Buying Guide

Types of Electrical Wires and Cables

Wire vs. Cable

While the terms wire and cable are often used interchangeably, wire is one electrical conductor and cable is a group of wires, or conductors, encased in sheathing. 


The National Electrical Code (NEC) and local building codes regulate the types of wire and cable that can be used in specific electrical applications, as well as the manner of installation. 


Safety: Check with your local building inspector before you start any electrical wiring and cable project and be sure to obtain required permits. When your work is complete, always have it inspected for compliance with local codes to ensure that it has been safely installed.

Wire Labeling

The information printed on the sides of wire indicates its THHN/THWN, material, max voltage rating and gauge.


THHN/THWN letters represent the most common types of individual wires used in residential applications. 


  • T – Thermoplastic insulation 
  • H – Heat resistance 
  • HH – High heat resistance up to 194 degrees Fahrenheit 
  • W – Rated for wet locations 
  • N – Nylon-coated to resist damage from oil or gasoline


Material: Most wire will be marked “CU” for copper, the most common conductor of residential electricity. Because electricity travels on the outside of copper wire, wires are insulated to protect against fire and shock. Older wire could be aluminum or copper-clad aluminum. 


Maximum voltage rating: This will be a number such as 600, which indicates the maximum voltage the wire can carry. It is recommended for safety purposes that you stay around 80 percent of the max wattage your gauge is capable of carrying. 


Gauge: This indicates wire size, as defined by the American Wire (AWG) system. The most common gauges are 10, 12 or 14. Larger numbers represent smaller sizes or gauges of wire. 

Tip: If a project calls for longer lengths of wire (such as 80 or more feet from the breaker), increase the gauge size to ensure that enough electricity can pass through it.


This chart shows both the recommended 80-percent wattage load and the absolute maximum 100-percent wattage load for the most common wire and cable gauge sizes.


Tip: Remember: amps = the amount of current a wire can safely carry. Wattage = the rate of electrical energy used by an appliance. Amps x voltage = watts

Recommended Wattage Loads
Description Feature/Benefits Recommended For
14 - Wire Wire and Cable Gauge: 14-gauge. Amps: 15 amps. Recommended 80% Wattage Load: 1440 watts (120 volts). Max Wattage Load: 1800 watts (120 volts). Common residential wiring: Light fixtures, household receptacles.
12 - Wire Wire and Cable Gauge: 12-gauge. Amps: 20 amps. Recommended 80% Wattage Load: 1920 watts (120 volts), 3840 watts (240 volts). Max Wattage Load: 2400 watts (120 volts), 4800 watts (240 volts). Common residential wiring: Light fixtures, household receptacles, small appliances.
10 - Wire Wire and Cable Gauge: 10-gauge. Amps: 30 amps. Recommended 80% Wattage Load: 2880 watts (120 volts), 5760 watts (240 volts). Max Wattage Load: 3600 watts (120 volts), 7200 watts (240 volts). Large household appliances: Window air conditioner units, clothes dryers.
8 - Wire Wire and Cable Gauge: 8-gauge. Amps: 40 amps. Recommended 80% Wattage Load: 7680 watts (240 volts). Max Wattage Load: 9600 watts (240 volts). Large household appliances: Electric ranges, central air conditioning.
6 - Wire Wire and Cable Gauge: 6-gauge. Amps: 55 amps. Recommended 80% Wattage Load: 10560 watts (240 volts). Max Wattage Load: 13200 watts (240 volts). Large household appliances: Central air conditioning, electric furnace.
Wire Colors

A wire’s color indicates what it can safely carry. 

  • White insulation: Typically considered neutral, but can sometimes be used as a hot lead in certain situations, such as switch loops. 
  • Green insulation and bare copper: Ground wire 
  • All other insulation colors: Hot wire that carries a current 


Safety: If you have any uncertainty as to whether a white wire is used as neutral or hot in a project, check with a professional electrician.

Cable Types

NM-B, UF, AC, metal-clad, coaxial and category 5e cables each have specific purposes and applications.   


NM-B cable

  • “NM” = non-metallic, which refers to the flexible, typically PVC sheathing surrounding the cable; “B” = a heat rating of 194 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring that wires can operate at certain levels without overheating. 
  • Most common form of indoor residential electrical wiring. 
  • Inside the sheathing are at least two thermoplastic insulated wires of the same gauge, though different cables can have different gauges. 
  • For indoor use only, in spaces free from moisture and away from any heat sources. Do not bury or run outside of a wall. Best used behind walls and ceilings and inside floor cavities.


UF cable

  • ”UF” = underground feeder; rated for in-ground and damp-area installation. 
  • Looks like NM-B cable but the wires are embedded as a group in solid thermoplastic (rather than individually encased in flexible thermoplastic). 
  • Like NM cable, UF cable comes in a variety of gauges to meet all electrical code requirements and is labeled with the same information carried on NM cable, plus the designation UF.


AC

  • “AC” = armored cable, also known as “BX”; consists of insulated hot and neutral wires and a bare bonding wire, all wrapped in paper. 
  • Wire enclosed in metal sheathing which acts as the grounding conductor. 
  • Relatively expensive and difficult to work with; often found in older homes but not used in new builds. 
  • For indoor use only.


Metal-clad cable

  • Similar to AC, but wires are wrapped in plastic instead of paper. 
  • Has green grounding wire because its metal sheathing can’t be used as a ground. 
  • For indoor use only. 
  • Not often used in residential applications.


Coaxial cable

  • Usually called “coax.”
  • Metallic cable often used to carry television signals and connect video equipment. 
  • Features central wire conductor covered with a dielectric or non-conducting insulator surrounded by mesh or a metal sheath and covered by a thin plastic layer for protection.


HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) cable

  • Rubber cable often used to transmit digital video, multi-channel surround audio and advanced control data through a single cable.
  • An all-digital audio-video interface which carries signals in uncompressed format.
  • Cost-effective.
  • HDMI connector types: Type A/B are defined in the HDMI 1.0 specification, type C is defined in the HDMI 1.3 specification, and type D/E are defined in the HDMI 1.4 specification.


Speaker Cable

  • Used to make the electrical connection between loudspeakers and audio amplifiers.
  • A zip-cord type of electrical cable where two or more electrical conductors are individually insulated in a plastic or rubber that can be easily pulled apart.


Category 5e cable

  • Usually called “cat-5e,” aka ethernet cable.
  • Industry standard for unshielded twisted-pair cables (UTP) for connecting phone, computer, home automation and A/V networks. 
  • Copper cabling typically consists of 4 pairs of wire (8 total conductors) wrapped in a single jacket.


Tip: Both NM and AC cable require special cutting tools that cut the sheathing but not the wires; bushings inserted in the ends to prevent the sharp edges of the metal from damaging the wires; and special electrical boxes and connectors.  


Cable Labeling

As with wire, all the information you need to know about NM-B or UF cable is printed on the sheathing. 


  • Type: This label will most commonly read NM-B. 
  • Gauge: The gauge of the individual wires inside the cable, such as 14, 12, 10, etc. 
  • Number of wires: This number follows gauge. For example, 14/2 indicates that there are two 14-gauge wires (a ground wire, if part of the cable, is not included in this number) within the cable. 
  • Grounding: The word “GROUND” or the letter “G” indicates the presence of a ground wire. 
  • Voltage rating: The most common rating for residential use is 600 volts, though this can vary. The number indicates the maximum voltage the wire can safely carry. 
  • UL: Indicates that the cable is safety certified and approved for use by Underwriters Laboratories.
     

Knowing how to distinguish between the different types of electrical wires and cables can ensure that your home's electric power supply operates at peak efficiency. Confirm that all components of the wiring systems are equipped with the right current-carrying capacity.