RV Electricity – Just Ask Mike (J.A.M.): Are power strips dangerous?

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By Mike Sokol

Welcome to my J.A.M. (Just Ask Mike) Session, a weekly column where I answer your basic electrical questions. If you’re a newbie who’s never plugged in a shore power cord (or ask – what’s a shore power cord?), or wonder why your daughter’s hair dryer keeps tripping the circuit breaker, this column is for you. Send your questions to Mike Sokol at mike (at) noshockzone.org with the subject line – JAM.


Dear Mike,
A few weeks ago my wife used a power strip to plug in an electric griddle on the picnic table. But after making a batch of sausage and pancakes we smelled smoke coming from the power strip and, sure enough, it had begun to melt. I had the same thing happen last winter in my RV with a space heater. What gives? Aren’t these power strips safe? —Bobby

Dear Bobby,
You’ve discovered the dirty little secret of the power strip industry. While they’re generally safe for small-wattage appliances such as table lamps, cell phone chargers and laptop computers, many do not do well with high-wattage continuous loads such as electric space heaters, griddles and deep fryers. That’s because they don’t have the same contact area as a good quality NEMA 14-15 Receptacle (commonly known as an Edison Outlet).

Space heaters can be a quick way to heat up a room. However, they can be as dangerous as they are convenient if used improperly. Space heaters cause 25,000 home fires a year, and 6,000 emergency room visits, according to the Harvard University Environmental Health & Safety group.

RV FireIf fact, as you can see from the Harvard University report above, there are thousands of home fires in the U.S. every year from electric space heaters, many of which are due to being plugged into power strips or lightweight extension cords. While most of these fires occur in bricks-and-sticks homes, there are significant numbers of fires in RVs caused by using electric space heaters to supplement the sometimes ineffective furnaces in many RVs.

For more information on using power strips in an RV, please read my in-depth articles on this topic: Part 1 and Part 2.

The bottom line is that if you need to extend an electrical outlet for anything that draws significant amperage (if it heats up something – by definition that’s a lot of amperage), then use a dedicated 12-gauge extension cord rated for 20 amperes of current that’s as short as reasonable. That is, don’t run a 50-foot extension cord to go 5 feet – get a 10-foot heavy-duty extension cord. Here’s a nice AmazonBasics example, but you can find similar products in any big box store. Just make sure it’s 12 gauge and rated for 20 amperes of current.

The general consensus is to not run electric space heaters unattended. I know that’s not practical so I recommend that if you do need to run them unattended, only use the low-wattage setting. And always inspect and monitor all electrical outlets and power cords for any signs of overheating.

Once there has been an overheating event with an electrical outlet or plug, both units are damaged and should be replaced. Take this advice from someone who used to burn up electrical connectors for big rock shows. Overheated connectors are dangerous and will continue to overheat even more until they catch on fire.

OK, everyone. Remember that electricity is a useful and powerful force, so we all need to pay attention to safety precautions while using it.

Let’s play safe out there….

 

 

Mike Sokol is an electrical and professional sound expert with 50+ years in the industry. His excellent book RV Electrical Safety is available at Amazon.com. For more info on Mike’s qualifications as an electrical expert, click here.
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Joe
27 days ago

Mike, Google power strip recalls. A number of years ago when I was a working man at a large company I got involved with rounding up certain APC power strips by Schneider Electric. My crews not only rounded up the APC’s but also came across many others that were showing signs of overheating, boy did this open a huge can of worms! My suggestion is throw all of them away. Along with throwing them away consider the use of an extension cord in RV’s and especially at home. If you use an extension cord for permanent power to an appliance then you should be removing it and installing receptacles.

Ray W
1 month ago

Mike
The “AmazonBasic” 12 ga 10′ extension cord you referenced is labeled as 15 amp 1875 watts for 1 to 100 feet. I have been searching for a 12 ga 50′ cord with a 20 amp rating but haven’t found one yet. Amazon, Lowes, etc. list these cords as 15 amps max. I have found a cord with the 20 amp plug but it is only rated at 15 amp. Even the Southwire 10 ga 50′ at Lowes is listed as 15 amps max. You stated “Just make sure it’s 12 gauge and rated for 20 amperes of current”. Where do you get a 20 amp rated cord?

DAVE TELENKO
27 days ago
Reply to  Ray W

Ray, I googled it “20 amp extension cord” & got a lot of them!
Snoopy

Joe
27 days ago
Reply to  Ray W

Make your own, I haven’t purchased a packaged cord in 30 years!

Purchase 12 gauge SO wire and 20 amp male and female ends. It will not be as water proof as a molded cord but who lays their cord in water? On second thoughts don’t answer that question. You should be able to get everything at the large box stores. Use SO cord and don’t make it over 30 feet or so. When putting the ends on pay attention to the wires, green ground, black to brass colored screw and white to the silver. If you have to cross the wires to get them in then the end (male or female) is on the wrong side of the cord, that’s right the ends should go on that the wires connect straight in without crossing.

Please remember that you will need to plug into a 20 amp outlet as the 20 amp male plug is configured differently than a 15 amp receptacle.

As I also posted if you need the extension cord to run an appliance on a regular basis then it’s time to add a receptacle!

Mike Sokol
26 days ago
Reply to  Ray W

The confusion comes from the fact that the NEMA 5-15 15-amp outlet with parallel blades is technically rated for 20-amps of current, but they call it a 15-amp rating since you can’t connect a 20-amp plug with a sideways blade into it. It’s a keying thing. That’s why you buy a 15 to 30 or 50 amp dogbone adapter that’s actually rated for 20 amperes of current through the “15 amp” plug. Talk about confusing. Yikes….

Larry M
1 month ago

Mike if people really want the ability to use electric heat in there RV safely the simple solution is to have the CheapHeat Hybrid Gas/Electric Furnace system installed. It’s a UL listed RVIA compliant Electric heating system designed for 100% duty cycle and is built specifically for RV’s. You can find more about it at http://www.rvcomfortsystems.com

Mike Sokol
26 days ago
Reply to  Larry M

That is a far better and safer solution than electric space heaters in an RV.

Bob p
1 month ago

If people would read the limits printed on the back or card attached to the power strip and the power requirements of whatever they wish to operate they would easily see the limits. Most of the power strips purchased at the big box stores are made in China or one of the Stan countries and aren’t rated much above 800 watts. You can’t plug a coffee pot, griddle, or some other device that draws 1500 watts into that, although there still would be some who tried.

Mike Sokol
26 days ago
Reply to  Bob p

The real problem is that there’s nothing to stop you from doing it. Those same power strips generally have a 15-amp circuit breaker/switch.

tom
1 month ago

Electrical components are not the place to go cheap. Save money on stuff that will not kill you.

STEPHEN P Malochleb
1 month ago

Mike one thing I would like to add, always buy quality and not price. Many years ago when remodeling my home I bought multi packs of contractor grade recepticles from a big box store. Within 3 months they were all having issues. Poor contact,over heating, melting. None of these circuits were overloaded either. All my wiring was 12-2 even on 15 amp circuits. (Lesson learned, )(don’t buy cheap). Thanks for your tips.

Mike Sokol
1 month ago

You’re welcome. I just helped my twin boys finish the basement into a game room, and we installed a few dozen receptacles around the room. We used hospital grade outlets at nearly $10 each rather than the contractor packs that only cost a buck apiece. So going with the best available parts only added $200 to a job that had nearly $10,000 in materials. And yes, it was permitted and built to code. The building inspector said he had never seen anything so overbuilt. But they should never have to worry about those outlets failing.