Question

Can I Use Regular Extension Cords with Generators?

Hello folks and welcome to ToughAssTools.com. Today we are going to be covering the various types of extension cords that can be used with your portable generators. Personally, I have always been a fan of generators. They are a versatile tool that can be used in so many applications such as RVing, camping, or during a power loss event. I’m from a ways outside of the Kansas City area and we get quite a bit of power losses during the spring and winter months. Winter due to blizzards and spring due to tornado and severe storm season. Whatever the cause is I know that I have my generator ready to go in case the power goes out.

While generators are a great tool they are not always the easiest to get setup and start running. If done correctly then you are the hero of the family and have brought power for everyone. However, if done incorrectly then there can be dire consequences. Best case you damage the generator or some electronics/appliances within your home. Worst case, you start a fire or a carbon monoxide leak.

Generator safety is no laughing matter. In this article I won’t get into every little detail on generator safety but instead focus on the question at hand. If you’d like to read more on generator safety please click here to be taken to our safety guide.

Extension Cords

It seems nothing is simple. Most people would think that when using a generator all you would need is a simple extension cord that can be found around in your garage or basement. It is not that easy though folks. No, in order to safely use generators you need to be using the right type of cord. Using the wrong cord can result in damage to the generator or the appliance/electronic in your home. If left running for a significant time this could eventually create a fire due to the cord overheating.

When selecting an extension cord for your generator there are three main factors that you need to consider:

  1. Length
  2. Gauge
  3. Type of Connection

Gauge

Out of the three considerations to look for when purchasing an extension cord gauge is the most important in my opinion. Extension cords contain copper wire in the center that can vary in overall thickness. A cord’s gauge is a rating of the copper wire’s diameter. This is identified by what is known as the American Wire Gauge number (AWG). You will notice that when looking at cords you’ll see a ‘AWG’ number next to it. This is your gauge.

The most common AWG sizes that you will find are sixteen, fourteen, twelve, ten, and eight. Now this part can be a bit confusing, but the higher number AWG cords are not the most powerful. In fact in the example cords we mentioned above the AWG eight has the thickest wire. Now the more power you plan to run through your generator then the smaller gauge you need. If you try to run an appliance with an extension cord with too high of a gauge then the cord will become hot and could even result in a fire.

Not all of this can be done by feel or by visual inspection. In many cases you can find wire that appears to be thicker then others but this is actually just the outside covering. To be absolutely sure it is best to read the label on the product to fully understand what gauge it is. The key rule here to remember is that as long as your generator does NOT exceed the maximum AMPs for your cord’s wire then you will be ok. (Unless you are dealing with a very long wire which we will get into in our next section.) When looking at wire you may not even see the gauge on there but instead see an amperage rating. This is functionally telling you the same thing.

I mentioned that you cannot exceed the maximum AMPs rated for your wire. The National Electric Code administration provides a maximum AMP rating per wire gauge. Let’s look at them now:

  • 16 AWG = 10 AMPs Maximum
  • 14 AWG = 15 AMPs Maximum
  • 12 AWG = 20 AMPs Maximum
  • 10 AWG = 30 AMPs Maximum

So, again, looking at the maximum AMPs you just need to ensure that the wire you have chosen does not exceed the outlet on your generator. In most cases you will find the generator’s amperage output right next to the outlet. As an example, if we look at this Westinghouse Generator on Amazon we can see that it has a 20A outlet AND a 30A outlet. In this example the safest approach would be to purchase a ten gauge wire to ensure we can cover the maximum thirty amperage.

Now typically, we recommend going with a twelve gauge wire extension cord. Most of the time this will cover your standard portable generators. But, like in the example above, when you get to more powerful generators you will also need more powerful wires. In some heavier load cases it may make sense to purchase a ten gauge cord. Just note that as you go down on gauge sizes the cords can get quite expensive. In extreme cases you can find eight gauge cords, but these will be rarer and a lot more pricey.

Length

The length of your extension cord is very important. The first rule here is to NEVER use a cord longer then what you need. All electrical wires/cords carry resistance. This resistance can lower the volts or juice that flows through the cord. The longer the cord the more resistance there is. This is why it is best practice to use a cord that has the best length for your situation. With longer cords you will need to go down in gauge just to get the same type of power.

As an example, let’s say you are trying to power your refrigerator that requires around twenty-four hundred watts. If your generator is less then fifty feet away from the refrigerator you could get away with using a AWG 14 cord. BUT, if your over fifty feet then you are going to have to go down in AWG size to a twelve or even a ten depending on the length. This is also why we suggested going with the twelve gauge wire just to be safe.

When powering your home or even your RV the generator should be twenty feet away from your domicile. This will prevent carbon monoxide from leaking into your home. Trust me, you do not want that. Camping isn’t as big of a deal as you are in an open area but I would still recommend that twenty feet distance. Now most generator extension cords come in twenty-five feet or fifty feet sizes. In most cases the twenty-five foot length will be optimal for your situation.

Type of Connection

This may seem like common sense but when purchasing your generator’s extension cord you need to make sure that it can actually plug-in into your generator and to the receiving outlet as well. There are a variety of possible connections out there. In my opinion it is best to physically check your generator to determine exactly what type of connection that you need. This will save you the trouble of purchasing the cord with the wrong connection port.

There is a type of generator cord out there that can connect to the generator and then split at the other end into three or four one-hundred and twenty volt outlets. These can then be plugged into various appliances electronics into your home. I like these a lot as it save you time from having to route multiple wires throughout your home. Our recommended product is this ten gauge wire from Champion Brands. It comes with three outlets on the receiving end.

Transfer Switches

Another point of note while we are on this topic is if you are going to be using your generator to power your home during a power loss then I am going to recommend having a manual transfer switch installed on your circuit board. These transfer switches allows you to easily switch your home’s power source from the city over to your generator.

The reason this is so important is that it allows you to only have ONE point of connection to plug your generator into. In other words, you do not have to route a bunch of cords all over the place to power multiple appliances or electronics. With a transfer switch you route one cord from your generator over to the transfer switch. Then flip the power over and you’re ready to go. This is much easier and overall safer then routing multiple cords throughout your home.

The downside here folks is that a manual transfer switch is not an easy install. In most cases you will need to pay an electrician to install the transfer switch. The good news is after the initial install all you have to do is connect the generator and flip the switch and bam you have power to your home!

Conclusion

Well there you have it folks. Extension cords do matter and can have a large impact on not only your generator but also your safety. I hope this article was able to answer your question.

I will leave you with some closing notes please ensure to always start your generator before you begin plugging cords into it. This will add longevity to your generator and prevent damage from occurring. Also, watch your generator cord for any signs of the cord becoming warm, very warm, or hot. These are signs of the cord not able to handle the electrical load. The same thing applies if you notice the circuit breaking tripping.

Lastly, please note that this article is intended for informational purposes only. We here at ToughAssTools are not liable for any property damage or personal injuries that can occur when operating generators.

Thanks for reading,

Alec Johnson

ToughAssTools

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