When I walk into my office at Consumer Reports, I’m greeted by some cool drawings made by my friend Allison, the third grader from Newark, N.J., whom I tutor. And cords. Many, many cords. A power cord for my laptop tangled with cables for my mouse, and my monitor, and my cellphone.
At home, it gets worse, because my family has three different types of Apple MacBooks—each with a similar white charger with the same MagSafe attachment. But each brick supplies a different wattage, which makes it all too easy to plug in a laptop with a power cord that only appears to be charging it.
And this is only one of the many points of confusion that power cords add to modern life.
To find solutions, we talked to two authorities. First up, an expert on getting electricity from an outlet to your devices, John Drengenberg, consumer safety director of Underwriters Laboratories, also known as UL, who explained the technical aspects of power cords. And, second, Jennifer Lava, a professional organizer in Austin, Texas, who helped out with ideas on keeping your cords neat and easy to locate.
Here are some dos and don'ts for power-cord management.
1. Don't Cheap Out on Your Chargers
Your phone was probably expensive. While you may not have laid out $700 all at once, you probably paid $30 a month for a couple of years, plus a deposit.
Sure, you can buy a $5 charger at a drugstore instead of a $25 charger from the manufacturer. But the cheapie chargers may not have undergone stringent testing by UL. They could damage your device (while voiding the warranty) and even, on rare occasions, start a fire.
“A $5 cord doesn’t have the same level of materials. It could be a serious safety hazard,” says Drengenberg. In general, the UL symbol on a product is a good start, but be warned some super-cheap chargers have been sold with counterfeit UL marks. (The same issue arose with hoverboards last year.) “If it seems too good to be true,” says Drengenberg, “it probably is.”
2. Do Double Up on Your Cords
One way of minimizing power-cord anxiety and clutter, according to Lava, is to move the device to the cord rather than the other way around.
“Buy a cord for your home, another for your office, and, maybe, a third one for your car,” she says.
Since you’re not constantly moving them, each power cord will be less likely to get lost or damaged. You can spend less time packing cords and/or stressing out about having the right charger in the right place when you need it.
And here's an added bonus: You can invest a little time in organizing the cords neatly to conquer the rat’s nest on your desk.
3. Don't Worry About a Hot Brick
Your laptop's power brick is getting warm. Make that actually hot. No, you won’t burn yourself, but you can’t touch it for long without discomfort.
Is this cause for concern? No, Drengenberg says.
Among the many components in a power brick are the tools needed to step down the voltage from the wall outlet and to convert current from AC (the alternating current that flows through your home's wiring and powers many large appliances) to DC (the direct current that charges batteries in a phone or laptop). That process produces waste heat.
It's also normal for the lithium-ion batteries in a phone or laptop to get warm. “They make power through a chemical reaction, and one of the products of a chemical reaction is heat,” Drengenberg explains.
So heat is normal. Of course, if the brick or your device starts smoking or smells like it's burning, that could be the sign of a rare but serious malfunction.
4. Do Use a Power Strip
It seems so old school, plugging your device into an outlet strip. What’s next? Parachute pants?
But aside from the convenience factor, most outlet strips have a built-in surge protector. It can protect your device from a power surge caused by something as spectacular as a lightning strike or as seemingly innocuous as the elevator motor in your building kicking on. And yes, you do want that protection.
“The $10 strip takes the hit instead of your expensive device,” Drengenberg says.
5. Don't Throw Out a Cord That Doesn't Work…
At least not without a close look.
Let's say your cord looks fine, but it's just not charging your device. Dengenberg had this problem with his iPhone. "I noticed that if I pushed the connector in harder, it would charge,” Drengenberg recalls. So he inspected the connector with a flashlight. “I realized it was jammed up with plain old pocket lint.”
As devices have gotten smaller, so have their power connectors, led by the tiny USB Type-C plugs that have been showing up in smartphones and laptops. And that means that it takes only a small amount of debris to foul these smaller female connectors.
The solution? Grab a toothpick—which is nonmetallic—and very carefully remove the schmutz. It’s a lot cheaper than a new power cord.
6. Do Color-Code Your Cords
The only thing worse than a cord that doesn’t work is a totally functional cord that goes missing. The best strategy for keeping tabs on your cords depends on the situation, Lava says.
If a cord is often “borrowed” by a family member or work colleague, try some simple color coding. “Apply a dot with a permanent marker or some nail polish,” says Lava. “Assign a color to each family member.”
If you're the problem—constantly leaving your cords at coffee shops—try putting your cell phone number on it with some tape or a laundry tag (like you’d put on kids’ clothes for camp). It gives a good Samaritan a way to contact you and return your lost cord.
Finally, to keep track of a larger—and more expensive—laptop charger, it can be helpful to attach a small tracking tag like a Tile or TrackR. The device will help you find your charger whether it's been misplaced in your home or elsewhere in town.
These systems communicate with your smartphone using Bluetooth. If you're nearby, you can use a phone app to make the device sound an alert. If you're out of range but another user of the product is nearby, a community feature kicks in: The other user's phone can send along your tracker's location, without that user ever being aware of it. The location will show up on a map in the device's app on your phone.
7. Don't Roll Your Cords
From the makers of gadgets like the Cord Taco to up-cyclers who urge people to re-use toilet-paper rolls, there’s a small but urgent movement afoot devoted to encouraging you to wrap cords tightly for storage.
Don’t do it.
According to Drengenberg, this is a quick route to breaking an otherwise healthy-looking power cord. “The wires inside are very thin, almost like a human hair,” he says. Those delicate copper conductors can break when you repetitively stress them by bending them again and again and again.
If you must roll up your cords, loop them loosely to avoid crimping the delicate wires. And try to wrap them differently each day, to avoid repeatedly stressing one section.
8. Do Use the Right Charger
If you’re like me, you’ve got a drawer full of black AC mystery adapters. Is this one for the camera? Or was it the cordless speaker? Maybe some old phone?
The problem: Increasingly, adapters use universal plugs—some flavor of tiny USB that plugs into the device and a more standard USB connector that plugs into the brick.
“Just because the plug fits doesn’t mean it’s the right adapter,” Drengenberg says. Use the wrong charger and the risks range from damage to your device to fire or electric shock.
You can try playing cord detective by checking the input and output information printed on the brick and looking up your device’s requirements on the internet. No luck? “Throw it away, and get the right one,” Drengenberg says.
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