Extension cords are one of the most common household items, but there are many different kinds of extension cords built for different purposes. Here’s what you should know about extension cords and when they can and can’t be used.
The Different Gauges (aka AWG)
The wires inside an extension cord come in all different thicknesses, which is denoted as “gauge”. It’s also sometimes referred to as “AWG”, which stands for American Wire Gauge. However, don’t get this confused with the actual thickness of the cord itself (though the thicker the gauge, the thicker the cable, to an extent). Instead, gauge refers to the thickness of the wires inside the extension cord.
Extension cords range anywhere from 18 gauge to 10 gauge, with 10 gauge being the thickest. Lower gauge (aka thicker) wires allow more electrical current to flow through the extension cord, making lower-gauge cords better for larger appliances and tools that need a lot of juice.
Most higher-gauge extension cords are pretty thin and compact (like this one), and made to be used with electronics that don’t need a lot of power, like lamps, alarm clocks, fans, and more. These are also known as “light duty” extension cords.
Thicker-gauge extension cords in the range of 10-14 gauge are known as “medium duty” or “heavy duty” extension cords (like this one) and usually look like a really-thick ethernet cable of sorts. They also usually have bulkier connectors at the ends to protect the components on the inside. However, you can sometimes find light-duty extension cords that look like heavy-duty ones (like this one), so be sure to double check the gauge, which can sometimes be found printed on the cord itself.
Thicker-gauge extension cords are suited for more demanding appliances and tools, like space heaters, refrigerators, and more. There’s a lot of controversy about using extension cords with demanding appliances, so we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Grounded vs. Ungrounded
The moment you set eyes on different extension cords, you’ll notice one glaring difference: the plug will either have two or three prongs. The third prong is a ground connection, which provides a return path for excess electrical current to prevent damage to the appliance, or even worse, electrical shock to the user if there’s a short.
You’ll mostly see light-duty extension cords sport only two prongs, which is also known as an ungrounded extension cord. These can be used safely with items that don’t draw a lot of power (lamps, fans, clocks, etc.). However, if an appliance has a three-pronged plug, you’ll need to plug it into a three-pronged (aka grounded) extension cord.
You can plug an appliance with a two-pronged plug into a grounded extension cord without a problem, but do not plug in a three-pronged plug into an ungrounded extension cord (by using one these adapters), mostly because anything with a ground prong is usually high-powered and should not be plugged into a light-duty extension cord in the first place.
Outdoor vs. Indoor
Just by looking at an extension cord, you may not be able to tell if it can be used outdoors or only indoors, but the insulation that the extension cord uses makes all the difference.
Most indoor light-duty extension cords (like the one pictured above) have little insulation, and would eventually deteriorate when exposed to the outdoor elements for any significant amount of time. Outdoor extension cords, however, have much better insulation and more of it. They’re able to withstand the hot sun, as well as the freezing winter without causing any problems.
However, many outdoor extension cords don’t provide a water-tight seal where the plug is, since there’s really no way to achieve that in the first place. So it’s still recommended that you be careful around wet areas and elevate the plugs if there’s any standing water in the area. It’s also a good idea to wrap the connection in plastic to prevent rain water from making its way inside.
When and Where You Shouldn’t Use Extension Cords
Contrary to what you may think about extension cords, there are some instances where they shouldn’t be used, depending on the appliance and how far away it is.
First off, extension cords can only be so long. In general, the thicker the cord is (gauge-wise), the longer it can be (up to around 150 feet with the thickest cords). This is why you hardly ever see light-duty extension cords longer than 25 feet or so, because the voltage would die down before it reached the appliance, resulting in devices not getting enough power and possibly creating safety hazards. This is also why you shouldn’t daisy chain extension cords.
Furthermore, extension cords should not be installed inside of walls and used permanently, because they’re unshielded and not heat-resistant, whereas true romex electrical wire is.
As for using extension cords to power high-wattage appliances like a space heater or a hair dryer, it’s generally frowned upon. Most appliance manufacturers will tell you not to do this, because it’s really easy to use an extension cord that isn’t rated for the power needed from the appliance. However, it’s generally not a problem if you use the correct type of extension cord.
For instance, if your space heater pulls 15 amps, you’ll want an extension cord that can handle at least 15 amps. This means you’ll probably end up with at least a 14-gauge extension cord, but even 10- or 12-gauge cords will work as well. What you don’t want to do is use a light-duty extension cord that isn’t rated for the power draw a space heater pulls—that’s asking for trouble.