June 30, 2008

Idea: Electric Outlet 2.0

The Problem:

Let’s get rid of these things once and for all.
Here we are in the 21st Century, and we’re still using electric outlets designed way back in the early 20th Century. Back then, Alternating Current beat out Direct Current as the standard in our homes partly because it travels further before losing power. But our needs have changed since then. Sure, we still plug in a bunch of things that require AC, but we also have a few dozen items in each home that require DC. So each of those items has its own power-converting brick taking up precious space on our power strips, and creating eye-sores on our walls.

Some people have gotten around the problem by coming up with creative designs for power strips. But that’s backwards thinking because it just accepts that we have to deal with these bricks and puts a bandage on the problem. We can do better.

I say it’s high time we do away with the whole mess by moving the AC/DC conversion to the other side of the wall.

The Proposal

Today, if you lose an AC adapter, you have to find a new one that converts the AC in your wall to the proper voltage DC for that particular gadget. Or, you can buy a universal AC adapter for just a little more money that you can manually set to provide whatever voltage DC your gadget requires.

I propose a new standard for electric outlets where every outlet in your home has a universal adapter built in, on the other side of the wall, where you will never see it. When you need AC, it gives you AC. And when you need DC, it automatically converts to the proper voltage DC for you. No more ugly bricks. Plugging in your phone charger, computer speakers, or router will be as elegant as plugging in a lamp.

I call this new standard “Outlet 2.0.”

How will Outlet 2.0 know what kind of electricity you need?

Simple. Outlet 2.0 compliant plugs will have key-like notches in the prongs that let the outlet know what kind of electricity is needed. For example, a “Type A” plug will have zero notches. It looks like a standard plug, and it just uses normal AC. “Type B” plugs will have one notch to indicate that they require 1.5v DC. Here are a few sample plugs to illustrate what I mean:

They are given simple letter-based names so that it’s easy to remember in the event that you need to buy a replacement cord. You just look at the bottom of your gadget where it says “Requires Type G Cord” and go to Radio Shack and buy a Type G cord (at a fraction of the cost of buying a new brick). The letter is also embossed on the plug itself, so you don’t need to worry about mixing up your cords.

Won’t this increase the cost of electric outlets?

Yes. But you only need to install your outlets once. However you may otherwise buy a hundred gadgets over your lifetime that include their own transformer brick, and the cost of that brick is built into the price of the gadget. With no brick needed, the cost of the gadget goes down. Also, the weight of the new gadget in its box with all its accessories goes down, which makes it less expensive to ship, which translates to further savings.

What about power strips? How will they work?

Outlet 2.0 compliant power strips will be plugged in with a “Type A” plug so they receive AC as usual. But they will have internal universal converters at each of their outlets so they provide the proper electricity to the devices that are plugged in. Yes, this will make them slightly larger and more expensive. But the savings will come in less expensive devices, and a much neater area under your desk where everything is plugged in.

Is Outlet 2.0 backwards compatible?

Yes. Anything you have that came with a normal plug — including power bricks you got with gadgets before the Outlet 2.0 standard — will still work. They have a normal “Type A” plug, so they will receive the AC they’ve always received.

Will new 2.0 compliant plugs work in old 1.0 outlets?

Well, once the standard is adopted, it should be relatively inexpensive to replace at least some old outlets with new ones, so hopefully it won’t be an issue for long. You’ll start to see even older hotels begin to advertise that they have Outlet 2.0 compliant rooms. But if you are going to visit a home or hotel that hasn’t upgraded yet, you can bring a simple travel-size pass-through converter. You just plug it into any 1.0 outlet, and then you can plug any Outlet 2.0 compliant gadgets into the converter. (Note that any Outlet 2.0 compliant power strip will work properly in a 1.0 outlet, converting the power as needed).

What if a 2.0 plug is plugged into a 1.0 outlet without an adapter?

This could damage your gadget, so there is a feature in the Outlet 2.0 standard that prevents this from happening. It is not shown in the plug renderings above because I haven’t worked out the details yet. It will probably take the form of an extra prong that doesn’t carry electricity, placed off center so as not to be confused with the grounding prong already present on current “three-prong” plugs. At right is a rendering of how it may appear. This not only prevents you from sticking a 2.0 plug in a 1.0 outlet, but makes the different outlets easy to recognize by sight.

Will I have to upgrade my whole house to Outlet 2.0?

No. If you’ve had the lamp in the corner plugged into the same 1.0 outlet for the past 20 years, and you never plug anything else into it, there’s no need to upgrade that outlet. Just upgrade the outlets where you will benefit from having the Outlet 2.0 standard. If you ever sell the house, you may consider a full upgrade then so you can advertise that every room is Outlet 2.0 compliant.


For far too long, we’ve been dealing with heavy, unwieldy, ugly power conversion bricks all over the place, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. But I refuse to believe that a world that sends robots to Mars can’t figure out a way to solve this problem. So this is my proposal. Of course, I’m not an electric engineer, so I may be missing some of the finer issues. Let me know what you think, and tell me how this idea can be improved.

Update: There are few things more frustrating for me than discovering that one of my ideas has already been thought of. But in this case I’m pleased to find via the comments that a similar proposal is already being worked on called The Green Plug. It doesn’t appear that the Green Plug puts the converter on the wall side, but it does create something like the Outlet 2.0 Power Strip, so that all your devices can share the same DC converter. I fully support this.


To an extent this has been solved: The OMTB has adopted the mini-b USB connector as the standard data+power connector for cell phones. Every smartphone except the iphone uses it, since Apple hates and fears industry standards that they didn’t pioneer.

As for the plug itself, well, we’ve been putting IEC 60320 connectors (the funny looking shrouded pentagonal plug) on every personal computer for the last twenty years, yet electricians aren’t putting them in new houses. Electrical standards tend to be heavily politicized; just look at the problems the EU has been having moving to a common system, and they have a lot more pressure on them to change than a low-voltage system would have.

Also of interest: the problems datacenters have been having moving to DC bus power. At least computers all need the same set of voltages, but that hasn’t helped them either.

I think that green plug is trying to achieve the same thing.



Hot thing + enclosed environment = burn

Cases in point: laptop batteries, video game AC/DC converters

If heat weren’t an issue (like if there were one power conversion station for a house), wouldn’t it be easier to just have outlets that have a bunch of those circle-plugs (like cell phones have, but delivering electricity)? Manufactures of electronics could just add an extra, cheap cord to the box during the 10 to 15 year transition.

Those power conversion bricks that laptops use could be a good starting point for this technology to jump from. Imagine how sweet it would be to have an outlet for those plugs.

I critique because I like you idea.

I was just going to call it brilliant and be done, but the previous commenters have to be all practical about things. I like the idea, anyway, I’ve dealt with the unsightly bricks on more occasions that I’d like to count.

Well, that’s great, but the only thing I don’t like is the little plug-face having a kind of tear under his eye rending him sad… And I wouldn’t like my outlets all to be sad… Could we place it elsewhere?

PS. I find myself stupid for thinking this, but still relevant…

Nice thinking, but given the timescales, investment costs and culture shifts likely required to make it work, I’d just aim for getting rid of power adapters altogether and going for rechargeable cells + wireless power/WiTricity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WiTricity) or some other kind of elecromagnetic induction to recharge things. We’re only talking about low-power gadgets here, after all, not TVs and the like.

“(at a fraction of the cost of buying a new brick)”

Ah yes, that’s why it could never happen! ;)

I met a family who converted their house to use all D.C. power. They installed cigarette lighter type plugs
(the kind in your car) in their walls which, if you think about it, will run almost anything.

There are car adapters for phones, computers, even refrigerators.

Not the most elegant solution, but it works.

As far as your idea goes, the conversion doesn’t even need to take place right there in the wall. You could have a master power regulator somewhere else in the house (near your water heater?) that regulates power to the switches. It could even have a big fan on it to take care of heating issues.

Houses are small enough that you wouldn’t run into any DC transmission issues, and you could run the communications over the existing lines (like home networking over power line systems do).

It would be nice to get rid of wall warts for good, but your implementation has a lot of flaws. First, you have the notches on the prong that has an oversized hole in the outlet making notch sensing less accurate (because of sloppy alignment). Second, your scheme doesn’t account for current (amps) needs at all. 5v@1a is very different from 5v@100ma. Third, I believe several non-US outlet layouts specify a rounded prong, which at minimum calls for a second implementation of the notch sensor and possibly difficulties with preventing a 2.0 cord plugging into a 1.0 outlet.

A better way to implement this would be to use some different connectors on the outlet (in addition to the two normal ones) and a data exchange protocol to negotiate the proper power delivery. The new connectors would provide a single standard initial setting to power up the negotiating controller in case the device being plugged in is completely dead or not battery powered.

Of course Sony will come along with a second, competing standard, and the ensuing format war will prevent widespread adoption of either scheme. :o)

I had a Nokia phone with a charger that was EXTREMELY light weight and produced ZERO heat. I want to know why we haven’t made the conventional transformer-type converters illegal if Nokia can make one that doesn’t suck and bundle it with a free phone.

Here’s what that fourth prong is for: it’s for device data. Not only would the fourth prong indicate power supply demands, it could transfer device name, ID, charge state, ready state, in-use state, completion of progress, among so many other things.

For instance:
I plug in my phone, and my home network knows that the phone has been plugged in, so it starts syncing my music & podcasts over the home network. If I add an event to my calendar that requires me to wake up early, the home network indicates the change in schedule to my alarm clock. As I’m cooking dinner, or washing clothes my wife can check on the progress from across the web so she can arrive from work on time.

Wow. That gizmodo/Green Plug link is very much like what I envision. But if I understand correctly, it still requires an adapter box on the room-side of the outlet? I guess that would work like the Outlet 2.0 power strips I described. Very similar. -David

But why would device manufacturers want or support this? They make a lot of money selling those bricks to people who lose/break them or want more than one for travel, etc.

Are you implying that a company would intentionally reduce their revenue stream, especially on a product that generates almost pure profit for them?

The fourth prong in your rendering wouldn’t work. It’s too flimsy and would break off too easily. People would break it off because the layman doesn’t understand why they need it. I think it would make more sense to make a new prong that’s similarly sized and place the voltage indicator on that one. It would clear up its role to the average guy and be a lot harder to remove.

My immediate thought is that you’d have to have a switch inside that kept the outlet off until the plug was fully seated in. Otherwise, you start sticking the plug in, and your cell phone is given a full 120V dose of AC.

I’ve been thinking about this some more, why not just recess the outlet further into the wall, thus hiding the power adapters in a little, outlet-sized cupboard space.

It seems to me that if you’re already adding an extra prong, then you should use that prong to both encode your DC voltage requirement and carry the current, using the “neutral” lug of the original outlet for your ground connection. That solves several problems:

- It removes the requirement to have some sort of switch that only turns on the power once the plug is fully inserted, so when you trip over the lamp cord and pull it half out of the wall you can still see to push the plug back in.

- It removes the need for expensive and bulky circuitry to switch the high currents that a typical 120 volt AC appliance might want to draw; you can just attach the hot and neutral pins directly to the wires in the wall like you always have.

- It allows for an encoding that doesn’t require the plug to be fully seated in order to be read accurately, even in the non-legacy case. For example, you could use a star-shaped plug and encode up to 32 levels of voltage with the presence and absence of points on the star.

The flaw in my scheme becomes apparent when your incompetent brother-in-law hooks up the hot and neutral wires backwards. Maybe you should add two extra pins to the plug, and not use either of the two original lugs for DC current delivery….

I remember an article a few months back about how Sony won the HD DVD battle, but they’re fighting the wrong war. Why would anyone spend so much money to develop a new physical disc standard (and why would consumers replace their equipment and libraries) when we’re already streaming HD content? Surely, true HD on-demand can’t be that far off. Certainly not far off enough for me to consider investing in Blu-Ray.

I agreed with Steve that this is trying to solve the wrong problem. Long have I pined for wireless electricity. Why should I spend all this money to make something wireless and then have to plug it into the wall? I even consider batteries to be a band-aid. We have the technology, but it’ll require some time to develop it.

All that said, it’s often tough to find a compromise between delivering something marginally better to a demanding public vs wait just-a-little-bit-longer* to release something better. When standardization is involved, this is infinitely harder.

* highly subjective

I really like how you throw ideas “out there” for folks to comment on. That’s ballsy and your ideas are fantastic. At any rate, I agree. Even taking the ID “notches” step farther: why not just have the device use USB-esque communication to tell the adapter what voltage it needs? Mechanical notches is a low-tech way of handling this. It’d be easier to attach the adapters along-side existing power outlets.

This would be an environmental disaster.

Transformers already waste an obscene amount of electricity. http://www.homepower.com/view/?file=HP117_pg64_Schwartz

Filling homes with more transformers than may be needed and making it impossible to deactivate any of them would be a huge step backward in energy conservation.

Fortunately, it’ll never happen.

Way to go… Except for one thing. NO WAY can you use the same jack for 120v and for DC.

What happens when some bit of unspeakable gunk gets stuck in the groove on the Type B plug, making it look like a type A?

It’s blammo time, specks of microelectronics embedded in my forehead.

I hope we’ll see the universal DC adapter eventually, as intelligent charging circuits move into the gadgets.

Of course, we should get rid of the chords & plugs altogether. The next revolution is electricity going wireless…




Great idea, but you mention going out to buy a replacement cord, and most DC things are plugged into… meaning there’s another end to the cord to consider. Make sure your type-G cord’s appliance end is never the same size as a type-C, etc or it won’t matter how many notch variations you have, someone somewhere will blow themselves up!


All those suggesting wireless power - whilst I think it’s amazing, isn’t there a problem with how much power is lost in the process? I saw a report saying that only 60% of the power made it to the receiver, the rest was lost. If we’re looking at this from an environmental standpoint, that’s awful - acceptable for your toothbrush, but for a plasma TV?

Not to mention that if everything in your house was wireless, wouldn’t the electromagnetic interference be huge - it’d mean some devices might not work, and any radios/mobiles/wifi in your house might fail, too.

I think the DC plug/socket should not be based on the antiquated USA 120V plug. I think it should be two round prongs, a smaller version of the AC plug used used in some other countries (prongs closer together). The prongs would be non-conductive except near the ends. For different voltages the prongs could be different lengths so the conductive ends would reach different connections. The higher the voltage the longer the prongs. For voltages I suggest 5V, 12V and 24V. There would be a centrally located 24V switchmode supply, not 60Hz transformers. The lower voltages would be generated by DC-DC converters at the socket. The converters would detect when there is no load and go into a sleep mode with very low consumption.

Back in the 1930s New York City was still partly AC and partly DC. The first power distribution center was Edison’s Pearl Street Station, so NYC had serious problems with legacy systems. New Yorkers often paid a premium for appliances that could run on AC or DC. Who wanted to buy a new fan or radio when moving from an AC apartment to a DC apartment? Radios, like computers, were internally DC, but they ran at a lower voltage than the DC line current. This meant that DC power had to be converted to AC, pass through a transformer to get to the right voltage, then get converted back to DC. You don’t need computers to have to deal with that kind of garbage. Of course by the 1960s almost everyone in the city was running AC, except for the subways.

Nowadays, the place to find DC wall sockets is in solar powered houses. Most solar houses convert DC to AC, but there are a lot of people, particularly people off the grid, who just stick with DC and buy DC appliances and so on. They can get away with this relatively easily because we now have semiconductor voltage regulators.

Just a quick comment as someone who has plugged things in on both sides of the Atlantic; if you’re going to revamp US electrical plugs, go for European (non-UK) style ones right away. They sit much more firmly in the socket and aren’t prone to sliding out simply from the weight of the chord like US plugs are.

The Problem with Electrical Outlets

I think that all plugs should be made in the same way. Some appliances made in America don’t work in standard European electrical outlets.

The Problem with Electrical Outlets

I think that all plugs should be made in the same way. Some appliances made in America don’t work in standard European electrical outlets.

I was thinking about this years ago. My version would have two different plugs on the outlet thought, rather then trying to make one plug do everything. You wouldn’t need both AC plugs available if more devices would switch to DC. I was was figuring that device manufacturers would have to stick to a set of DC voltages and the plug would be made such that it would deliver the right amount. But it wouldn’t work. There are several technical issues with both our systems. We were both trying for the brute force approach, while the GreenPlug version is much more elegant, and thus it can be much more fine tuned. The next thing I’d like to see is UPS’s incorporate the GreenTalk standard (and still have a few AC ports), AND have an option for a power INPUT so people could hook up a solar panel, wind turbine, under-desk exercycle, etc…then, not only would we be using power more efficiently, but we would be able to produce more locally.