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I've gone through a couple of step-down transformers (220v → 110v) over the course of my travels. Each one I've purchased doesn't quite work as advertised; usually, the output voltage is still too much, and I end up frying one of my electronic devices!

For instance, during a trip to Shanghai last year, my traveling companion had a hair straightener plugged into a step-down converter (actually, very similar to if not the same model as the one MeNoTalk suggested in the comments below). The hair straightener overheated and the heating elements melted through the plastic housing. It was not a pretty sight.

What step-down transformers are available for travelers that reliably convert 220v to 110v without spikes... in other words, that actually do what they're supposed to do!

Bonus points for compact design (fits on a power strip) and has adapters for different plug styles.

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4  
Most consumer electronics come with their own transformers for converting 100-240v, 50/60Hz AC. I'd bet your transformer isn't frying your devices, your lack of surge protection is. – choster Aug 30 '12 at 16:19
6  
Remember that a true step-down transformer that can handle any substantial amount of power is going to be HEAVY. We have a step-up that can handle some hundreds of watts, it's at least 10 pounds. (The heart of a step-up and a step-down are exactly the same.) Thus you see true step downs for very low power operation and you see fake ones that do high power but produce nothing like a proper sine wave--fine for simple things, bad for electronics. – Loren Pechtel Aug 30 '12 at 21:54
    
What kind of output voltage are you seeing? – Nate Eldredge Sep 3 '12 at 14:23
    
@NateEldredge Good question; actually, I've never measured it. I've edited my question to include a bit more information. – user82 Sep 3 '12 at 18:28
up vote 6 down vote accepted

After about a year and a half of permanent travel, I've found that I actually don't need a step-down transformer.

As it turns out, all of the devices I carry with me regularly can handle 110 and 220 just fine, and the odd appliance that can't is usually inexpensive to purchase at my destination.

If you're a permanent traveler, the weight and bulk of a transformer is difficult to justify.

If you're a casual traveler, the cost of purchasing small appliances locally and then donating/trashing them when you go home is probably still less than what you would spend on the transformer itself.

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2  
While this is true for most electronic equipment these days, it's very unlikely to be correct for something like a hair dryer or hair straightener. – Hilmar Dec 10 '15 at 7:06
    
@Hilmar true but I imagine that's what was meant by "the odd appliance that can't is usually inexpensive to purchase at my destination" – user568458 Dec 10 '15 at 14:35
    
You can get dual voltage hairdriers and hair straightners. Just remember to change the voltage selector switch when you go from a 110V country to a 220V country. – Peter Green Dec 10 '15 at 14:36

Old question but I think the core of the right answer is still missing and since it's potentially a safety concern it may warrant another as answer.

  1. All step down transformers are rated for a certain power. If you exceed the rated power, bad things will happen. YOU MUST NEVER EXCEED THE RATED POWER. A hair straightener needs a lot of power and would require a big and heavy transformer
  2. Power rating is directly proportional to price, size and weight of the transformer. Hence there is a large variety out there. The first two hits on amazon are good example are this and this. The first one is small cheap and lightweight but handles only 200 W and the second one is big, bulky, expensive but handles 3000W. The one linked in the comments (mwave.com/mwave/SKUSearch.asp?px=FO&scriteria=AB05101) is BAD. It does not contain a power specification at all. From the looks of it, it would not work with a hair straightener.
  3. The transformer must be configured properly: Most transformers can step down or up and need some adapters for the proper plugs at both ends. You have to make sure that input and output are set to the proper voltage (typically with switches on the product) and that you don't swap input and output accidentally

To answer the original question: You need to find find a transformer meets your power requirements and you need to configure it properly.

Hair straighteners are very power hungry devices and my guess is that either the power of the device exceeded the rated power of the transformer or that the transformer was configured improperly.

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You did not specify what kind of equipment, but in my experience most electronics I carry around can handle 100-240V on their own. (as @choster said) For old equipment you might well be able to buy a new adapter with the same specifications but also handles up to 240V.

However something nifty I found was a power-to-USB adapter. So I can charge my phone and mp3 player anywhere. Maybe this kind of solution can work for you. In my case I use some adapters from Skross.

As for good converter I think portability becomes a problem. (as @LorenPechtel said) You might try go to popular web shops and check what other consumers have to say.

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Good points, thanks! I have edited my question to include a bit more information. – user82 Sep 3 '12 at 18:29

The problem is proper transformers tend to be heavy. If you had relocated to europe and wanted a permanent soloution to running american appliances I'd reccomend one of the "yellow brick" transformers they use on UK building sites. They are sturdilly built, are proper isolation transformers and have the power to run basically anything that comes with a normal domestic plug.

http://www.screwfix.com/p/portable-transformer-with-2-output-sockets-3kva/84144

Downside is they are bulky, heavy, expensive and you will have to change some plugs.

Products sold for travellers are at best likely to be autotransformers. Autotransformers will be about half the weight of isolation transformers but have two major downsides. Firstly they connect the output neutral to the input neutral which can cause problems if the supply is reverse polarity (see http://www.gson.org/stepdown/ ). Secondly they can fail in a way that leaves the input voltage on the ouput.

At worst products sold for travellers may not be transformers at all but instead may be triac based products. These reduce the RMS voltage but not the peak voltage. Fine for heating elements, very bad for anything else and probablly even more likely to fail in a bad way than an autotransformer.

Overall unless you need to travel with highly specialised equipment that simply can't be got in a 230V version or would be insanely expensive you are probablly better off simply buying universal or switchable voltage gear (universal being preferable to switchable but you don't often get the choice) and forgetting about the transformer.

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