Electrical Wire Size

Learning the basics of your home’s electrical wire size and function is important if you’ve decided to incorporate any electrical work into your next remodeling project. Estimating electrical work and materials is relatively simple, once you learn what size goes where.

Always check with your county or city to be sure you’re allowed to do this work. Many states require a professional electrician for anything over simple replacement of switches and outlets … and maybe installing a ceiling fan!

If you are allowed to do other electrical jobs yourself, avoid creating problems with the inspector by knowing the wire sizes.

The power that enters into your home comes from your utility company, and is measured in amps and volts. The transformer on the pole outside your home governs the power you are provided and determines the size of your service panel. Most service panels (called “breaker boxes” by some) are 200 amps today, but homes operated on much less in the past. Your grandparents probably had a 60 amp fuse box!

Before you begin doing any electrical projects, you should understand how amperage (amps) is related to the actual electrical wire size, defined by the term “gauge” or thickness. Wires are manufactured in different gauges to ensure they will not overheat and cause a fire hazard or lose voltage.

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There are 4 things that cause a voltage drop. Material, Area, Length, and Temperature. Material is copper or aluminum wire. Aluminum has a higher specific resistance so there’s more voltage drop per foot than copper. Area is the gauge, or thickness, of the wire. A larger gauge carries more current and has less voltage drop. Length is resistance. Longer wire means more resistance and more voltage drop. Temperature is a factor because higher temps may cause more resistance. Wires that are not heavy enough to properly carry the load to a particular item heat up because of this.

Figuring Out Which Wire Gauge is Needed

First, as odd as this sounds, the smaller the gauge of the wire, the more amps the wire is able to handle. As the numbers go down (ie: 16 gauge, 14, 12, 10, etc.) the wire diameter goes up. In other words, an 18 gauge wire is much smaller than a 10 gauge.

This is determined by the American Wire Gauge System (AWG) and is simply the amount of current that the particular electrical wire size can safely handle without getting hot. Knowing this is important when you’re trying to estimate electrical work as a part of your home improvement project.

The wires behind the walls are going to be 14 and 12 gauge. Your 14 gauge wires run from 15 amp circuits and the 12 gauge wires from 20 amp. New homes today, however, are being built without 15 amp breakers at all. 20 amp service insures no (or fewer) overloads.

Specific Wire Gauges and Their Uses

Here is a look at a few examples which can help you decide on the right electrical wire size for the particular application. Basically, 12 gauge wire for everything except the clothes dryer, kitchen range (electric) and the water heater. Some jurisdictions require a separate circuit (20 amp) for a built in microwave now, too.

Copper wires are the only one’s available at your local Big Box and hardware store and the people there are more than happy to show you what you’ll need. Just remember to get a little more than you think you’ll need.

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Updated: October 19, 2013 — 7:59 am

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