Extension cords are extremely handy for when you need power and you’re not near an electrical outlet. Many people use extension cords when performing yard work and a variety of other tasks without really giving it any thought. The problem with this is that extension cords have the potential to be a serious safety risk if they’re not used properly or are damaged. The number of electrocutions and electrical fires caused by using extension cords improperly is far higher than it should be simply because most people don’t take all these necessary safety precautions. To avoid any hazards or potentially fatal accidents, follow the below safety precautions.

Never Use an Extension Cord Without First Inspecting It

Using an extension cord that’s damaged is a major safety hazard. If the extension cord is damaged, it can lead to a fire or cause you to get electrocuted. While a damaged cord won’t always shock you, start a fire or short circuit, it simply isn’t worth taking the risk. This is why it’s important that you inspect the entire length of the cord along with both plug ends before using any extension cord.

The shielding or insulation around the wires should be fully intact from end to end with no gap between it and either plug. If there are any cracks in the shielding that you can see the wires through, the cord isn’t considered safe to use and should be thrown away. You should also replace the cord if you can see the wires where they attach to one of the plugs.

Before plugging in the extension cord, you need to quickly inspect the outlet you’re plugging it into as well. If the outlet looks like it has melted or has any smoke or burn marks, it’s also unsafe, and you need to use a different one. In this situation, you should also get the outlet inspected and repaired as soon as you can. These issues almost always mean that one of the wires feeding the outlet is damaged or that one of the wire connections is loose. Either a damaged wire or loose connection can cause the current to arc. When this occurs, it produces sparks that will often start to melt the outlet or the wiring and can lead to it catching fire.

If the outlet is loose or you can’t get the plug on the extension cord to go all the way in, you also should use a different outlet. Similarly, you need to make sure that the plug fits in tightly and is secure.

Unplug All Extension Cords After Use and Store Them Inside

When you’re finished with your task that required the use of the extension cord, you should immediately unplug it and then store it in your garage, shed or house. Extension cords can be a tripping hazard, but the bigger issue is that the cord can get damaged if left outside. Newer extension cords meant for outdoor use typically have waterproof caps that fit over each plug end to prevent water from getting inside. If you leave the cord plugged in and don’t put this cap on the other end, the cord can start a fire if it gets wet. You can also get electrocuted when you come into contact with this cord.

Only Used Certified Cords and Electrical Equipment

US law requires all electrical equipment, devices and extension cords to be certified and listed by an independent, OSHA-approved Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL). This is to ensure that all electrical products in the US conform to specific regulations and meet all relevant safety standards. Although there are more than a dozen approved NRTLs, the main ones that test and certify electrical equipment are Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and Electronic Testing Laboratories (ETL). Products produced in Canada are usually certified by the Canadian Standards Association, and this certification is also valid in the US.

Although all electrical equipment and extension cords sold in the US are technically required to have one of these certifications, not all of them actually do. Despite it being illegal, there are many companies online that sell equipment that was imported from another country and doesn’t have the necessary certification. You should always check that any extension cords and electrical equipment you use have a label or tag that shows it is UL-, ETL- or CSA-certified. Uncertified equipment may not be safe to use since it hasn’t been evaluated and proven to meet the required standards.

Never Exceed the Rated Wattage of an Extension Cord

Another reason that you need to check for the UL, ETL or CSA tag or label is that it also lists how many watts a tool or device uses. The tag on an extension cord lists how many watts it can safely supply. Before plugging anything into an extension cord, you need to check how many watts of electricity it uses and the maximum wattage rating of the cord.

Exceeding the maximum wattage rating of an extension cord is a fire hazard. If you draw more watts than what the cord is rated to handle, the wires in the cord will quickly start overheating and may lead to the cord catching fire.

Any extension cord should have a tag next to one of the plug ends that tells you it is certified and lists the maximum wattage and amperage ratings. If you have an old cord that is missing the tag, you should replace it since you will not know how much power it can safely supply.

Never Stretch an Extension Cord Too Tightly

Whenever using an extension cord, you need to make sure it isn’t stretched too tightly and always has at least a bit of slack. A cord that is stretched too tightly can exert additional pressure on the outlet. When this happens, there is always a risk that the outlet may start to shift and come loose. This can damage the wiring or loosen the electrical connections, leading to arcing, sparking and possibly starting a fire. The same thing can also happen if you unplug a cord by yanking on it, which is why you should always unplug a cord by grasping the plug and pulling it out.

Make Sure the Extension Cord or Electrical Outlet Is GFCI Protected

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter or GFCI protection is required whenever using electricity outside, in a damp area or near water. A GFCI protects against the extreme risk of electrocution that comes with using electricity around water or moisture. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity, which means that the electricity can easily flow out of the cord or outlet through the water and into any nearby objects that are grounded. Electricity always takes the easiest possible route to the ground where there is the least amount of resistance. Unfortunately, human bodies are also great conductors. This means that your body will offer the path of least resistance should the electricity come into contact with water, and you’ll get electrocuted.

GFCIs are extremely sensitive and will instantly trip if the electricity ever starts leaking out and taking a different, unexpected path to ground. If the cord, outlet or whatever you’re using the cord to power gets exposed to water and electricity leaks out, the GFCI will trip and stop the electricity from flowing before it can seriously or fatally electrocute you.

Although the National Electric Code mandates that all outdoor outlets in newly constructed homes have GFCI protection, many homes don’t have GFCI outdoor outlets. You can easily tell if an outlet is GFCI protected by checking if it has a Test and Reset button since these are found on all GFCI outlets. If the outlet you’re using isn’t a GFCI, you should make sure that you only ever use a GFCI-protected extension cord in it. GFCI protection isn’t necessary if you’re using the extension cord inside and you’re not near any source of water, but it is an essential safety measure when working with electricity outside.

If you need any electrical services in Shakopee or the Twin Cities area, Finch Home Solutions is the electrical contractor to trust. Our skilled electricians have years of experience performing all electrical services, so give us a call for all your electrical repair, installation and inspection!

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