Ready, Set, Lights! When And How To Use An Extension Cord Safely

If you are like most people, you've probably used an extension cord to supply electricity to those hard-to-reach areas of your home. While they can be handy as a temporary solution to power appliances when the electrical cord is too short to reach an outlet, using them as a permanent solution comes with some risks. According to the Electrical Safety Commission International (ESFi), 3,300 fires are started each year from improper use extension cords, resulting in approximately 300 deaths or serious injuries. Knowing how to use an extension cord safely greatly reduces the risk to you and your family.

Use the Right Extension Cord

Not all extension cords are the same. They may be labeled as either indoor or outdoor extension cords. You should take these labels seriously.

  • Outdoor Extension Cords: These extension cords are typically heavyweight orange or black cords that are equipped to handle the elements, particularly moisture. These cords are generally round and you cannot see the grooves of the individual wires in the cord.They also contain a three-prong plug.
  • Indoor Extension Cords: These extension cords are lightweight and may be brown, white or green depending on the manufacturer of the cord. These cords typically have a groove down the center and you can see the shape of two separate electrical lines that make up the extension cord. Indoor extension cords usually have a two-prong plug on the end. 

Don't take the appearance alone as an indicator of an extension cord's use. Some indoor extension cords look remarkably similar to outdoor cords. Always check the tag attached to the plug on the cord for its recommended use. 

Avoid Running Extension Cords Under Rugs

You've probably heard cautions against running an extension cord under rugs or placing anything on top of the cord. You may be tempted to think that others are being overly cautious and that it won't do any harm. The dangers are two-fold.

  1. The rug conceals the cord making it impossible to see if the cord is damaged by foot traffic or moving objects. If  the cord frays, live wires can be exposed and ignite the rug.
  2. The insulation of the rug can cause the extension cord to overheat and cause a fire.

Temporary Solutions

There is nothing wrong with using extension cords to temporarily reach outlets. This includes those seasonal holiday lights, occasional use of power tools for home improvement projects or trouble lights to give light to special projects. Observing some basic safety rules makes using an extension cord safe and convenient.

  • If you must run an extension cord across a high-traffic area, use tape to secure it in place. Never use staples to secure extension cords, as you may damage the cord and put your family at risk.
  • Use a surge protector with the extension cord to protect your electrical appliance.
  • Do not exceed the recommended electrical load listed on the cord or its packaging. Exceeding the electrical load poses a risk of the extension cord overheating and causing a fire.
  • Do not use an indoor extension cord outside, even on a dry, sunny day. 

Permanent Solutions

Sometimes, you need a permanent solution for appliances or frequently-used electrical equipment located in out-of-the-way areas or with short electrical cords. There are several ways to solve the issue.

  1. Hire an electrician to run a new electrical line to the area and install enough outlets to handle your needs.
  2. Purchase appliances with long cords, or have an electrician adapt the cords, if feasible, so that they reach the existing outlets.
  3. Rearrange your home furnishings so vital appliances and electrical equipment are located near outlets.
  4. Install outlets in the garage or on the outside of the home for power tools or yard and garden tools.

With proper use, extension cords are a safe an reliable way to extend the distance between your electrical appliances and the electrical outlet, but they shouldn't be used as a permanent solution. If you use an extension cord for more than occasional use, talk to your electrician about a permanent solution.

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