Electrical Wire and Cable Basics

Everything you wanted to know about electrical wires and cables.

An assortment of cables | Construction Pro Tips
Family Handyman

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Okay, we get it. Electricians are probably going to roll your eyes at this story, but the rest of us who work in and around wires may need a refresher on the basics. In this story, you’ll learn how to identify different cable and electrical wire types, learn more about their specific uses, and learn how to determine the size of individual electrical wires and their purpose.

Check out this story to learn about common electrical code mistakes.

A wire and a cable compared | Construction Pro Tips

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Electrical Cable vs. Electrical Wire

People often use these terms interchangeably, but there is a difference: Cable is an assembly of two or more wires in a single jacket. Electrical wires are the individual insulated or bare conductors inside the jacket

A close up look at the labeling on a cable | Construction Pro Tips

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Cable by the Numbers

An electrical cable is classified by two numbers separated by a hyphen, such as 14-2. The first number denotes the conductor’s gauge; the second denotes the number of conductors inside the cable. For instance, 14-2 has two 14-gauge conductors: a hot and a neutral. This cable also contains a bare copper wire as the ground. Individual conductors are also color-coded, which tells you their purpose in the circuit.

Five different colored wires | Construction Pro Tips

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Outer Sheath Color Coding

The color of a cable’s outer sheath tells you the gauge of the wire inside the sheath as well as the amperage rating for the circuit.
Gray= Underground cable. Since all UF (underground feeder) cable is gray, check the sheath labeling for gauge and circuit specifics.
Black= 8- or 6-gauge wire, 45- or 60-amp circuits. Check sheath labeling for gauge and circuit specifics.
White= 14-gauge wire, 15-amp circuit
Yellow= 12-gauge wire, 20-amp circuit
Orange= 10-gauge wire, 30-amp circuit

Five different colored wires .| Construction Pro Tips

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Electrical Wire Color Coding

This code is standard for all conductors. The colors you’re most likely to find in your home are the following:
Black (or Red) = HOT. Hot wires carry current from the panel to the device, which could be a switch, receptacle, light fixture or appliance. There are other colors for hot wires, but they’re much less common.
White = NEUTRAL. Neutral wires carry the current back to the panel, completing the circuit.
Bare (or Green) = GROUND. In the event of a ground fault, the ground wire provides a path for the fault current to return to the panel, opening the breaker or blowing the fuse, cutting off the flow of electricity.

Different kinds of cables | Construction Pro Tips

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NM-B — Nonmetallic Cable

This is the most common type of electrical cable in homes built since the mid-’60s. “Nonmetallic” simply means that the outer jacket is not metal. It’s often referred to as Romex, which is a brand name. Typically, NM-B cable has either two conductors and a ground, or three conductors and a ground. The conductors are individually insulated, wrapped in paper and sheathed in plastic. Ground wires are either bare copper or insulated in green.

14-2 : Used for general lighting and receptacle circuits. 15-amp circuit maximum.
14-3 : Used for three-way switches and split receptacle circuits. 15-amp circuit maximum.
12-2 : Used for 20-amp kitchen, bathroom, laundry and garage receptacles; 230-volt heating circuits up to 3,700 watts; and 115-volt circuits up to 1,800 watts. Can be used anywhere in place of 14-2.
12-3 : Same uses as 12-2, with the addition of three-way switches and split receptacle circuits.

A grey underground feeder cable | Construction Pro Tips

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UF — Underground Feeder Cable

UF is used primarily to bring power to detached garages, outbuildings or outdoor lighting. The insulated conductors are molded into the sheathing. Depending on the situation, UF is either direct-buried or run in conduit. It must be protected from physical damage by conduit where it exits the ground and is exposed.

A Metal clad cable with four wires | Construction Pro Tips

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MC — Metal-Clad Cable

MC cable is common in unfinished areas where the cable would otherwise be exposed and subject to physical damage. It’s also sometimes used inside walls. A bare aluminum wire is in continuous contact within the metal sheathing. The combination of aluminum wire, sheathing and metal boxes grounds the circuit.

Stranded wire and a solid wire | Construction Pro Tips

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Stranded Electrical Wire vs. Solid

Stranded wire is more flexible than solid. If you’re pulling wire through conduit, stranded wire makes it easier to get around corners and bends in the conduit. However, if the situation requires pushing wires through conduit, you’ll want to use solid wire.

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