Extension cords are a household staple, offering a handy solution when you need to power devices away from wall outlets. However, extension cords can also be a significant fire hazard if not used safely. The Electrical Safety Foundation reports that roughly 3,300 home fires originate and are responsible for killing 50 people and injuring 270 each year due to the improper use of extension cords. However, this shouldn’t deter you from using these convenient tools, but caution you to use them properly. Following these basic guidelines can help avoid these deadly accidents
Don’t daisy-chain extension cords.
Extension cords are factory-produced to be electrically safe at a specific length based on factors such as the gauge (size) of the wiring and insulation. Using the improper gauge wiring for the distance you’re running your cord to or, simply put, adding an extension cord to an existing one adds resistance to the circuit, and the cumulative resistance can cause the wires to heat up. This heat can potentially ignite nearby flammable materials or damage the cords themselves, leading to a fire hazard.
In addition to a fire-hazard risk, daisy-chaining extension cords can lead to voltage drop. Many electrical devices have specified operating voltage ranges. If the voltage supplied to these devices drops below the lower limit of this range, they may not function properly or even be damaged. Sensitive electronic equipment is especially subject to malfunction or fail if subjected to significant voltage drops.
Instead of plugging additional extension cords into each other, use the shortest cord necessary for the job, and invest in a longer cord if absolutely needed.
Don’t use damaged cords.
Inspect the entire length of your extension cords before usage for any damage. Any sign of significant scuffs, gouges, cuts, cracks, or exposed wiring renders the cord no longer power-worthy. If you think you can fixer’up with some electrical tape, you’re wrong. Electrical tape is not a reliable insulator and may not provide sufficient protection against the electrical shock hazard and fire hazards that can come from exposed or damaged wires.
In addition to the length of the cord, inspect the ends. The prongs on the “front” of the extension cord should not be bent, nor should there be any broken pins. An extension cord in the United States should have three prongs – hot, neutral, and ground. If your extension cord has less than three, it is not safe to use. If these prongs appear bent or damaged, the cord is also no longer safe to use – damaged prongs may not make a proper connection, increasing the risk of electrical arcing.
Don’t put a price on safety. When in doubt, replacing your extension cord with a new one is always the best choice.
Do not overload extension cords.
Extension cords come in different sizes and capacities, typically measured in gauge or wire thickness. Choose a cord that can handle the electrical load you plan to connect to it. Thicker cords with lower gauge numbers can carry more current safely. For heavy-duty appliances or power tools, use a cord with a lower gauge rating (e.g., 12-gauge).
Before connecting devices to the extension cord, add up their power requirements in watts. Ensure the devices’ total wattage does not exceed the cord’s capacity. Most extension cords have their capacity (in watts or amps) written on the packaging or the cord itself.
Overloading any extension cord can cause it to overheat and start a fire or not reliably power your devices with the necessary electricity.
Do not run extension cords under rugs or carpets.
Extension cords can generate large amounts of heat, especially if they are damaged or used for high-wattage appliances. When placed under rugs or carpets, the heat cannot dissipate as easily, greatly increasing the fire risk. Overheating can melt or damage the cord’s insulation, increasing the likelihood of electrical faults.
In addition, walking or placing heavy objects on rugs or carpets with extension cords underneath can lead to abrasion and damage to the cord’s insulation while also resulting in a significant tripping hazard. Aside from possibly injuring yourself, this can expose the wires, making them susceptible to short circuits, electrical shocks, or fires.
Do not use extension cords in wet or damp locations.
This may already be known as Electricity 101, but Water and electricity do not mix; an extension cord in a wet location can increase the risk of electrocution, fires, and further damage to the cord. Water is a good conductor of electricity. If the insulation on the cord is compromised or there are any exposed wires, water can create a path for electricity to flow through your body if you come into contact with it.
Even if the cord is insulated, water can penetrate the insulation over time, especially in damp conditions. This can lead to a short circuit or electrical arcing, which can cause a fire or electrical shock, which can be lethal in some cases.
If you must use an extension cord in wet conditions, be sure to select one that is specifically designed for outdoor or wet conditions. These cords are designed with extra layers of insulation and corrosion-resistant materials, and in some cases, they may have built-in GFCIs – but as always, use proper caution and avoid exposing even these cords to unnecessary or excess wet or damp conditions.
Do not use extension cords as permanent wiring.
Extension cords are meant for temporary use and should not be used as a permanent solution for powering devices. Extension cords do not have the same level of protection as permanent wiring systems. They are not typically installed within walls, conduit, or other protective measures, leaving the wires vulnerable to damage. Using them permanently can lead to overheating or damage, which poses a safety and fire hazard.
Extension cords are also often placed on the floor or in areas where people walk. Using them as permanent wiring can create tripping hazards and increase the risk of accidents.
If you need to provide power to a specific location permanently, you’ll be better off hiring a qualified electrician to install the appropriate electrical wiring and outlets. This ensures safety, reliability, and compliance with legal requirements. Costs do vary, but it may be cheaper and easier than you think, especially if existing wiring exists in a nearby area.
Using extension cords as a permanent solution should always be avoided to prevent electrical hazards and maintain a safe environment. By following these basic safety guidelines, individuals can significantly reduce the risk of fires caused by extension cords. By taking these simple precautions, individuals can help to protect their homes and families from the dangers of fires and electrocution caused by extension cords.