By Mike McClintock
Special to Tribune Newspapers
January 11, 2013
Electrical codes call for so many outlets that you can plug in almost anything anywhere. Most rooms have them at 12-foot intervals, and in kitchens even closer. So why do many homes have one or two outlet expanders overloaded with plugs, plus permanent extension cords?
In the kitchen, countertop appliances are only 24 inches from power. The idea is to accommodate the short cords on plug-in appliances, which. prevents accidents that were common with longer cords looping over the counter edge where children could pull on them.
The major flaw in electrical codes is that they average use throughout the house. They can't anticipate where you'll gather entertainment equipment or a home office needing outlets for computers, printers and other gear. One solution is to install a multiple strip outlet with surge protection built in to turn two outlets into four or six.
In a home shop, for example, it's fine to have several power tools plugged in and ready to go because you won't be handling a saw, drill and others simultaneously. It's not OK to create an electrical octopus of cords and sockets feeding power to components that might run at the same time. For instance, an entertainment center may house a TV, cable box, DVD player, audio components, an array of speakers and a few lights — way too many plugs for a standard duplex receptacle. When you have many plugs in one spot powering appliances that could be on at the same time, you need more outlets, not more extension cords.
You could add up the electrical loads to see if what you're running is over the circuit's capacity. But the system is designed to protect you even if you don't do the math. The clear signs of problems: heat at outlets and plugs, and tripping circuit breakers. When they trip it's to keep a problem from getting worse.
Extension cords come with different capacities — and a third wire for grounding. That's the one attached to the round prong to carry away a potentially lethal jolt from a short circuit.
Capacity is determined by the wire diameter and measured by gauge numbers — the smaller the number, the thicker the wire and the more electricity it can carry. Many manufacturers start the line at 16-gauge rated for tools and appliances that draw up to 13 amps. (Find the amp rating on the manufacturer's plate, or in the owner's manual.) That will safely handle most drills and sanders, but it's borderline for some circular saws and larger tools.
You don't want borderline, particularly on long cords. Long cords provide more resistance to the flow of electricity, and a voltage drop that can cause overheating and damage in the tool motor. For example, with a 71/4-inch circular saw rated at 15 amps, you want a 14-gauge cord for lengths up to 50 feet and a 12-gauge cord for lengths up to 100 feet — with a grounding wire (marked 12/3) for any tool or appliance with a three-prong plug.
Also check the cord rating for indoor or indoor-outdoor use. For the most flexibility and fewest tangles, specially in the cold, use rubber instead of plastic-jacketed models. For extra safety working in wet areas, use a cord with a built-in ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). These quick-tripping breakers kill power on the spot — faster than standard breakers in the house.