Don't let your outside decorations become a problem

How to Safely Run Outside Extension Cords

by Benjamin Roussey

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The holiday season is upon us! Your holiday dishes are ready for use and your tree is decorated. You've made your way outside and find yourself digging through the lights and pulling out your ladder to get ready to hang your decorations. After all, on a wintry Christmas day, nothing looks more inviting than your home and yard lit up with bright, colorful, and twinkling little lights, hanging from the boughs of the trees, wrapped around the shrubs and bushes, and maybe some on the snowman, too! You'll need several extension cords outside to power your Christmas decorations, but before you start working on the lighting arrangements or rush out to buy the cords, pay heed to these safety tips described below.

Check Your Outside Receptacle

Before you start searching for the lights from last year, or you decide to buy a new set, make sure that the receptacle outside your house is safe for use. The receptacle should be fitted with a Ground Fault Interrupter (GFI) or Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. For the uninitiated, the GFI is a safety outlet that has been designed to prevent potentially catastrophic electrical accidents like shocks and short circuits that can result in fires.

The GFI continually monitors the amount of electric current circulating through a particular circuit. The outlet is programmed to sense any loss of current and immediately disrupt the circuit. So, even before you start calculating the length of extension cords you might need for your decorations, you should check the receptacle and the GFI.

Related: 10 Great Holiday Decorating Ideas...on a Budget

To check for the GFI, locate all the receptacles outside your house and look for a small button on each one of them. This button can be pushed to reset the receptacle. Make sure that this button is functioning the way it should. Not all models of receptacles are manufactured alike. The particular make of receptacle on your premises might have its GFI button at the junction of the breaker box. The GFI button may also be located in the power room or any other room in your house, like the kitchen. However, it is imperative that you locate the GFI and test its functionality, before you start working on the outdoor lights.

Accurately Measure the Length of the Outside Extension Cords Needed

After you have decided on the exact spots where you want to install the lights, take a tape and measure the distance between each of these spots and their nearest power source outlet. Determine each decoration separately, looking at each decoration and its own length, back to the power source.

After you have determined the distances that each of the extension cords will run, head out to buy them (or look around the attic or garage to find some used last year). Keep in mind that you should use only one that closely matches the length of each measurement. This means that if you had measured seven feet from a light to its nearest power source, you should use an extension cord that is only a little longer than this length (8, 9, or at the most 10 feet). You should never use a 20-feet extension cord to cover a distance of seven feet. Using extension cords far longer than what is actually needed can cause cords to become entangled.

Related: How to Avoid an Overloaded Electrical System This Christmas

Use Extension Cords Rated for Outdoor Use

This is an oft-ignored tip that can prove to be costly. Extension cords that are used outdoors need to be very robust and be able to withstand the elements. To make sure that this Christmas is safe for you and your family, you should use only those extension cords that have been especially designed for outdoor purposes. An outdoors-use rating means that these cords contain additional layers of shielding to insulate and protect the fragile wires inside from freezing temperatures, water, and snow. The additional layers of shielding protect the wires from being damaged, which may cause a terrible accident.

Preferably Plug the Extension Cords into an Outlet in an Area with the Least Traffic

Many people are unaware that using unnecessarily long extension cords can lead to tripping accidents, and not many people realize the importance of running the extension cords for their Christmas lighting through areas with the least traffic. You can minimize the risks of falls and tripping accidents if you use an electrical outlet located on the side of your house or one on a porch to plug in the extension cords. This ensures that the extension cords do not run through areas with heavy footfall, and it decreases the chances of a tripping accident.

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Keep the Connections Off the Ground

Lastly, ensure that the connections are off the ground and aren't at risk of getting drenched or submerged in water. Check the extension cords that run near the slopes in your yard. Puddles of water are most likely to collect around these areas. Make it a point that the extension cords do not come into contact with the moisture.

Running extension cords outside your house to light up your Christmas decorations is not a tricky affair. You just need to be cautious. After all, you are dealing with electricity. Being careless with extension cords has been known to cause accidents. Keep the above-mentioned safety tips in mind, and make sure that you and your family can enjoy both a warm outdoor glow and a safe holiday.

Reviewed January 2018

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Benjamin Roussey is from Sacramento, CA, and grew up doing all varieties of home improvement projects around the home since his parents did not hire contractors or outside help to maintain their home or vehicles. As a result, he has acquired a multitude of home handyman skills in plumbing, carpentry, electrical and everything in between. He also has two Masters degrees and he served four years in the U.S. Navy.

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