More often than not, the terms wire and cable are used to describe the same thing, but they are actually quite different. Wire is a single electrical conductor, whereas a cable is a group of wires swathed in sheathing. The term cable originally referred to a nautical line of multiple ropes used to anchor ships, and in an electrical context, cables (like wires) are used to carry electrical currents.
Whether indoors or outdoors, proper wire and cable installation is of paramount importance - ensuring a smooth electricity supply, as well as passing electrical inspections. Each wire and cable needs to be installed carefully, from the fuse box to the outlets, fixtures and appliances. The National Electrical Code (NEC) and Local Building Codes regulate the manner of installation and the types of wires and cables for various electrical applications.
Some factors that will affect your choice of electrical wiring include color, label information and applications. The information printed on the wire covering is all that you need to choose the correct wire for your home. Here’s some detailed information on the various features of electrical wire, which will help you choose the correct composition:
1. Size of Wires – Each application requires a certain wire size for installation, and the right size for a specific application is determined by the wire gauge. Sizing of wire is done by the American wire gauge system. Common wire sizes are 10, 12 and 14 – a higher number means a smaller wire size, and affects the amount of power it can carry. For example, a low-voltage lamp cord with 10 Amps will require 18-gauge wire, while service panels or subpanels with 100 Amps will require 2-gauge wire..
2. Wire Lettering – The letters THHN, THWN, THW and XHHN represent the main insulation types of individual wires. These letters depict the following NEC requirements:.
- T – Thermoplastic insulation
- H – Heat resistance
- HH – High heat resistance (up to 194°F)
- W – Suitable for wet locations
- N – Nylon coating, resistant to damage by oil or gas
- X – Synthetic polymer that is flame-resistant
3. Types of Wires – There are mainly 5 types of wire: .
- Triplex Wires : Triplex wires are usually used in single-phase service drop conductors, between the power pole and weather heads. They are composed of two insulated aluminum wires wrapped with a third bare wire which is used as a common neutral. The neutral is usually of a smaller gauge and grounded at both the electric meter and the transformer.
- Main Feeder Wires : Main power feeder wires are the wires that connect the service weather head to the house. They’re made with stranded or solid THHN wire and the cable installed is 25% more than the load required.
- Panel Feed Wires : Panel feed cables are generally black insulated THHN wire. These are used to power the main junction box and the circuit breaker panels. Just like main power feeder wires, the cables should be rated for 25% more than the actual load.
- Non-Metallic Sheathed Wires : Non-metallic sheath wire, or Romex, is used in most homes and has 2-3 conductors, each with plastic insulation, and a bare ground wire. The individual wires are covered with another layer of non-metallic sheathing. Since it’s relatively cheaper and available in ratings for 15, 20 and 20 amps, this type is preferred for in-house wiring.
- Single Strand Wires : Single strand wire also uses THHN wire, though there are other variants. Each wire is separate and multiple wires can be drawn together through a pipe easily. Single strand wires are the most popular choice for layouts that use pipes to contain wires.
4. Color Codes – Different color wires serve different purposes, like:.
- Black : Hot wire, for switches or outlets.
- Red : Hot wire, for switch legs. Also for connecting wire between 2 hardwired smoke detectors.
- Blue and Yellow : Hot wires, pulled in conduit. Blue for 3-4 way switch application, and yellow for switch legs to control fan, lights etc.
- White : Always neutral.
- Green and Bare Copper : Only for grounding.
5. Wire Gauge, Ampacity and Wattage Load – To determine the correct wire, it is important to understand what ampacity and wattage a wire can carry per gauge. Wire gauge is the size of the wire, ampacity is how much electricity can flow through the wire and wattage is the load a wire can take, which is always mentioned on the appliances..