Wire gauge refers to the size of a wire, usually expressed in terms of its diameter or cross-sectional area. It is a measurement of the thickness of the wire, with a smaller gauge number indicating a thicker wire.
When it comes to stage lighting, all of the cables that we use for power have a gauge to them. That gauge, combined with the distance of wire, tells us how much power we can run through it. It’s VERY important to use the correct gauge or larger wire when working with lighting, audio, and video or else you risk damaging equipment, setting cable on fire (really!) and more!
There are two different systems used to express wire gauge: the American Wire Gauge (AWG) and the Standard Wire Gauge (SWG). The AWG is the more commonly used system in the United States, while the SWG is more common in the United Kingdom and other countries. In this article, we’ll speak in AWG, but the concepts are the same anywhere in the world!
Wire gauge is important because it can impact the electrical performance and safety of a circuit. A wire that is too thin for a particular application can overheat and potentially cause a fire or damage to equipment.
Selecting the Right Wire Gauge For Your Stage Lighting
In stage lighting, you might be specifying or using wire for:
- Extension/Portable use cords
- Portable Multi-Cable/Socapex
- Permanently Installed Wire
- Fixture Input Cords (PowerCon, True1, etc)
Out of these (4) circumstances, only the 3rd – permanently installed wire is inspected or really regulated by local codes in the US, and the wire size is matched to the capacity of the breaker or disconnected that serves it.
But when it comes to extension cords or even fixture input cords, how do you know what to use?
In stage lighting, we typically see 3 gauges of cords that plug into fixtures or are used as extension cords – 12AWG, 14AWG, and 16AWG. When you buy a cable, it should have a label or diagram on the packaging as to how much amperage can be drawn through it. If your cable didn’t come with one, or you’ve thrown it away, this PDF has a great, general use chart.
That chart will allow you to add up the amperage of ALL the fixtures you are connecting, and see what gauge wire you need at the distance you are running. These charts are at a fixed temperature – the temperature rating of the wire – which often (but not always) is 60° Celsius (140° Fahrenheit)…and if you say “We don’t run our cables in temperatures over 140°”, think again! A black cable sitting on black pavement on a hot day can exceed this temperature rating and must be derated. If you do gigs outdoors on blacktop, always choose a thicker wire than required.
When it comes to hooking up wire to a power distro or between power distro panels and the like, we recommend always using a wire that is rated for the full load of the breaker protecting that wire.
Common Mistakes with Choosing an Extension Cord or Wire
The number 1 mistake people make when choosing an extension cord or wire is choosing one that’s too thin for their needs.
Often, this happens on accident – older wire may have it’s gauge rubbed off, or perhaps you grab a PowerCon or True1 power input cable and realize later that it was a 16AWG cable that came with a small par or washlight…but you’re using it for a fog machine that requires a 14AWG or 12AWG cable! That cable can heat up to the point of starting a fire!
If you need help (or just want to browse yourself) in finding the right cabling for your needs, we’re here for you! At Learn Stage Lighting GEAR, we have many brands of wire and through our quote request or contact form we can help you get exactly what you need. Click here to check it out now!, and happy lighting!