As more people power up home theatre systems, computers, charging devices and video game systems, more extension cords, power strips and surge protectors are needed to meet electrical connection requirements. The increased need to “plug in” has resulted difficultly managing all of the electronics at work as well as home. In fact, one of the most numerous violations the installation safety office sites during building inspections is the improper use of power strips and extension cords.

Power strips, surge/spike protectors, or portable outlets, typically consist of several components, such as multiple electrical receptacles, an on/off power switch or circuit breaker, and a three pronged/grounded power cord. Power strips may contain other electronic components intended to provide electrical noise filtering or surge protection.

While many power strips meet current safety standards, some sold are poorly constructed and are a hidden fire and electrocution hazard due to undersized wires, loose connections, faulty components or improper grounding. Most of these substandard cords are sold at discount stores and small retailers for under $10. Most are made in China and while many have no identifying marks or model numbers some do have counterfeit Underwriters Laboratories certification labels. Extension cords, power strips and surge protectors must be able to handle the amount of current required by the appliance. Defective cords that fail to meet current industry safety standards can be easily overloaded even if they are used to plug in small appliances.

Power strips are designed for use with a number of low-powered loads, such as computers, peripherals or audio/video components. Power strips are not designed for high power loads such as space heaters, refrigerators and microwave ovens, which can easily exceed the recommended ampere ratings. Inexpensive UL approved power strips have caused problems due to the heat generated by continually exceeding the rated capacity. This heat build-up will eventually cause the internal material to break down, becoming more sensitive and dissipate more heat.

If the case is made of plastic, the continual heating process could eventually cause the strip to ignite. In one year alone, electrical power strips and plugs were involved in about 7,100 fires resulting in 120 deaths. More than 12,000 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for electrical burns and shocks and about 2,500 people were treated for injuries associated with extension cords.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission provides these safety tips for consumers:

• Look for a certification label from an independent testing lab such as UL or Electrical Testing Laboratories on the package and on the product itself. Products with this certification label meet current industry safety standards. For extension cords, look for a permanently attached certification label on the cord near the plug. For power strips and surge protectors, inspect the underside of the casing and make certain that it is marked with the manufacturer's name and the testing lab.

• Avoid low cost, plastic case, power strips and surge protectors even if they have the UL label.

• Use electrical cords, power strips and surge protectors that have polarized plugs with one blade slightly wider the other, or grounded three-pronged plugs. These features reduce the risk of electric shock.

• Use special, heavy duty extension cords for high wattage appliances such as air conditioners, portable electric heaters and freezers.

• Extension cords used outside should be specifically designed for such use to guard against shock.

• Insert plugs fully so that no part of the prongs are exposed when the cord is in use.

• Never cover any part of an extension cord with rugs or other objects while it is in use. If the cord is covered, heat cannot escape, which can result in fire.

• Do not overload cords with too many appliances. Change the cord to a higher-rated one or unplug and relocate appliances to other outlets.

• Make sure cords do not dangle from the counter or table tops where they can be pulled down or tripped over.

• If a cord feels hot to the touch, stop using it and throw it away.

• Replace cracked or worn cords.

• Do not use extension cords to compensate for inadequate home wiring. Use extension cords only when necessary and only on a temporary basis.

• Do not plug power strips into one another to form a chain of power.