Extension cords are undeniably helpful. However, an extension cord is the sort of thing that sits on a shelf or hangs in the garage until you need it. As a result, you probably don’t think much about it or wonder how many volts an extension cord can handle.
Being aware of the limits of the tools you’re working with can help keep you safe and working effectively, so it’s essential to consider them.
Extension cord safety is critical. After traffic, violence, and construction, electrocution is the fourth most common cause of fatalities in industrial settings, and electrical problems can also cause dangerous fires. Many of these tragedies result from misusing cords or using damaged ones.
Simple ways to help keep your home or job site safer include:
- Checking your extension cord for damage and throwing it out if you see any. Don’t try to patch the cord with electrical tape or keep using it if you know it’s damaged.
- Only using extension cords in their intended environments. You should never use indoor extension cords outdoors.
- They were never attaching multiple extension cords.
- The grounding pin on an extension cord is there for a reason, and you should never remove it to use the cord with a two-pronged outlet.
- Extension cords aren’t permanent solutions, either.
Having some knowledge of physics behind extension cords helps too. Don’t panic if you hated the subject in high school or college. Everything you need to know is simple and easy to remember.
Volts, Amps and Watts
If you’re reading this article because you’re worried that using an extension cord with a specific voltage will overwhelm the cord, you can relax. Think of voltage as the pressure that moves the current through the cord. Voltage is a critical part of the equation, but it’s not what will cause problems.
The exception is if your extension cord is damaged and you touch a wire while it’s live. Because voltage pushes the current through the wire, it’s also what drives the current through you. Of course, this only happens when there’s a current to move.
Generally, 30 volts are needed to overcome the human body’s resistance. You’ll feel a current of just one milliamp—that’s one-thousandth of an amp—as a shock. A higher voltage or higher amperage will cause additional harm.
Current, which is measured in amps and sometimes called amperage, is the electrical charge flowing through a wire or circuit at any given time.
When you multiply current by voltage, you get the wattage. Knowing that this equation is called Ohms law is fun trivia but not necessary.
Wattage is the actual amount of power an appliance requires to run or the power an outlet produces. For example, in the United States, the outlets you find in your home are rated for 15 amps and 120 volts, meaning they can generate 1800 watts.
Extension Cords and Voltage
So, why does all of this matter when it comes to extension cords? If high voltage won’t fry an extension cord, why should you care?
When working with and considering electricity, we’re used to thinking higher numbers are more dangerous and damaging. While that’s usually true, it isn’t in this case. Any concerns you have relating to voltage when working with an extension cord should center around voltage drop.
While electrical cords are designed to allow the flow of electricity, they aren’t perfect. The electricity still encounters some resistance, which reduces the voltage. Higher amounts of voltage are lost when:
- You’re working with a longer extension cord.
- The wires you’re using are made from less effective conductors.
- The wires you’re using have a smaller diameter.
- The current the wires are transporting increases.
If you lose too much voltage to resistance, you may notice the tools you’re using operate less effectively. As a result, they might burn out more quickly or heat up. The same is true of your extension cord, to the point that the insulation can melt or flammable materials nearby can ignite.
To help avoid voltage drop-related issues, never use an extension cord longer than necessary. You will want to pay attention to the gauge of the extension cord you’re using. Gauge refers to the diameter of the wires within the cord, although the relationship between gauge and diameter is inverse. Higher gauge numbers correlate with narrower wires.
It would help if you typically didn’t have multiple tools or appliances running off the same extension cord anyway. Still, ensuring each cord only powers one item can also help reduce voltage drop.
If you notice that your extension cord feels warm, you should stop using it. While it might simply be overloaded and not up to what you’re asking of it, it’s also possible that the insulation is beginning to wear out.
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