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Don't overload your extension cords or outlets this season

As your bustling home is being prepared for Christmas and New Year celebrations, be sure to be extra mindful of how you use electrical cords and outlets.

We recently talked with representatives from both the Grays Harbor PUD and the Aberdeen Fire Department about some of the electrical hazards this time of year that come with decorating and entertaining large groups, and we’d like to pass along some safety tips to you!

While for most people the lights are already up on the house and on the tree, it’s still good to review some safety rules. Here are some tips from the Grays Harbor PUD:

  • Remember non-LED lights heat up quickly so take extra care with them around curtains and other flammable objects.

  • Look up when hanging outdoor lights (or taking them down). Stay aware of where the overhead power lines are when setting up an outdoor ladder to put up or take down lights. If possible, use a wooden or fiberglass ladder and stay a ladder length away from overhead power lines.

  • When putting up lights for the year – and also when taking them down – inspect strings of lights and all other illuminated decorations for damage. Exposed wires, damaged sockets and loose connections can spark deadly fires.

  • Ensure that the extension cords you use outside are marked for outdoor use. Also, keep those cords clear of snow and standing water.

  • Keep cords from being damaged when hanging. Extension or light cords that are pinched by furniture or cut by nails or staples can cause fires or provide a nasty shock!

  • Avoid using light-strings with several light bulbs out or missing.

And we’d like to add: Use a ladder standoff attachment when putting lights up on the house. You can borrow one from us at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor – for free!


Another thing to watch during this busy season is your use of extension cords. Extension cords come in handy when plugging in things like Christmas lights outdoors and temporarily moving something like a lamp inside to make room for your Christmas party. However, they are often misused, which can be dangerous!

Rich Malizia, the assistant fire chief at the Aberdeen Fire Department, says that one thing that firefighters often see that makes them cringe is “daisy chaining” of extension cords. That is, people plugging one extension cord into another – and sometimes, into another.

This is the problem – the use and safety of an extension cord’s wire gauge (size) is related to its length. In other words, the cord is designed at a certain length and certain gauge wire to be safe for a certain amount of electricity to flow through it without creating heat in the cord. However, if you plug one cord into another, the amount of draw from an outlet is impacted by the length of the cord and you could find yourself with a cord fire on your hands. Generally speaking the shorter the cord, the smaller gauge the wire it has and the less of an electrical load it can take. That’s why artificially making the wire longer by putting several together is dangerous. It overloads the ability of all the combined cords to carry electricity and then they can melt, causing a fire.

(For Christmas lights, usually the box will let you know how many you can safely string together. They are typically made so that several strands are intended to go together.)

“With extension cords, the worst thing we see is ‘daisy chaining’ cords into a power strip and then from there to another cord to another power strip,” said Malizia. “The power strip is engineered to run with so much draw with only so many appliances. When you double the draw with the second power strip, you are overloading the first power strip, and you can sometimes see where it begins to burn through the plastic of that strip.”

The trick is if you need a six-foot cord for something, use a six-foot cord, if you need a 20-foot cord, use one that is 20 feet, and never plug one power strip into another one! It’s dangerous to the appliance, to your house and to you!

“We’ve had several ‘daisy chain’ fires in Aberdeen, so now it’s something we look for when we do business inspections,” Malizia said.

Many of the buildings in Aberdeen and Hoquiam – both homes and businesses – are older structures, built before the need for outlets or energy was so high. Today’s building codes requires more electrical outlets than it did even 50 years ago.

“We often see businesses overloading outlets when they are renting an older space. We also observe it in schools, apartments and homes. One thing to remember is that an extension cord is designed for temporary use. If a business has an extension cord plugged into their freezer or other large appliance, it’s time to call the electrician to make a change in the building,” Malizia said.

So, when you decorate and entertain these next few weeks, remember to only use extension cords temporarily, to not string them together, and to make sure they are not a tripping hazard. In addition, we remind you to keep a close eye on candles, keep your fresh tree watered and turn off your Christmas lights and tree lights when you are gone or turning in for the night.

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