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In today's household, it is extremely to find an extension cord of some kind laying around the garage. While the extension cord is one of the most common items found in a household, many people do not actually realize there are a wide variety of different extension cords for specific purposes. Here is everything you need to know about choosing the right cord for the right job.
Different Gauges (AWG)
The thickness of wire is another way of discussing the type of Gauge. Sometimes in the industry, this is referred to as “AWG.” AWG stands for American Wire Gauge. This is limited to the wire, do not confuse this with the thickness of the cord itself. Gauge specifically refers to the thickness of the wire inside the extension cord. Cords may range anywhere from 18 gauge to 10 gauge, with 10 gauge being the thickest. The thicker wire, or lower gauge, allows more current to travel through the wire. This would make sense that larger gauge wire is more appropriate for larger appliances and tools that require a lot of power.
Higher gauge cords (thinner cords) are made to serve electronics that do not require a lot of juice. Think of electronics such as a phone charger, alarm clock, fan, etc… Typically we call these “light duty” extension cords. Thicker gauged cords (10-14 gauge) are known as “medium duty or heavy” extension cords. They typically have more hardy connections at the end to help ensure protected components located on the inside. These cords are useful for items such as space heaters, refrigerators, and other heavy appliances. There is a lot of debate about heavy cords and long term use with appliances, but we can talk about that further down.
The Differences between Grounded and Ungrounded
Let’s talk about prongs! Have you ever looked at several pairs of cords and noticed some have 2 prongs while others have 3 prongs? That third prong that sort of looks like a torpedo is called the ground connection. This ground connection provides a return path for excess electrical current to prevent damage to the appliance, or even worse shock to the user if there is a short.
Many smaller, light duty cords tend to only use 2 prongs. Without the ground, we can call this an “ungrounded extension cord.” Typically when an appliance does not require a lot of power you do not need a ground – things such as lamps, clocks, chargers, fans, etc… Of course, if an appliance already has a 3 pronged plug, you should certainly plug this into a three-pronged extension cord.
You will have no problems plugging a two-pronged plug into a grounded extension cord, but do not attempt the other way around. If an item has a ground prong, its for a reason – usually something that is high powered and should not be plugged into a light-duty extension cord in the first place.
Distinguishing Outdoor and Indoor Extension Cords
Try not to be deceived by the appearance of an extension cord. It is not always clear when a cord is designed specifically for indoor or outdoor use. It really comes down to the insulation within the extension cord. Many of the light duty cords you come across have very little insulation and therefore would eventually break down when exposed to outdoor elements. Bulkier, outdoor cords are built to withstand the sun along with freezing temperatures.
While an outdoor cord may provide proper insulation, you also need to consider if it has a water-tight seal where the plug is located. Because of this you should always be cautious around wet areas and elevate the plugs if there is any still water in the area. Sometimes it is a good idea to wrap the connection in plastic to prevent rainwater from making its way inside the cord.