Simple Electrical Safety Tips for Outdoor Cooling
Honestly, the safety is as important as the cooling. Used improperly any electrical appliance can cause property damage or injury. But electrical safety can be simple, even when it’s outdoors.
You naturally want to be able to use your outdoor appliance – fan, pump, air conditioner or swamp cooler, well … outdoors. But you know you have to be more careful with electricity outdoors.
On the other hand, if you’re using an appliance made for outdoor use, hasn’t it been built with outdoor safety in mind? Just how careful do you really need to be with all of this stuff?
The precautions you need to take for electrical safety outdoors can all be narrowed down to 3 areas:
- the appliance itself: its safety features
- its connections to the power source
- how it’s set up and used
1. The Appliance, Itself (Fan, Pump, Motor)
Using electrical appliances outdoors involves the risk of exposure to things like water and dust and debris that are usually not a factor with using them indoors. So extra precautions are taken with the construction of electrical appliances that are designed to be used outdoors. Look for the words, “FOR OUTDOOR USE” in the product description, on the box or on the appliance, itself, or ask the supplier or manufacturer.
Safety Ratings for Outdoor Use
Any electric appliance you use outdoors should be rated by an independent agency such as Underwriters Laboratories for safety. This rating is your primary insurance that the appliance is safe to use under controlled conditions (such as discussed in this article). Underwriters Laboratories (UL) is an independent international agency that works with other such agencies to test for a product’s electrical safety. Go to the Consumer Products Safety Council at cpsc.gov for more on helpful agencies and product safety news.
Manufacturers go to extra expense and trouble to meet the standards of these testing agencies. Products that meet the standards are proudly labeled with the name or seal of the testing agency (“UL Listed” or “ETL Listed,” etc.). If you can’t find an electricity safety listing for a certain fan, pump or motor contact the manufacturer or seller before making the purchase, otherwise it’s safer to assume the product does not have that safety rating.
Electric appliances may earn a UL rating for 3 kinds of locations:
- DRY – safe to use in locations that are normally dry (not normally subject to dampness or wetness). Though normally considered for indoor use only, these can be safe to use outdoors in the right conditions. An example might be using it outdoors temporarily and bringing it indoors at the end of the day, out of the damp night air. This pretty much eliminates anything permanently installed, such as ceiling fans and misting system pumps with this dry rating. Another example is setting the appliance up on a table, frame or waterproof tarp tha can protect it from the damp earth.
- DAMP – safe for protected outdoor use where the appliance will not come in direct contact with water. For example, a patio with a solid ceiling would be ok for a ceiling fan if wind-driven rain or water from sprinklers never reaches the fan, or in a humid pool enclosure if water never splashes on it. Not good for direct contact with water, but high humidity is fine.
- WET – safe when exposed directly to wind, rain and snow. These appliances would be safe if water from sprinklers splashes them, or if pool water splashes them. These can even be safely rinsed clean. These appliances have sealed motors and wiring and the motor’s housing is made with non-corrosive material or is coated with baked-enamel paint.
It is safe to use damp and wet-rated appliances indoors. These are often call indoor-outdoor appliances or simply outdoor appliances. If you want your indoor fans to look exactly like your outdoor fans, use the outdoor-rated fans in all locations.
Never use dry or damp rated appliances in wet locations where they might get rained on, snowed on, or somehow drenched with water. They simply don’t have the necessary electrical safety features for that kind of open outdoor use.
A note about misting system pumps:
You generally want to install these pumps away from the area being cooled. The pumps can be noisy, built for function rather than beauty, and interfere with the comfortable environment you’re trying to create. So even though the lines and nozzles of your misting system may be exposed to rain and snow, the pump may or may not be as exposed. Consider the location of the pump, not necessarily the mist, when you choose an electrical safety rating for your pump.
If you can’t find an outdoor safety rating for a certain fan, pump, motor, or any other item powered by electricity, contact the manufacturer or seller before making the purchase.
All appliances used outdoors must have a three pronged “grounded” plug. This is one of the electrical safety features that qualifies them for a DAMP or WET rating. Something as simple as a grounded plug can minimize any electrical shorts and can prevent fires or injury.
- Using a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) receptacle / outlet together with grounded plugs is added insurance for outdoor safety. A GFCI plug will immediately shut off the fan, pump or motor if there are any electrical surges, protecting people from extreme shock. An increasing number of appliances and extension cords are being made with a GFCI built in. Portable GFCIs are also available, and some outdoor power source outlets have GFCIs installed. Do a simple safety test on your GFCI each time before using it.
- Check to see if the appliance has features to shut it off automatically in case anything interferes with its operation (if it gets knocked down, if something gets caught in it, etc.).
- Look for safety in the way the appliance is built — does it have a solid base? Can it be installed securely? Does it have any kind of protective housing or screens? Any other safety features?
The appliance’s condition
Even a wet-rated appliance with every outdoor electrical safety feature built in can become unsafe with time and use. Cords can become frayed, screws can work loose, motor housings can get damaged. Look over your fan, pump or motor regularly checking for these things. Repair it if possible, replace it if necessary.
2. Its Connections: Cords & Sockets
Electrical safety sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to connections. Don’t use indoor extension cords outside. Look for extension cords specifically marked for outdoor use. Look for extension cords that have a GFCI built in.
Also, make sure the amperage rating for the extension cord is higher than the amperage rating for the appliance. Check labels and owner’s manuals on the appliance and the extension cord for amperage ratings.
Power cords have to be contained. If they must run along the ground, make sure every inch of them is secured so they will not be tripped over. Rubber strips work well on most hard surfaces. Look for those that are beveled on the edges for a smooth transition from the ground, up onto the strip, over the cord and back down on the other side.
Wide strips of electrical tape (more than 3″) also work well when pressed smoothly against clean, solid hard surfaces like concrete. For lawns, use “U” shaped plastic stakes that can be driven into the ground along the length of the cords, being careful not to puncture the cord with the stakes — secure AROUND the cords, NOT INTO them.
The wiring and connections must be watertight. Be sure the connections (to the appliance, the building, the generator, the extension cord) never get wet. That outdoor fan or pump may be waterproof, but everything attached to it must be waterproof, too. This may mean wrapping connections securely in electrical tape, rubber or plastic covers. Bare wires and other bare metal must never be exposed.
3. Its Setup and Use
Set up the fan, pump or motor so it cannot be tipped over or wobble loose. It must rest on a solid support. Uneven grass may be ok for a low-standing floor fan, but not for a tall, thin pedestal fan. Weigh it down with sandbags or other heavy weights, or use stakes and clips to attach it to the ground. Outdoor ceiling fans should be installed on solidly anchored patio covers to minimize wobbling. The heaviest motors and pumps may need to be installed on a concrete pad.
Clearance: Keep a Safe Distance
Especially for outdoor fans:
Nothing should be allowed to reach into or between the blades of an outdoor fan (except air!) while in operation. Safety housing or safety cages are a common electrical safety feature of most outdoor appliances that use a fan. Some fans don’t have this feature, or the bars are far enough apart that things can’t fall or reach into them. Children can be especially curious about the spinning blades of a fan. But long hair, small fingers, or a piece of clothing should not be allowed near the blades since these kinds of things can get tangled in the blades. Children should always be kept a safe distance away from operating fans, no matter how good the air feels to them.
Outdoors especially, unexpected things can fall into the blades of an outdoor fan. On higher speeds those blades can kick out something like a twig fast enough to hurt someone or something near the fan. Consider where the fans will be placed to decide what kind of precautions will be best. You might want to consider using the kind of screen mentioned above. Just make sure the screen won’t knock over the fan or get caught in the blades if it falls down.
Ceiling fans should be mounted 7 to 8 feet / 2 to 2 ½ meters above the ground. They simply need to be out of the way of people’s heads and arms that might reach up. Mounting it higher might diminish the fan’s efficiency some, but that can be countered with an additional fan or with careful placement. At any rate, that may be better than risking anyone getting hurt. Industrial ceiling fans should be mounted a minimum of 10 feet / 3 meters from the ground.
Can someone run into it? Make sure it’s out of the way or plainly visible. Standing a screen around an outdoor fan, pump or motor will create a visible warning and a safe distance without interfering with air flow. Screens can also be more attractive than the look of a functional appliance.
Use on public or private property
Outdoor cooling can be an advantage to any public or private area. Many property owners and managers will be glad to have added comfort available to their users, and will appreciate your attention to outdoor safety. There are often state, city and local ordinances (local laws) that need to be followed regarding set-up and use, or rules established by any private person or group that oversees the area you will be cooling. Following public and private ordinances and rules can protect everyone’s safety and liability.
For example, one common rule is that certain appliances might not be allowed in certain areas or at certain times. If so you might want to consider an alternate cooling method. An electrically powered cooling solution might need to run power cords across areas that are expecting large amounts of foot traffic. Rules might state that no power cords are allowed through major traffic paths.
One solution could be to use outdoor shades, which require no water or electrical hookups. Another solution might be to take your own power source in the form of a battery or generator. Take a look at our comparison page for some ideas on alternate cooling options that might work within your outdoor safety needs.
Be very clear with the property owner or manager about everything that needs to be done for safety and who’s responsible for each of those things. If anyone or anything gets hurt through the use of the outdoor cooling, it would be good to know in advance exactly what you would and would not be responsible for. If your outdoor cooling solution is set up and used safely you’ll have nothing to be concerned with, but it’s wise to be prepared at the start.
For permanent installation of outdoor electrical appliances it might be smart to pay for a licensed, bonded, reliable electrician. Ask if he/she is aware of all laws and local ordinances and electrical safety concerns for your area — and if they will be able to get any necessary permits.
For temporary installation at home, talk to a knowledgeable local electrician for advice on your specific needs.
For temporary installation away from home, talk to the owner or manager of the place you will be setting up the outdoor cooling solution.
If you are renting an outdoor cooling solution, the rental company should be fully versed in all safety features of their appliances as well as compliance with local ordinances. The rental company should be able to advise you on set up and use.
Outdoor safety can be simple, even when electricity is involved. Simply review the 3 safety areas: 1) the safety features of your outdoor fan, misting system, portable air conditioner or swamp cooler; 2) its connections and 3) its set-up.
Now you’re ready to kick back and enjoy the outdoors knowing you’ll be safe as well as comfortable.
Outdoor Cooling Methods
Take a look at our comparison page to learn which cooling methods may be best for you.
Outdoor fans work well on their own and combine well with misting systems for added cooling effect. Misting fans are a clear example of how misting systems work with another cooling method to maximize cooling.
Swamp coolers (desert coolers) use a similar technology as misting systems, but in a contained unit.
Outdoor shades are a nearly universal solution that can add to the cooling effect of all cooling solutions without using electricity or water.
Portable air conditioners can be the best outdoor cooling solution for special circumstances.