Read this before plugging in holiday lights


A white powerstrip with plugs in each outlet on hardwood floor.
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Keep the yule season merry and bright with safe use of extension cords and power strips.

Chances are pretty good that your electrical outlets are getting more use this year compared to last year. Working and schooling at home has many of us plugging in more computers, printers and devices. The holiday—with sparkly lights, adorable inflatables and electric trains—mean we’ll be plugging in even more, increasing the risk for home fires. Make sure your keep your holidays bright and cheery by following these electrical safety tips.

Use the right extension cord

When choosing an extension cord, keep three things in mind:

  • how long the cord needs to reach
  • the amperage limits
  • whether it’s used inside or outside

According to The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), extension cords should never be plugged into other extension cords because they can overheat and cause a fire. Select an extension cord that’s within a foot or two of the length you need.

You may have noticed that some extension cords are thicker than others. The difference is chiefly due to the gauge of the wire inside. Smaller gauge numbers mean larger wires and the more current the cord can safely handle. To determine which gauge to use, you’ll need to know the amp needs of what you’re plugging in. (Calculate your Christmas light wattage here.)

The primary difference between indoor and outdoor extension cords is that exterior ones have more insulation to protect from damage from sunlight, varying temperatures and abrasion.

Just because you can plug it in doesn’t mean you should

That 6-outlet power strip in the living room may have one outlet not in use but that doesn’t mean you should use it. Just like extension cords have electrical load limits, so do power strips and surge protectors. Add up what’s already drawing power and check it against the power strip’s rating.

Also, it’s not safe to plug decorations into power strips that are plugged into extension cords that are plugged into outlets. Plug lights or decorations directly into an outlet whenever possible. Typically, it’s safe to use a power strip or extension cord but not both together. Check out this pictorial guide on acceptable combinations from Indiana University Southeast.

ESFI says extension cords and power strips should NEVER be used with heaters or fans because of the risk of overheating cords that could result in fire.

Inspect old cords

Before using extension cords and electrical decorations, inspect them for damage. If the insulation or sockets are damaged or your see loose or bare wires, toss the item.

Do not modify plugs

If you have a three-prong plug and an older two-prong outlet, it might be tempting to cut off the ground pin. Don’t! Doing so will compromise safety and could lead to electric shock.

Use GFCI outlets outdoors

Outdoor GFCI outlets operate on the same principle as the GFCI outlets in your kitchen and bathroom. The outlet monitors the current and if there’s an imbalance because of moisture or a damaged cord, it cuts off the current to prevent electrical shocks.

If your outdoor outlets aren’t equipped with GFCI, it’s time to upgrade them.

Extension cords and power strips are for temporary use

Are you operating with too many power strips and extension cords? “A heavy reliance on extension cords is an indication that you have too few outlets to address your needs. Have additional outlets installed where you need them,” advises ESFI.

If your outlets were overloaded before decking the halls with Christmas lights, it’s a good idea to enlist an electrician to upgrade your electrical system.

Also, for safety’s sake, do NOT run extension cords through walls or under rugs. Heat can build up around covered cords and result in a fire.

Keep your holidays merry and bright, as well as safe!

Consumers helps more than 2,000 members finance land, first and second homes, and home improvement projects each year. We’d love to help you with a mortgage or home equity line of credit; contact us online or call us at 800-991-2221.

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