Extension cords, electrical cords and outlet safety: What you need to know


Authored By Ashley Hopkins

Fact: About 4,000 extension cord-related injuries are treated in hospitals each year, about 50 of which result in death.

Fact: Half of the reported injuries are lacerations, contusions, sprains, etc., from people tripping over extension cords.

Fact: More than 3,300 home fires are caused yearly from improper extension cord use.

These statistics, gathered by Electrical Safety Foundation International, point to another fact that many folks don’t know or don’t abide by: Extension cords are not meant to be a replacement for permanent wiring.

“The rule of thumb is that extension cords are for temporary use,” said Chris Dodson, safety coordinator at EPB. “If you use them in a permanent situation, then you are asking for trouble. Adding more outlets is a lot less expensive and easier than dealing with a house fire.”

Using extension cords for a few weeks at a time, such as around the holidays, is fine, and precisely what they are intended for. But even still, certain rules should be followed.

For example, cords labeled “indoors” should only be used indoors-not on covered porches, under decks or anywhere else outdoors.

“They are not designed to keep the rain out, and the insulation value of indoor extension cords is less than outdoor extensions, which are designed for more rugged use,” Dodson said.

Another common myth associated with extension cords is that they can be strung together endlessly without causing issues. Although doing this isn’t guaranteed to be problematic, it can be.

“It depends on the electrical current load of the item that is plugged into the strung-together cords,” Dodson said. “A longer cord means more voltage drop or voltage loss, which could result in damage to the item that is plugged in and/or create a fire hazard.”

And both extension and basic electrical cords need to be monitored often for fraying and other damage. Cords that are not properly maintained could result in at best a blown fuse or tripped circuit breaker, or at worst a fire or electrocution. Cords that have obvious fraying or feel like they have insulation missing need to be repaired or replaced before being used.

Residents should also periodically touch cords.

“If the cord gets warm or hot to the touch, you may have the wrong size cord or there may be a problem with the wiring in the cord,” Dodson said. “If the cord should handle the load of the item that is plugged in and it becomes hot, there is a problem.”

Placement of cords is also important. Be it an electrical cord or an extension cord, it doesn’t need to run under carpets or rugs, because then the resident is unaware of damage that may occur. If you are concerned about people tripping over the cord, there are products on the market (that aren’t rugs!) that you can put over cords to protect them in high-traffic areas.

“If your cord will be in an area where any kind of foot traffic will be, it needs to be protected,” Dodson said. “Just the insulation of the cord is not enough by itself.”

Overloaded power strips and outlets can also be home hazards. Adding outlet extenders that change your two-socket outlet into one that can house six plugs can be fine, but you need to be cognizant of the number of amps plugged into that converter. Adding outlets doesn’t change how many amps the outlet can handle. Likewise, plugging one power strip into another power strip to give yourself more plugs can cause overloaded circuits-plus, it’s an Occupational Safety and Health Administration violation to do so. The amperage rating on power strips is also something to take into consideration. If you’re going to plug numerous items that use lots of amps into it, you may be overloading it. Additionally, you should not connect power strips to extension cords.

Finally, all your electrical cords, power strips and outlets need to be UL– or ETL-approved. If there is no stamp or sticker on an electrical device you are thinking about buying that indicates they are, choose another product. 

John Pless is the public relations coordinator at EPB.

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