Power Up: Power Cord Tips

If your tools and electric motors are getting hot and you are connecting them with an extension cord, it is a possible sign that you have the wrong gauge extension cord. Not only will the use of the wrong extension cord reduce the performance and life of your equipment, it can also become a fire hazard.

Before using any extension cord to help power your tools or equipment, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will I use the cord indoors or outdoors?
  • What is the total wattage rating of the equipment I’ll use with the cord?
  • How far is the nearest outlet from where I’ll be working?

The first step in determining which extension cord you will need is to decide whether you will be using the equipment indoors or outdoors. Extension cords that can be used outdoors will be clearly marked “Suitable for Use with Outdoor Appliances.” Never use an indoor extension cord outdoors; it could result in an electric shock or fire hazard. Most barns have conditions that would also indicate outdoor use cords would be safer.

Extension cords are labeled with valuable information as to the use, size and wattage rating of the cord. Cords are offered in many lengths and are marked with a size or “gauge.” The gauge is based on the American Wire Gauge (AWG) System, in which the larger the wire, the smaller the AWG number. For example, a 12-gauge wire would be larger, and can power larger wattage equipment than a 14-gauge wire.

To determine what size — or gauge — cord you will need, you will also have to determine how long you need the cord to be. A cord, based on its gauge, can power equipment of certain wattage only at specific distances. As the cord gets longer, the current carrying capacity of the cord gets lower. For example, a 16-gauge extension cord less than 50 feet in length can power up to 1625 watts (W). A 16-gauge cord that is longer than 50 feet in length can only power equipment up to 1250W.

All equipment should indicate how much wattage is consumed when operated; that rating can be found on the equipment itself or within the use and care booklet that accompanies the product. Other equipment will indicate power usage in amps, rather than watts. Quick tip: if your equipment indicates that it uses 5 amps at 125 volts, then its wattage rating is 625W (5×125). If you are going to use the extension cord with two or more pieces of equipment, you must add together the wattage rating for all equipment used on the cord. The total of those wattage ratings will help you determine which gauge size you will need.

If you are working in a barn, the outlet that you may be using may have low voltage, because it may be at the end of the line. If this is the case you will need a larger gauge extension cord to prevent additional drop in voltage.

Always try to connect to the plug nearest to the breaker box in the barn. It has the least drop in voltage!

Follow these additional safety tips when using extension cords with any electrical appliance.

  • Look for the UL Mark on extension cords you purchase.  The UL Mark means that representative samples of the cord have been tested for foreseeable safety hazards.
  • Store all cords indoors when not in use. Outdoor conditions can deteriorate a cord over time.
  • Never keep an extension cord plugged in when not in use. The cord will still conduct electricity until it is unplugged from the outlet.
  • Most newer, indoor cords with more than one outlet have covers for the unused openings – use them. Children and pets face serious injury if they chew on unused outlets or stick sharp metal objects into the openings.
  • Do not use extension cords that are cut or damaged. Touching even a single exposed strand of wire can give you an electric shock or burn.
  • Never file or cut the plug blades or grounding pin of an extension cord or equipment to plug it into an old outlet.
  • As a safety feature, extension cords and most equipment have polarized plugs (one blade wider than the other). These special plugs are designed to prevent electric shock by properly aligning circuit conductors. If a plug does not fit, have a qualified electrician install a new outlet.

This article is from The Natural Angle Volume 9, Issue 3 . For more Natural Angle articles and tips, click here.

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