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Fire Safety Forum: Extension cord safety

I slept great last night! So what, you ask? Well, I just mention it because the past few nights have been a nice break from the blistering heat of late. Finally a chance to turn off the fans and the air conditioners and save a few bucks off the electric bill. As I unplugged my portable air conditioner, it got me to thinking about the electric extension cords that are so common in the use of these types of appliances. More to the point, some of us associate the use of extension cords with the colder months of the year with space heaters, extra lights and holiday decorations. The reality is that we use them year round, so let’s not forget the hazards of using them regardless of the season.

Let’s dive in to some of their common summer uses and review some precautions to lessen the fire starting potential. Those of us who have window or portable air conditioners, fans, power tools and other appliances that we run in the summer, usually toss out the literature that comes with them at the time of purchase. If we took the time to read it, we would find that many manufacturers warn against using extension cords with their product. But, lo and behold, we use them anyway.

To unravel the mystery of why manufacturers and firefighters discourage the use of extension cords, let’s take a look at how some things operate. Typically, these types of appliances all have motors and motors use a lot of electricity. They can get the amount they need to run properly if they are plugged directly into the receptacle in the wall because the wiring in the wall is heavier, or thicker, than your typical extension cord.
Now folks, there’s nothing wrong with using a good quality, agency tested and approved extension cord as long as it’s used properly. Used properly means you should make sure that the wire size in the cord is adequate for delivering the electricity you need for the appliance you’re using. As it happens, many cords aren’t used properly, because they are undersized for what they are being used for. This is where we in the fire service see most of the problems, because when something can’t get the power it needs, things have a tendency to heat up. Either the appliance, the cord, or both, can heat up enough to start a fire. This is due to a phenomenon called resistance, but that’s a topic for another day. I like to think of it this way: If someone told you to wash the car, but instead of the garden hose you had to use a straw, wouldn’t you get a little hot too?

Aside from the fire danger, when something such as a motor can’t get the power it needs, it can break down and be ruined. Ouch! The money you saved on that cheap cord just cost you the price of a new appliance. So what do you do if you still need an extension cord for that temporary use? Well, all wire in the US is based on a numerical scale of thickness, or diameter. The smaller the number, the larger the wire. If you’re still not too sure, ask the folks at your local hardware or commercial outlet for some help. All of us folks in the fire service also remind you to take precautions with all of your home wiring equipment and use, be it permanent or temporary. We’ll talk more about electric issues later, but for now let’s go enjoy that cooler breeze that’s finally here.

Ken Elmore

Markey Township firefighter

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