Electrical Wire Gauge, Ampacity, and Wattage Load

Unfinished electrical wiring
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If you've ever gone to the store with the intent on buying some electrical wire for a project at home, you may have noticed that there are many types and sizes of wire to choose from. These electrical wires are used for powering all types of devices, appliances, and lighting in your home, but knowing what the right size wire is needed for each is the secret to a safe and effective wire choice.

Here are some great tips for determining the proper wire gauge, ampacity, and the maximum wattage allowed.

Determining the proper size wire to use can be easy if you know what amperage and wattage a wire can carry per wire gauge. The trick is to have the right sized wired fitted to the power demand it will have on the circuit. Although some wires look the same and even look to be the same size, it doesn't mean that they can handle the amperage. For instance, copper wire can handle more than aluminum wire and should always be your choice of wiring to install in your home. Aluminum wiring was used years ago, being cheaper, but due to the softer wiring becoming heated and then becoming loose within the wiring connection points, the practice of using aluminum wire has faded. Copper wire is a superior choice and the standard in wiring techniques.

Wire gauge is the physical size of the wire, rated in gauge size. For instance, common sizes include 14-, 12-, 10-, 8-, 6-, and 2-gauge wire. The gauge of the wire dictates the amount of current that can safely pass through the electrical wire.

Electrical current is is measured as ampacity. As a guide, #14 wire is good for 15 amps, #12 wire is good for 20 amps, #10 wire is good for 30 amps.As the number gets smaller, the size of the wire gets larger and the amount of amps it can handle also gets larger. This little tip can help you choose the correct sized wire.

Ampacity is defined as the measurement of how much electrical current can flow through an electrical wire safely. This ampacity should match the circuit size, meaning the circuit breaker or fuse that protects it. Speaking of that, remember to calculate the circuit load at no more than 80% of the circuit protection. That would mean that a 20-amp circuit should not be loaded more than 16 amps safely. Let's think of a motor on this same circuit that has a startup amperage larger than that of the run ampacity. This practice leaves plenty of startup amperage left over, that being 20% or 4 amps, to get the motor spinning. This is also true with many appliances in your home that use compressors and motors to cool like refrigerators and freezer.

Appliances are marked with a tag that informs you of the maximum wattage (load) that it takes to run. The maximum wattage of the appliance should never exceed the maximum wattage rating of the circuit it is connected to. If it does, a dedicated circuit should be run that is capable of handling the load. Over the years of being an electrician, I've seen my share of overloaded circuits, appliances plugged into extension cords that were too light to handle the load, and plugged into power strips that were actually trying to melt due to the load.

These are great instances of potential electrical fires due to the wrong sized extension cords. In the event that you don't know, there are special extension cords called appliance cords that are designed to handle the load of appliances.

One more thing to keep in mind is to select wire that best fits your needs. Some wire is stranded, while other wire is solid. The solid wire doesn't always pull as easy in conduit with a large number of bends, but is much easier to place under wire terminals like those on switches and outlets.