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Earth Sense: Extension cords can lead to shocks, wiring-induced fires
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The word “fire” strikes fear in homeowners. Rightfully so: Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 7, 1,513 people in the U.S. died in house fires, including 57 Georgia residents (

Extension cords are a frequent culprit. Gone are the terrible 1980s, when, for whatever reason, power tools suddenly came with just a little stubby cord instead of a proper 6- to 8-foot power cord. But an extension may still be needed for temporary use.

Current (2011) National Electrical Code requires that “no point ... of any wall space is more than 6 feet from a receptacle outlet.” This puts the outlets 12 feet apart, and thrifty developers are unlikely to supply more than they have to.

If you find yourself using extension cords on a regular basis, you need to have additional outlets installed. In any case, don’t let an extension cord lay on the carpet permanently. A faulty plug can set carpet fibers on fire, with the rest of the house to follow.

Cheap cords, often with triple-receptacle rubber ends, are hazardous. Many aren’t grounded, lacking the round prong that provides protection against shock. Those bargain-basement cords are best thrown away. 

Overloading of circuits is trouble, too. “Multipliers” that make three or even six receptacles out of one can cause too much current to be drawn, which overheats the receptacle and can, again, start a fire. Black charred marks around the slots show that it has been overheated and must be replaced. 

When looking at an older home to purchase, you can do your own first inspection: 

Are there any ungrounded outlets (two slots, no round grounding hole)? Needs immediate replacement.

Does the main panel have ceramic fuses instead of switch-type breakers? Ditto.

Did the previous owner perform exotic wiring stunts? I’ve encountered electrical lines hanging from clothes pins in the attic.

Lamps converted into outlets with screw-in adapters replacing the bulb (illegal!). Daisy-chains of several $1 extension cords connected to light fixtures or (worse) space heaters.

Space heaters “installed” in shower enclosures or above bath tubs. Indoor shop lights on outside house walls. Live extension cords placed in roof gutters.

These and similar nightmares require that you take a very skeptical look at the house, and get a licensed electrician to provide a complete assessment. Preferably at the expense of the person who installed those fire hazards.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at


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