A woman sits in a NYC loft space that’s older and doesn’t have enough outlets
Photo Credit:
Adobe Stock
Plugging into vintage charm

Not Enough Outlets? Here’s How To (Safely) Deal

Ashley Robinson
January 30, 2024

Old apartment buildings can have a lot of charm and character, but they’re often lacking in one crucial amenity: convenient outlets. Modern life requires a lot of electricity and a lot of plugs. Unfortunately, older buildings were wired well before electronics became such a big part of our daily routines, and if your unit hasn’t been updated, you’re probably feeling the pain of having too few outlets. So, how do you get the most out of just a few outlets safely?

Understanding Your Electrical Capacity

Before we get into safe solutions for limited outlets, let’s talk about electrical capacity. Understanding a little about the way electricity works in the home will help you use power safely, especially when you’re dealing with old wiring.

To get started, you need to know how much power is available on each circuit. Electricity is measured in a few ways: amps, volts, and watts. What we’re really looking to understand here is wattage, because that’s how the electrical capacity of appliances and gadgets is measured, and that’s how you’re going to make sure you don’t overload your outlets!

The wattage you have available on a circuit is determined with a simple formula: amps x volts = watts.

Amps are determined by looking into your electrical service panel, where you can check each circuit in your home for amperage. That said, if you can’t easily access your service panel, most circuits are 15 or 20 amps, so you can use that to estimate.

Volts represent the electrical “pressure,” or potential for electrical movement, available along the circuit. For the most part, wall outlets are rated to 120V. Your home may have 240V outlets for large appliances like dryers, but those look pretty different, so you don’t need to worry about those.  

So, for example, on a 15-amp circuit, a 120V outlet will have a capacity 1800 watts.

One important thing to note is that this wattage is for the whole circuit, so figuring out which outlets and appliances are grouped together on circuits is important. This might be as easy as asking your landlord or taking a peek at the electrical panel for your unit, or you may need to do a little detective work with a circuit breaker finder. Either way, knowing which outlets are on circuits together is going to help you avoid electrical overload.

Navigating Grounded and Ungrounded Outlets in Older Homes

Understanding the difference between grounded and ungrounded outlets is crucial, especially in older apartments. Grounded outlets have three prongs and offer an extra safety layer by directing excess electricity into the ground, preventing electrical hazards. Many older buildings, however, still feature two-prong, ungrounded outlets, which can pose risks when used with modern electronics. If your home has ungrounded outlets, consider consulting an electrician about upgrading to grounded ones for enhanced safety. This step is vital for protecting your electronics and ensuring a safer living environment.

How to Avoid Overload

Once you know the basics of your electrical capacity and whether you have ungrounded or grounded outlets, the next thing you need to think about is your demand. This will help you avoid overload, which can cause tripped circuits and fires.

You’ll do this by looking at your appliances and electronics to figure out how many watts they use when they’re on. A lot of appliances will have the electrical information stamped on the tag or a plate on the back, and lightbulbs typically have wattage stamped along the base. But if you can’t find it easily, here’s a list of common electronics with average wattage.

For most small electronics, like laptops, phone chargers, lamps, and even TVs, each gadget only requires 200 watts or less. But some appliances take considerably more power, so it’s good to know which ones these are! Common high-wattage electronics include hair dryers, coffee makers, space heaters, toasters, and AC units.

Once you have a general idea of how much power each item uses, all you need to do is add those numbers up to make sure you don’t overload your circuits or outlets when using electronics at the same time on the same circuit.

So for example, a TV (200 watts) plus a laptop (100 watts) requires about 300 watts, so in our example above, you’d be well below the 1800 watt limit on that circuit. But if you plug in a hair dryer on that circuit (1000 watts), you’re getting closer to the limit, so you’ll want to be mindful of other electronics while the hair dryer is on.

A great solution to avoid overload is simply to turn off and unplug appliances when not in use, especially high-wattage appliances. This frees up outlets for other usage and reduces the risk of fire from overload if something is turned on by accident!

By keeping capacity and demand in mind, you’ll reduce the risk of electrical overload and keep your living space safe from electrical issues. But just in case, some signs of electrical overload to look out for include:

  • Flickering or dimming lights
  • Frequent tripping of circuit breaker
  • Discolored or warm outlets
  • Burning odors coming from outlets or switches
  • Sparks or shocks from touching outlets, switches, or appliances

If you see any of these signs, stop using affected outlets and contact your landlord or an electrician right away.

How to Safely Expand and Extend Your Outlets

If your outlets are in inconvenient locations, or if you don’t quite have enough plug space for your needs, you have two basic options: power strips and outlet extenders or extension cords.

Power strips and outlet extenders both add more plugs to a single outlet. Some of them also contain surge protectors, which will protect your electronics from damage from power surges. Extension cords allow you to plug in an appliance that’s too far away from available outlets.  

All of these options can help with limited outlets, but there are some safety precautions you should take when using them, especially when they’re a part of your day-to-day setup.

Don’t plug high-wattage electronics into power strips. At best, this might cause the power strip or the circuit to trip, but at worst, it can also increase the risk of electrical fire. Hair dryers, AC units, Instant Pots, and other high-wattage appliances should always go directly into the wall outlet. Bonus safety points for unplugging when not in use! Power strips (this one integrates with OhmConnect) are great for smaller electronics and gadgets, like phone chargers, lamps, TVs, and sound systems.

Don’t “daisy-chain” extension cords, power strips, or outlet extenders. This is where you plug an extension cord into a power strip or vice versa. If you find yourself needing extra space or length, the safest option is to purchase longer or larger extenders, rather than chaining them together.

Do keep an eye on wattage and proper usage. Power strips, outlet extenders, and extension cords are all rated with wattage capacity and whether they’re indoor use only, which should be displayed clearly on the packaging. Just like we discussed for avoiding overloading circuits, add up the wattage of whatever you’re plugging into the power strip and make sure the total is less than the capacity listed on the packaging.  

Do be mindful of where the cords are placed. Make sure nothing is bent or exposed to water, and avoid the temptation of stapling or nailing extension cords into baseboards—this can increase the risk of fraying and electrical fire.

Safety First

Electricity can be dangerous, so it’s important to keep safety in mind above all. Be mindful not to overload circuits and use extenders and electronics safely, but if you’re dealing with old wiring, the best course of action will always be to update the electrical system in the building. If you’re worried that you don’t have enough electrical capacity, if you have old outlets that feel loose, or if you see any signs of overload or fire, contact your landlord or an electrician right away.

As we further electrify our homes, upgrading our electrical services and panels, as well as adding more circuits, will need to happen to support modern electrical needs. The good news is that there is money to help you do this in the Inflation Reduction Act. But for now, if you’re living with older wiring, make sure to keep capacity, demand, and safety in mind to get the best use out of limited electrical systems.

Most recent posts
Save money. save energy.

Related Articles

See all >
A couple and their child reach into their pantry to grab a jar. The pantry is well organized due to energy-efficient storage solutions.
Kitchen organization

The Power of Pantry Upgrades: Energy-Efficient Storage Solutions

Tips to give your pantry a smart upgrade that maximizes space while minimizing waste – both in terms of resources and money.

Woman and her child in the garden after learning some early spring garden tips.
Is it really spring?

Early Spring Garden Tips

It's time to do some maintenance, setup, and planting to get the most out of your outdoor space this summer with these garden tips!

A woman washes her windows as part of her yearly spring home maintenance.
Warm weather is coming

Spring Home Maintenance

Warmer weather is coming, which means this is a great time to work on some spring home maintenance. See tips for both indoor and outdoor tasks to maintain a healthy home.