Professional or do-it-yourselfer, if you’ve done any kind of project around the outside of your home, you know the value of a good extension cord. But extension cords, by the very nature of their length and types of situations in which they are typically used, are much more prone to damage than other types of cords. Left un-repaired, even minor damage can quickly turn into a serious safety risk.
Exterior extension cords have a tough outer jacket that is designed to protect the inner wires. If that jacket is damaged, the softer inner insulation around the wires can become damaged more easily, so the first step in extension cord safety is to check the overall condition of the outside of the cord. Starting at one end, examine the entire length of the cord to check for nicks, cuts, crimps, abrasions or other damage to the outside jacket.
First of all, if the jacket is damaged, don’t reach for the duct tape! Damage to the outer jacket of an exterior extension cord – or any cord, for that matter – should never be fixed by wrapping it with tape. Tape of any type, even electrical tape, does not have the strength or abrasion resistance to make a permanent repair.
Damage to the jacket, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to discard the entire cord. If the damage is near one end or the other, you can cut off the end of the cord just past the damaged area, then add a new end to replace the one you cut off. For damage that is closer to the center of the cord, cut out the damaged section, add new ends, and you now have two shorter – and safer – cords to use.
Next, examine the ends of the cords. The male end – the end with the three prongs that fit into an electrical outlet – is the one that is most prone to damage. The two flat power conducting prongs are subject to bending, while the lower, round prong, which is the ground, can be sheared off. On the female end, look for damage to end itself, or looseness in the slots that would prevent good electrical conduct with whatever is being plugged into it.
If one of the ends is damaged, or if you have had to cut the cord to remove insulation damage, installing a new end is an easy process. Male and female repair ends are readily available at home centers, hardware stores, and other retailers of electrical parts.
First, cut off the damaged end of the cord (if you are replacing the female end, it goes without saying that the male end of the cord should not be plugged in!). Strip off the outer jacket of the cord, exposing the three inner wires. The inner wires – black, white, and green – are typically woven together, often with a filler made from paper or other material that helps keep the woven wires in a round shape. With your fingers, unwind the wires and straighten them out, then cut off and discard the paper filler. Finally, strip the insulation off the end of each of the three wires.
Most cord repair fittings are in two pieces, which helps keep the weather-resistant. Loosen the screws that hold the two halves together, and then separate them. This will expose three screws inside, which is where the wires will attach. Slip the half of the fitting that does not have the wire attachment screws onto the cord.
Closely examine the other half of the fitting that contains the wire attachment screws. You will notice that one screw is green, one is a silver color, and the third is a darker color. Attach the green wire to the green screw, the white wire to the silver screw, and the black wire to the darker screw. Check to see that each screw is snug but not over-tightened, that the wires are well contained under the screw head, and that the wires and the insulation are not damaged in any way. Finally, slide the two halves of the fitting together, and secure them by replacing the screws that hold them together.
Different cord end fittings have different requirements for how much of the jacket and the wire insulation needs to be stripped off, and how they are assembled. Be sure and refer to the specific instructions for the type of fitting you are using, and if you have any questions or concerns about how to install the fitting, it is best to either have the cord repaired by an electrician, or simply discard it all together.
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