quite a lot, as a way of avoiding people plugging power tools or other equipment into a lighting circuit which (a) might well have a dimmer controlling it (very bad both for most tools and for the dimmer circuit itself) and (b) could inconvenience the user when their tool gets 20 V instead of full mains voltage.
    The red light seems obvious if you think about wanting it to be consistent in a power cut or if controlled by another switch upstream: light off = power off. The outlet switches usually, but not always, have a little red patch on the top which is visible only when the switch is “on”. (Though my mother’s house has a light over the stairs controlled by 3 switches, so changing a blown bulb tends to carry a 50-50 chance of being much closer than I’d like to a 240 V supply.)

  • Avatar
    Jernej Simončič

    Light switches in my flat were quite random in regarding the direction they turned on – I fixed this a few years ago when I replaced them all (of course, since I have several lights that are controlled by 2 or 3 switches, those are still random because any of them will toggle the light).

  • Avatar
    smf

    I have never seen a switch on a wall that controls an outlet, that is not normal for the UK.
    When it’s dark and you don’t know where the switch is, it’s easier to run your fingers down the wall looking for the switch to turn it on.
    US switches are more effort.

  • Avatar
    Ian Williams

    The switch; so simple in purpose, yet so confusing in function. In the traditional toggle switch; lever arm is UP, switch is ON. Go back in time to the old two pole, push-button switch; top button pushed IN (ie: flat), switch is ON. The rocker switch (toggle vs rocker) behaves similarly; top pushed IN (ie: flat), switch is ON. Problem is, aesthetically it makes the bottom stick out, as if it were a low profile toggle, “pointing downwards”, which you’d think is OFF. What about a dimmer/slider switch ? Up is clearly ON, which would be the same if a toggle switch were ON. The main safety/usability point is you can turn them all OFF with a downward motion and ON with an upward motion. That works even if you are blind or in the dark. I’m sure there’s some light/sky/up, dark/earth/ground/down/safe parallelism.
    What about the indicator light? Is it red or green? Isn’t red the indicator of “danger”, or “hot”? If the red light is on, does it mean outlet has power and it’s not safe? On my car door-lock, the red indicator shows when it’s unlocked. That’s only unsafe if the car is standing still and I don’t want it broken into. In an emergency, would you see red and think that’s locked, I must unlock to get out? What if the same light swtitch indicator is green on a different manufacturer’s switch? Does that mean it’s safe and the outlet is off or it has power and is OK to use? What if the indicator is on a light-switch, not an outlet, and it is ON when the light is OFF, so you can find the switch in the dark?
    No wonder people get all confused. If I came across this Switch Skeuomorph, I’d be really confused ans assuming I spoke English would have preferred this one, though I’d say they are mounted upside down in both cases. Also, if need to explain your implementation, then your design is probably flawed.