How To Choose the Right Extension Cord for Anything

There are a lot of extension cords out there, and sometimes it's hard to know which one to use. Often, people just go to the same one for everything—and it's not always a safe choice for the wires carrying the current, the outlet, or the machine itself. Eliminate the guesswork by using the best cords for 16 common applications.

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Note: The cords recommended here are the minimum thickness cords permitted for each application by the National Electric Code. Any appliance can use a shorter or thicker, lower-gauge cord. Dangerous situations arise when substituting a longer cord, or a thinner, higher-gauge cord, than the one recommended for these 16 jobs. For more general info on safe extension cord use, look at these fact sheets from the state of Texas and Florida State University.

1. Leaf blower. For blowers will 12 amps or less, use a 16-gauge light-duty cord within 50 feet of your outlet. Go with a 14-gauge medium-duty cord for a higher amp or a greater distance from the outlet. Make sure the cord is rated for outdoor use—look for a "W" on the jacket.

2. Table lamp. Use an 18-gauge, two-prong, light-duty extension cord. It can handle up to 7 amps up to 25 feet—perfect for discreetly running to a nightstand from the outlet behind the bed. A retractable cord, like this one from TV Time Direct, cuts down on clutter.

3. Laptop computer. A 14-gauge, three-prong, medium-duty cord is a general-purpose tool ideal for powering small household appliances, like a laptop.

4. Treadmill. Treadmill manufacturers generally discourage the use of an extension cord with the product. But if you can't move your exercise equipment closer to the outlet, go with a cord made specifically for treadmills—like the 9-foot Treadcord.

5. Toaster. Heat-producing appliances like toasters, irons, and coffee pots draw at least 10-12 amps of current, which is beyond the limits of most indoor extension cords. Hopefully your kitchen layout permits the small, portable appliances to live near an outlet, far from the sink.

6. Hair Dryer. Forget it. You'll have to let your hair air dry if you can't plug in the hair dryer directly to an outlet. Hair dryers typically draw 15 amps, which can cause an extension cord to get hot enough to start a fire.

7. Circular saw. Go with a 12-gauge heavy-duty outdoor cord, which will have you covered for up to 100 feet from the outlet. Get a cord with a lighted plug so you'll know when the power is on.

8. Home office. You'll want a surge protector or power strip to protect your computer, printer and other electronic equipment from spikes above 120 volts. Some surge protectors have metal oxide varistors, which are essentially semiconductors that stop the transient voltage. Strips like the Fellowes 6 Outlet Surge Protector are designed for small office electronics.

9. Indoor vacuum. Use a typical, off-the-shelf 16-gauge cord, or buy a specialty one, like the Vacuum Cleaner Cord from Prime Wire and Cable.

10. Outdoor vacuum. A three-prong, 12-gauge cord works best. Get one with a locking plug since you'll be moving the vacuum around a lot and it can easily come unplugged.

11. Holiday lights. Go with a 16-gauge cord for 25 feet or less, or 14-gauge for more than 25 feet. Get the length you need—don't ever daisy-chain two extension cords together. Look for a "W" on the jacket to confirm that it can be used outdoors.

12. Entertainment center. You'll want a surge protector, like for your home office. When you're not watching TV, turn off the surge protector to stop vampire appliances from using electricity. Consider the Conserve Switch from Belkin, a surge protector with two outlets that remain live for devices that need continuous power, like a wireless router.

13. Space heater. This is not safe for use with an extension cord. Space heaters are portable—move them closer to an outlet.

14. Bug zapper. A short 16-gauge extension cord will keep the lamp cooking.

15. Portable compressor. A 10-gauge extra-heavy-duty extension cord will let you put air in a flat tire up to 100 feet away from an outlet.

16. Workshop. There are never enough outlets in a workshop, and running multiple extension cords can be a hassle—and a tripping hazard. Go with a 14-gauge cord, which will power most tools, and look for a model with multiple outlets so you can plug in more than one tool. A retractable model, like the Tasco Professional Grade Plastic Retractable Cord Reel, can keep the cord out of the way when not in use.