Electrical outlets are portals to the electricity we need to power our devices and appliances.
These magnificent gateways of vital energy grant us the ability to use appliances in an instant.
However, they have limits. If an outlet is overloaded, it becomes a hazard to your home and loved ones.
In a 2021 report, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimated that electric receptacles and switches caused an average of 2,400 fires between 2016 and 2018, causing 10 deaths, 80 injuries and $55 million in property losses.
It’s critical to know your home’s electrical system limits, signs of damage and what to do if you find damage.
An additional layer of protection to help prevent electrical fires is to install Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) in your home.
“How Many Things Can I Plug Into One Outlet?” - Get to Know the Limits of Your Home’s Electrical System
Unfortunately, there isn’t one single answer to this question. Most modern homes are built to fit the National Electrical Code to ensure safety, but an older home may require a more in-depth assessment.
There are more ways than ever to measure electrical output and usage with connected electrical devices. However, if you haven’t installed a system, there are still ways to calculate how much energy you are drawing from a circuit at a given time.
The first place to assess your home’s electrical capabilities is the breaker box. From there, you can see what type of loads the circuits are rated to handle. There is most likely some labeling on your breakers to indicate maximum amperage output and which circuits control which parts of your home.
To see which outlets and lighting fixtures are connected to each circuit manually, start by flipping one breaker at a time. Then, go to the labeled area to test an outlet and light switch.
The circuits you want to test should allow between 15-20 amps of power to specific sections of your home. Any larger amount is usually set aside for large appliance plugins.
To determine the amperage of a particular appliance, you can take its wattage, which you can locate in its instruction manual or on the serial number designation, and divide it by 120 volts.
To get the most out of your home’s outlets, you want to keep your electrical usage at around 80 percent of your circuit’s safety limit. For example, for 15-amp circuits, you should keep your energy usage around 12 amps. A circuit rated for 20 amps should stay around 16 amps.
The easiest way to limit amperage is by monitoring how many devices you are using on one circuit at a time and staggering their use. Limiting usage may mean waiting to use your toaster after the coffee stops brewing or turning off your space heater as you vacuum.
Overloaded Electric Outlets: The Warning Signs
There are a few ways you can tell that your outlet may need inspection or replacement. The ESFI lists the following signs as red flags for electrical sockets:
- Wall plates that are warm to the touch
- Discoloration on socket and light switch plates
- Crackling, sizzling or buzzing sounds
- Sparking when you plug in a device
- A burning odor coming from receptacles or wall switches
- A mild shock or tingle when you plug appliances into the outlet
Overloaded outlets and circuits can create hazards you should address as soon as possible.
Signs that the circuit powering your outlets may be overloaded or failing include:
- Flickering, blinking or dimming lights
- Frequently tripped circuit breakers or blown fuses
- Appliances seem underpowered when you use them
If your outlet or circuits are showing any signs of misbehavior, avoid using them and contact a certified electrician as soon as possible.
Four ways to Prevent Electrical Overloads
As tempting as it may be, don’t plug more than you should into one outlet. Overloaded electric outlets are a major cause of residential fires. Here are four ways to help lower your risk by not overloading your system.
- Never use extension cords or multi-outlet converters for appliances.
- All major appliances should be plugged directly into a wall outlet. Only plug one heat-producing appliance into an outlet at a time.
- Heavy reliance on extension cords is an indication that you have too few outlets for your needs. Have a qualified electrician inspect your home and add more outlets.
- Power strips only add additional outlets. They don’t change the amount of power being received from the outlet.
A Special Consideration for Holiday Lighting and Decorations
Scenes such as Clark Griswald’s overloaded outdoor display or Ralphie Parker’s dad lighting up his leg lamp amongst an overloaded indoor outlet are funny to watch on the big screen but are far too dangerous in real life. Lighting your home for the holiday season to share some joy with your neighbors is a great way to get into the spirit, but holiday illumination can quickly push your outlets to the limit.
LED lights are a great choice as they have lower wattage ratings than their incandescent counterparts.
Add up the wattage required for the little beacons of Christmas cheer before you cover your home and lawn with a power-hungry display. Nothing will say bah humbug like having the breaker trip on your holiday lights.
If you are going to use extension cords outside, make sure they are rated for outdoor use. You want to get a tight seal between plugins to avoid corrosion from outdoor moisture. The same rules of outgoing amperage apply to power strips as they do individual outlets.
Why Preventing Overloaded Electric Outlets Is Essential
Pulling too much power from your electrical outlets strains your home’s circuitry, which can expand the wiring in your home. As wires expand from heat and melt through the insulation, the exposed wire becomes a candidate for arcing.
Circuit breakers and AFCIs, are designed to prevent arcs, but you shouldn’t rely on them to limit your energy use.
If you see signs of wear on your outlets, contact a certified electrician for an inspection. It may be inconvenient at the moment, but it’s better than risking your home and family’s safety to fire.
For more information on home electrical safety, visit our indoor electrical safety page.