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.
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
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.
If 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.
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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