After researching over a dozen different options, reviewing National Electrical Code guidelines, talking with safety-testing experts at UL, and cutting apart nine cords to inspect their quality, we recommend the 50-ft Voltec Yellow Outdoor Extension Cord to most people because it has the most durable strain-relief neck, the strongest and smoothest connection, and a rugged outer jacket—all of which should last for years. It’s available in 25-foot and 100-foot lengths as well.
The Voltec Industries 50-ft Yellow Outdoor Extension Cord has a satisfying durability that sets it apart from the other cords we tested. Its outer covering, or jacket, is made of a thick, extruded thermoplastic that sacrifices just a touch of flexibility for a lot more more resistance to abrasion and cuts compared to the thinner, non-extruded jackets found on lower-end cords. In other words, it’s built to last. But the real star features of this cord are the receptacle that receives your other power cord and the neck between the connector and cord—two weak points on most other cords. Instead of a jerky, forceful motion to jam a plug in, plugging a cord into the end of the Voltec is a smooth, firm slide that’s snug when seated. While most cords that have an inch or less of jacketed cord inserted into the neck of the connector, the Voltec cord has almost two inches of protection, so it won’t slowly separate over years of yanking and pulling. The 50-foot version is the most versatile—it can reach around the edge of a two-car garage corner to corner—but you can also get our pick in 25-foot and 100-foot lengths.
If you need to save a few bucks or our top pick isn’t available, US Wire’s 74050 cord is the one you should get. Despite regularly selling for almost half the price of in-store brands, the cord is more durable and better made than any but our top pick from Voltec. Though the outer jacket is similar, and the receptacle has reasonably smooth and snug action, the entire connector isn’t quite as good. The strain relief neck is around half the size of the Voltec’s, which makes it more likely to bend and stress near the outlet. Over the long term, we think this makes the US Wire cord less durable than the Voltec cord, but it’s at least as good as or better than most other cords you’ll find in the hardware store. Because electric yard equipment (e.g., leaf blowers or hedge trimmers) often has a protective sleeve around its plug, the huge and durable Voltec receptacle might not be able to make a connection. If that’s your main use, the US Wire cord is going to work much better for you. If you’re going to buy just one cord, we think 50 feet is the most versatile length, but this cord is available in 25-foot and 100-foot lengths as well.
We get that you may need a cord right now. If you don’t see our other picks at your local hardware store, head to Lowe’s for the Utilitech Pro cord. It’s the most expensive and least tough out of our three main picks, so you should only get it if you’re sure you can’t wait a couple days for one of our top picks to ship. The Utilitech Pro has the thinnest jacket of all three brands and is more susceptible to nicks and cuts, even if it is slightly more flexible. Connecting a power cord into the receptacle is smooth enough, but the strain relief neck that joins the connector to the cord is much shorter than on our top pick. With a shorter neck, the cord can be more easily pulled or bent from the connector—it’s not something that will happen soon after you buy it, but it is a common point of wear. While it doesn’t stack up to our other picks in durability or value, it is better than offerings from other major brands with similar power ratings, such as Home Depot’s Ridgid- and Husky-branded offerings. Most Lowe’s locations should stock the 100-foot version as well, in addition to the thin 14-gauge version available in 25-foot length.
If you just need to plug in a lamp or phone charger near an end table, you’re probably looking for a simple brown or white cord like the GE 50360 Wall Hugger Extension Cord. Since indoor cords like these can’t withstand the abuse of our other picks, we like that the Wall Hugger cord has a flat plug that’s less likely to catch or snag; that makes it safer since half-plugged cords and damaged wiring can lead to fires. These kinds of cords are all pretty similar, so we’d mostly focus on making sure whatever one you use is UL- or Intertek- (ETL) certified and doesn’t have any cuts or abrasions on the jackets.
It’s easy to head to the hardware store and grab the cheapest extension cord in the length you need, but not all cords are created equal, nor are they all created for the same tasks. We tend not to think of extension cords as safety devices, but watching an overloaded cord burst into flames (see below) really drives that point across. Extension cords are the spark for 3,300 home fires every year in the US, along with 270 injuries and 50 fatalities, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International and their stats from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The most versatile cords are stamped with a W (in a rating that looks something like ‘SJTW’) to signify that the jacket is moisture and UV light resistant. That means it’s rated for use in a sunny backyard or a damp basement. Since a well-cared for extension cord should last years, through any type of household use, all of our top picks 25 feet or longer are either W-rated or otherwise moisture and UV resistant.1
When we asked UL, an independent rating organization in the US that tests electrical products for safety, about their guidelines for extension cord construction and use, we were told that the current version would be over 100 pages if printed out. Included in those 100 pages are limitations for cable length and current based on the number of conductive wires and how thick they are.
The more current (generally measured as amperage, or amps) you plan to pull through a cord, the thicker (lower gauge number) the conductive wire needs to be. Additionally, longer distances require thicker wires to keep the voltage steady from start to finish. (All of this is related because of the concept of electrical resistance, but you don’t need to read the details of that unless you want to.) If your wire is too thin for the distance and current that you need, resistance in the cord will cause heat to build up, which eventually leads to a melted jacket, sparks, and fire.
Since a good cord can stay in service for many years, it should be rated to handle anything you might use it for over the years, not just what you need today. In a few years when it’s time to plug in a power-hungry leaf blower or miter saw, most of us would forget the rating of whatever extension cord is just lying around. Thankfully, it’s not too hard or expensive to get a cord with a no-worry rating.
Because the breakers or fuses in most residential electrical panels are designed to shut off current at 15 amps (A)—to avoid melting the wiring and outlets in your walls that can’t handle more than that—you should get an extension cord that can handle 15 A too. Yes, this is overkill for a single work light, or when charging a drill battery—you could get away with any generic orange 13 A extension cord for less than $20 if that’s all you need. But for not much more than a cheap cord, a 15 A cord will be ready for the demands of heavy-duty electric tools like circular saws long after you’ve forgotten the cord’s rating. On that premise, all of our 25-foot or longer picks are rated to handle 15 A at their given length.
How to size a multi-purpose extension cord to work with any household equipment
With cord length up to…
Look for wire sizes listed as…
|25 feet||14/3 or 14 AWG|
|50 feet||12/3 or 12 AWG|
|100 feet||12/3 or 12 AWG|
In this guide, and when shopping at the hardware store, you’ll see wire thickness referred to in one of two ways, like 14 AWG or 14/3. AWG, or American wire gauge, is just a standardized thickness scale where, thanks to its manufacturing origins, the wires get thicker as the number goes lower. A cable listed as 14/3 just means that it’s 14-gauge wire and there are 3 conductors inside.
Any cord that’s been tested and marked by UL or Intertek (ETL Listed) should perform to its rating when it’s brand new. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a good value, or that it’s built well enough to handle abuse for years on end. So once we were satisfied with the ratings and cost per foot of models—our choices ranged from 50¢ per foot to $1.26 per foot, though some competitors sold for up to $2.00 per foot—from multiple retailers, we examined the construction of each cord relative to one another to find the details that set the best ones apart.
The cords we looked at on Amazon had consistently lower costs per foot than cords from hardware stores with the same ratings. But we also looked for the best reasonably priced cords available in big box hardware stores.
The overall diameter of a cord can be deceiving, because there isn’t an easy way to tell whether its bulk is coming from copper conductors, their individual jackets, or the outer jacket. Our first task was cutting apart each of our brand new cords and measuring each detail.
We also made note of how the receiving end of the extension cord accepted a plug. The receptacles on some cords are too tight and make it hard to get a plug properly seated. Any gaps could lead to water infiltration or a possible short (and sparks). Other receptacles can be too loose, allowing a plug to fall or pull out too easily, leading to the same problem. Judging the receptacles was subjective, but unlike most shoppers, we were able to compare all our cords side by side. The variety was surprising, and the quality of the connection is one of the standout features of our top pick.
A good strain-relief neck connection between the plug and the cord prevents the two parts from pulling away and exposing the wiring inside. Some of the cords we looked at had little-to-no strain relief support.
Since there aren’t many editorial extension cord reviews, we looked at user reviews to get a sense of the long-term durability of the cords we considered.
There were a few factors that some people may take into account that we didn’t consider during this round of testing. In cold climates, extension cords can be much less flexible and a pain to coil and uncoil. Some types of jacketing handle the cold better than others, and some companies make cords specifically for sub-zero temperatures. We didn’t test any dedicated cold-climate cords, nor did we test our picks in below-freezing temperatures.
Some extension cords come with multiple outlets at the end, either in a row (believe it or not, this is referred to as a banana tap), or fanned out in a shape like a slice of pie. But plugging in a few high-powered items while you’re working outside is a good way to overload your extension cord, so we stuck with single-outlet models.
If you only get one extension cord, get the Voltec Industries 50-ft Yellow Outdoor Extension Cord. It’s not much more expensive than the cords you’ll find in store, but it blows them away in terms of cable quality, connector durability, and most notably, the connection fit. We think 50 feet is a good catch-all size, as it’s enough to get around a two-car garage, and feed power from one room to another room. It’s also not as heavy, cumbersome, or expensive as a 100-foot cord. The biggest downside to the Voltec cord is that the huge, durable connector may not fit into tight receptacles—particularly on yard equipment like leaf blowers or hedge trimmers.
Sometimes research for The Wirecutter is exciting, and sometimes it’s intriguing, but sometimes we’re just going through the drudgery so you don’t have to. Cutting, measuring, and recording data points on a couple handfuls of extension cords made for a pretty dull afternoon until we came across this Voltec cord. We plugged our test cable into it to evaluate the connection, and it was as if triumphant music burst through the clouds. It didn’t get (dangerously) stuck halfway in, requiring a jab to seat it completely. It didn’t fall out when exposed to a light breeze. It didn’t grind into place. The receptacle on this cord is like a velvety vise; after testing so many cheap connections, this one stood out as a product designed and made with care. And just in case such a solid coupling isn’t enough, the cable also includes a locking nylon sleeve to prevent disconnects when you yank the connection around corners or through a snag.
One reviewer of the 100-foot version of the cord complained that this locking sleeve is easy to break. It’s not the sturdiest design, and running over or stepping hard onto the contraption will probably make it unusable. Still, no other cord in this price range offered a locking mechanism, and even if it breaks, the cord will continue to be a good extension cord and a good value.
Moving from the connector to the cable, the Voltec cord had the longest, most durable strain-relief neck of any we examined. A short or weak strain-relief neck is an obvious point of failure for extension cords. As you coil, uncoil, plug, and twist the end of the cord, the jacket can work loose of the connector and strain-relief, exposing the wires inside. Since the strain relief necks on the Voltec cord was nearly twice as long as the next more durable cord, we expect it to last through years of damage from bending, smashing, or running them over. One of our writers, a former contractor and current tool wrangler, will be putting it to test in the coming months. We’ll let you know what he thinks in our next update.
Some cords are made by pushing the conductive wire through a circular jacket while others like the Voltec have jackets extruded onto the conductive wires. Of the cords we tested, extruded coatings measured up to half a millimeter (or 30 percent) thicker on average than regular jackets. Because of how extrusion works, there was more variation around the cord, making it difficult to get a true comparison. We attempted to measure where the jacket was at an average thickness. In general, thicker extrusion jackets are more durable but also less flexible. Trying to uncoil an extrusion-coated cable and lay it flat or trying to coil it up nicely can get frustrating, especially when the cord is cold. Out of the box, the Voltec cable is no exception, but it’s also not the worst offender when it comes to keeping a coiled shape. If you need a flat cord, plan to leave it stretched out for awhile, or leave it to warm up in the sun. It’s a minor annoyance that’s worth it for the overall quality of the cable.
It’s not easy to compare conductive wire inside an extension cord. Each wire is made up of many little strands of copper—a single 12-gauge piece of copper would be too stiff to be practical. Though we’re not above obsessively counting individual strands, in this case we stuck to getting a rough diameter of the conductor after we twisted it tight and solid. The conductors that Voltec uses were actually a little thicker than the 2.05 mm required of 12-gauge wire—we measured them at 2.2 mm—and are more than enough to support the 15 A current rating.
If you want to save a few bucks but still want a quality extension cord, the US Wire 740XX series of cords is almost as good as our top pick from Voltec. Part of what we loved about the Voltec was how smooth yet strong the connection was between it and a device cord. US Wire doesn’t perfectly duplicate this feeling, but there’s equally little chance that you’ll have to force a plug in or have one fall out.
The most obvious sacrifice is the less robust strain-relief neck. Though the connector itself is lighted from within and solid, just like on the Voltec, the neck of the cord isn’t any longer than the average cord. Because this is an obvious point of failure, we think the Voltec is worth the slightly higher price in most cases. However, the Voltec connector is also much bigger, and won’t fit into tight spots. If you’ll be using your cord with outdoor equipment that has a pigtail-type plug, the US Wire cord is more likely to work for you.
Other than the strain relief, the US Wire cord is just as durable. Differences between it and our top pick from Voltec come down to fractions of a millimeter here and there. The outer jackets were basically the same thickness—2.06 mm versus 2.10 mm. One Amazon reviewer described it as “Heavy duty and solidly made. A little on the heavy side but works well with my 12A lawnmower and feels like it could take a beating up moving around shrubs and trees.” The conductors were both above the minimum required in a 12-gauge wire—2.18 mm in diameter in this one versus 2.2 mm in the Voltec. If you’re hard on your gear or can spend the little extra on the Voltec, the strain relief should pay for itself in added durability. Otherwise, the US Wire option is almost as good.
Our top pick and runner-up are the best values we could find, but they might not be easy to find in a local brick-and-mortar store. If you need an extension cord now—as in, you’re about to drive to a store or are already standing in one—then the best you can reliably find is the yellow Utilitech Pro cords available at Lowe’s. To be clear, this really isn’t our favorite cord, as it comes up short on most comparisons with both our top pick and runner-up, and it will generally cost a little more, too. But weirdly, major hardware stores don’t stock very good extension cords at competitive prices.
Though we didn’t get chance to cut apart the 12-gauge, 50-foot cord, the 25-foot version we cut up had a much thinner jacket than our other two picks. Instead of an extrusion-type coating, Utilitech uses a standard insertion-type jacket, which is more flexible but feels less durable. In addition to that concern, the jacketed portion of the cable only goes about half an inch into the strain relief neck, compared to the 2.5 inches into the connector of our top pick. The limited strain relief seems like the most obvious point of failure for these cords. Considering they cost more than both our top picks, we’d only pick this one up if we needed to have one today.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $23.
Both of our favorite and runner-up 50-foot cord picks have a 25-foot version with the same features. Though we only looked at one size of each cord, we found no difference in specs or information about the other cords from the same product line. Overall though, 50-foot cords are a better value—our 50-foot picks cost 92¢ and 65¢ per foot compared to $1.12 and 92¢ per foot respectively in the 25-foot versions. In the case of the Utilitech Pro cord available in store at Lowe’s, the 25-foot version is actually thinner, too—14 gauge instead of the 12 gauge available in the 50-foot version. That’s the minimum gauge recommended at that length to support the full 15 A load that your home outlets are capable of providing.
Since they’re a better value per foot and more versatile in their use, we think a 50-foot cord is the better choice. But if you just don’t need the length or need to stay in a budget, the same conclusions we made in the 50-foot version above can be applied to the 25-foot cords we list here.
The longer and sturdier strain relief neck on the Voltec cord is still present on the 100-foot version and makes it an overall more durable cord. Though we didn’t go hands-on with the 100-foot version, all the same specs apply, and we have every reason to believe that our conclusions on the 50-foot cords carry over to the longer cord. But 100-foot cords get really expensive (pretty heavy, too), and the premium Voltec cord is no exception. Because the strain-relief neck is such a common point of failure, and because Voltec makes the best strain-relief of any we’ve found, the price reflects the quality. But we realize that not everyone is going to want to spend quite so much. In that case, the US Wire 74100 100-Feet Extension Cord is a completely reasonable option and roughly 30 percent cheaper.
All of these options are just 12-gauge thickness, but after talking to John Drengenberg, the consumer safety director at UL, and reviewing their guidelines, we’re comfortable using this for most common loads up to 15 A. We would only recommend the thicker, more expensive 10-gauge cord if you plan to run 15 A through a 100-foot cord continuously for hours on end. For everyone else who will plug something in for only a short while, or stop-and-start a lot, a 12-gauge cord is fine.
Once again, if you need a 100-foot cord today, then the best choice in-store is going to be a Utilitech Pro cord from Lowe’s. It lacks the heavy duty feel, extra long strain-relief neck, and locking connector that the Voltec offers and doesn’t have the same firm-but-fluid connection of the Voltec. But it’s generally a little cheaper than the next closest rival in-store, namely Home Depot’s Ridgid brand. If you can order online, you’ll get a far better cord. If you need one today, the Utilitech Pro is your best option.
Using an indoor cord correctly is arguably more important than which one you buy, so long as it’s made by a reputable company. Indoor cords are only meant for simple, low-power uses like reaching a lamp on your side table or plugging in a phone charger. The GE Wall Hugger Extension Cord does have two advantages to the cheap, nameless cords that you’ll find in all corners of the internet and discount stores. First, the flat plug is safer and less likely to get knocked out when plugged in behind furniture, and second, it’s properly tested and rated.
Many of the common uses for this type of cord are exactly the kind of thing we were told NOT to do with an extension cord: running behind a (flammable) couch, through dusty (flammable) corners, and around kink- (and spark-)inducing furniture legs. So even in low-power uses, it really pays to use common sense and some extra caution. Occasionally check that your cords are firmly plugged in, and be careful not to snag them with furniture or tools when cleaning. And never run a cord underneath a rug or carpet.
These cords are really designed for low-power uses. Drengenberg at UL accepts these types of cords as a necessity when you need to plug in a lamp or phone charger, but he told us that’s not always what they’re used for. Problems commonly arise when they’re the only option around and get drafted for another purpose—reaching the toaster when you decide to make a big family breakfast, or plugging in a blow dryer in a different room when getting ready for an event. Oftentimes you’ll get away with these indiscretions, but that’s what everyone thinks right before a fire starts.
Drengenberg also told us that the modern PVC coatings like the kind on the Wallhugger and similar indoor cords can last a very long time, but older cords, or ones that don’t go through any sort of safety testing, can wear too quickly. Even the best indoor cords, though, aren’t made to handle the abuse of indoor/outdoor cords. While our other picks have extruded outer jackets, plus separate insulation on each individual conductor, these indoor cords only have one layer of protection. If put through the kind of mechanical abuse that outdoor cords often see, that layer will wear or split and present a huge safety risk.
If you decide to grab one of these at a local shop, look for a UL or Intertek ETL safety rating, and spend a couple bucks more to get a cord from a brand you recognize.
Store your extension cords without kinks or knots. If you’re wrapping your cords around your arm, you’re doing it wrong. Get in the habit of using the over-under style, or even the daisy-chain technique, to keep your cord’s jacketing and wires from twisting and kinking. FineHomebuilding has a nice video that explains the advantages.
Extension cords are for temporary use. Drengenberg was adamant about explaining this rule of extension cords first: If you’re running them all over your house, inside or out, you’re greatly increasing all the variables that contribute to fire. While it’s understandable to need a cord from time to time, or even for a few days, you shouldn’t use an extension cord for any installation that’s going to be indefinite. We know that seems unrealistic in many situations around the house, but safety recommendations, and in some cases building codes, say that for a permanent application, you should have a real outlet installed by a qualified electrician.
Don’t run extension cords under rugs, furniture, or pretty much anything else. Putting a cord underneath, behind, or through something puts it at higher risk of physical damage and, more catastrophically, can cause heat to build up. As heat builds up, protective coatings melt, and you’re left with hot wires and spark potential under something flammable.
Don’t connect multiple extension cords. Ratings for extension cords are set for the length of the cord, and don’t carry over when you chain them together. The extra connections can cause increased resistance, and the extra length can cause voltage sags, and the result can be anything from poor equipment performance to more current drawn through the cord which, again, leads to heat buildup.
Don’t connect surge protectors to extension cords. The added connection has a small chance of causing a problem, but the bigger issue is the added outlets. Six or more outlets on the end of an extension cord makes it much easier to overload the cord, which leads to heat and fire. If you need a longer cord, say behind a media center, then look for a surge protector with a built-in cord of that length. If you own your own home, consider having an electrician come in to add an outlet where you need it.
“Moisture-resistant” isn’t the same thing as weatherproof or waterproof. A little water won’t hurt an extension cord, but be mindful if you’re dragging them through a puddle. Connections are rarely waterproof and submerging them is a good way to cause a short. And if you’re using them outdoors for a few days, consider getting weatherproof connection boxes to reduce the likelihood of water infiltration.
We weren’t impressed by any of the ubiquitous red and black cords from Husky, one of Home Depot’s house brands. The jackets were thinner than our picks, the strain reliefs shorter, and the connections often get stuck halfway in or out.
The orange cords from Ridgid, another brand sold exclusively at Home Depot, were a step up from the Husky line and had much better build quality that was comparable to our other picks, but the Ridgid cords were more expensive.
The Century Wire ProStyle 50-foot cord was inexpensive (and the strain relief neck longer and hardier than on the other cords we dismissed), but the cable itself felt a bit cheap out of the box. When we cut it apart to measure the interior, we found that the conductors were slightly undersized for a 12-gauge cord. One measurement was 1.81 mm, well below the 2.05 mm equivalent even with a generous 10 percent tolerance in manufacturing. Considering that safety was a major factor in our decision, we had to dismiss it.
The Iron Forge 50-foot Heavy Duty Lighted Extension Cord was similar to our runner-up picks from US Wire. The jacketed part of the cord goes roughly one inch into the strain relief neck, and like our picks, the end lights up when live. But even though the receptacle accepted a plug smoothly, it didn’t hold it quite as firmly as others we tried. And the see-through connector let us see that the LED inside was somewhat sloppily soldered on compared to the other models.
The 25-foot US Wire 63025 and 50-foot 63050, the 25-foot Utilitech UTK506725 and its 50-foot version, 25-foot Husky 14/3 277533 and the 50-foot version are all a step down from our picks. All of them are 14-gauge wire instead of 12-gauge, even at the 50-foot length, and have just the bare minimum of strain relief between the cord and connector. None of them offer a lighted end or any other standout features.
The three-plug, indoor extension cord we examined from GE (the 12-foot brown 51954 version) had an almost identical cable to the Wallhugger version we recommend. But the standard plug sticks out from the wall, which makes it more likely to be pushed and bent and puts more strain on the neck of the cord. Since these short, indoor cords should only be used for low-power devices, the flat plug of the Wallhugger makes a lot more safety sense behind a couch or end table.
(Photos by Mark Smirniotis, except where noted.)
Originally published: October 19, 2016