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I've heard that there are some safety and building code issues involved with using extension cords or power strips (surge protectors) for anything other than temporary use. What are the issues, and how can extension cords be used safely?

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Read the labels, and follow the instructions. –  Tester101 Jul 14 '11 at 17:19
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Do not use extension cords as a rope alternative. –  Tester101 Jul 14 '11 at 17:21
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Temporary means non-permanent, e.g. you can't run one inside a wall cavity, etc. –  Tester101 Jul 14 '11 at 17:32
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If you are constantly watching your power strip, you should try plugging a T.V. or something into it to distract you. It must be boring just watching a power strip ;) Seriously though. They are fairly safe if they are used properly, and inspected from time to time. –  Tester101 Jul 14 '11 at 20:33
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My $0.02, don't do this: i.stack.imgur.com/QH4Fu.jpg –  BMitch Sep 6 '11 at 17:46

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

This is one of the biggest problem with power strips (surge protectors)... enter image description here

Overload!

The average person does not think about how much power each device is drawing, or how much the system can handle, they just see an open outlet and plug stuff in. If they can't find an open outlet... Oh yeah! they make adapters for that! I mean they sell the adapters, so they must be safe... Right?

If your power strips look like this (or worse), you better at least be checking the batteries in that smoke alarm (which is hopefully not plugged into this power strip too).

If you are using the power strip (or extension cord) properly (one plug per outlet, no adapters, no daisy chaining) and you inspect the power strip for damage (wear & tear) regularly, you should not have much to fear.

Another thing to look at when using a power strip or extension cord, is the size of the wire and the voltage and amperage ratings. If you are using things like electric heaters, power tools, vacuums, etc., make sure the wire (extension cord/power strip) is the proper size to handle the above average load of these types of devices. Overloaded wire can heat up quickly and cause a fire.

Basically if you use common sense, inspect the cables for obvious damage and/or wear & tear regularly, and use the cables for their intended purpose, you should have no problems using extension cords and/or power strips.

Here is some interesting stuff from The Office of Compliance about Power Strips and Dangerous Daisy Chains.

Problems:

OSHA regulations require that conductors and electrical equipment be used in accordance with the conditions under which they are approved by a recognized testing organization (29 CFR 1910.303(a)). Most power strips are approved for providing power to a maximum of four or six individual items; however, when multiple power strips are interconnected, the one directly connected to the building outlet is often supplying power to far more than the approved number. This electrical current overload can result in a fire or can cause a circuit breaker to trip, deenergizing computers and other equipment throughout the area. The risk is magnified when another outlet in the same wall or floor receptacle is also overloaded in a similar fashion. When other outlets on the same circuit are also overloaded, the risk increases.

Extension cords are sometimes used to energize power strips in locations far from outlets. Because electrical resistance increases with increased power cord length, interconnecting cords increases the total resistance and resultant heat generation. This creates an additional risk of equipment failure and fire, particularly when paper and other combustible materials are in contact with the wires. Additionally, OSHA’s regulations allow extension cords to be used only as temporary wiring for up to 90 days. Unfortunately,once in place, extension cords tend to become permanent wiring and a fire hazard.

Solutions:

Several safe solutions exist. In many cases, a power strip energized by an extension cord or another power strip can simply be replaced by a power strip with a power cord of adequate length to reach an outlet. Other times, use of a power strip that is better able to accommodate bulkier transformer plugs solves the problem. Several factors should be considered when selecting an appropriate surge protector. Since models vary in the amount of current that they are rated to safely carry, it is important to consider the amperage requirements of the devices to be energized. Models vary in length of power cord, typically ranging from three to 15 feet. Choose one whose length is most appropriate for reaching the intended room outlet. Avoid having too much excess cord, and make sure the surge protector is set on its base. Some have swivel plugs which makes them easier to connect to the outlet, and helps to protect the plug and cord from damage. Check each surge protector to make sure it is in good condition for use.

Only power strips equipped with internal fuses are acceptable as permanent wiring. Those lacking these fuses are equivalent to extension cords, and therefore may not be used as permanent wiring. When a power strip is installed, care must be taken to ensure that it is not suspended in mid-air by its power cord or cords plugged into it, resulting in excessive stress on electrical connections.


The National Electrical Code (NEC) has a whole article devoted to flexible cords and cables, one of the more applicable sections in this case would be 400.8.

2008 National Electrical Code

ARTICLE 400 Flexible Cords and Cables

400.8 Uses Not Permitted. Unless specifically permitted in 400.7, flexible cords and cables shall not be used for the following:
(1) As a substitute for the fixed wiring of a structure
(2) Where run through holes in walls, structural ceilings, suspended ceilings, dropped ceilings, or floors
(3) Where run through doorways, windows, or similar openings
(4) Where attached to building surfaces
Exception to (4): Flexible cord and cable shall be permitted to be attached to building surfaces in accordance with the provisions of 368.56(B)*
(5) Where concealed by walls, floors, or ceilings or located above suspended or dropped ceilings
(6) Where installed in raceways, except as otherwise permitted in this Code
(7) Where subject to physical damage

*368.56(B) Cord and Cable Assemblies. Suitable cord and cable assemblies approved for extra-hard usage or hard usage and listed bus drop cable shall be permitted as branches from busways for the connection of portable equipment or the connection of stationary equipment to facilitate their interchange in accordance with 400.7 and 400.8 and the following conditions:
(1) The cord or cable shall be attached to the building by an approved means.
(2) The length of the cord or cable from a busway plug-in device to a suitable tension take-up support device shall not exceed 1.8 m (6 ft).
(3) The cord and cable shall be installed as a vertical riser from the tension take-up support device to the equipment served.
(4) Strain relief cable grips shall be provided for the cord or cable at the busway plug-in device and equipment terminations.

400.8(1) As a substitute for the fixed wiring of a structure.

enter image description here

400.8(2) Where run through holes in walls, structural ceilings, suspended ceilings, dropped ceilings, or floors.

enter image description here

400.8(3) Where run through doorways, windows, or similar openings.

enter image description here

400.8(4) Where attached to building surfaces.

enter image description here

400.8(5) Where concealed by walls, floors, or ceilings or located above suspended or dropped ceilings.

enter image description here

400.8(6) Where installed in raceways, except as otherwise permitted in this Code

enter image description here

400.8(7) Where subject to physical damage

enter image description here

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+1. Excellent answer. I especially like the photos; did you take them yourself in order to illustrate the answer? –  unforgettableid May 9 '13 at 17:48
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Most power strips I've seen have an overload protection circuit breaker which will trip if the current drawn exceeds the wire's open-air current-handling ability. If a power strip has such a suitable breaker, it should be safe to plug a large number of low-draw appliances into it. Many extension cords (in USA at least), however, do not have an overload-protection device; many such cords could overheat badly if used to power even a single 1500W heater. –  supercat Apr 7 at 1:45

If you have to join two extension cords together (for a longer reach), make sure the cables are both the appropriate gauge to handle the extra length. To prevent the ends from coming partially or fully disconnected (which can be annoying, and a possible shock/fire hazard), tie a simple knot to hold the cables together.

enter image description here

Keep in mind that connecting too many cords together can be a fire hazard, and make sure you are using appropriately sized cables.

Here is a good table from Home Depot for determining the minimum wire gauge recommendations for different devices and cord lengths. Buying Guides: Extension Cords.

enter image description here

As an example if you want to use your circular saw at 100 ft., you'll need at least 12 AWG cable. If you need to reach an extra 50 ft. (150 ft. total) and happen to have an extra 50 ft. extension cord, both cords should be at least 10 AWG.

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How do you determine what gauge is required for what length? –  jrdioko Jul 15 '11 at 16:55
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@jrdioko: see edit. –  Tester101 Jul 15 '11 at 17:10
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I don't like that knot, it puts too much sideways pressure on the cord end. ( Where it is likely to fail anyway ) I prefer grabbing both ends and making a single large knot, far enough away from the connection to reduce the strain on the ends. –  Brad Gilbert Jul 2 '13 at 4:49

Don't run an extension cord under a rug. When people walk on the rug it will rub on the cord, and over time the friction can wear through the cord's insulation, leading to arcing which can cause a fire. This is one reason AFCI breakers are recommended and/or required, as they can shut off a circuit at the first sign of arcing.

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It can also be a tripping hazard. –  Tester101 Jul 15 '11 at 16:28

An extension cord is generally not fire-rated; the insulating covering over it will either sustain a fire (unlikely in most cases as they must still meet basic electrical fire codes), or release toxic chemicals when burned (more likely). Extension cords, though durable, are also not built for in-wall or under-floor installation; the insulation will after several years harden, crack and split, exposing the wire and causing a fire hazard.

However, all this means is that such wires are not designed for permanent installation into a home. As long as you use it in a manner such that the cord can be unplugged, removed and thrown away when the cord deteriorates, and you expect that to happen after some years, especially outdoors, you're fine.

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