Computer power cord AWG: Why it matters

If you look at your PC power cord really carefully, you’ll see a number stamped on the side followed by the letters AWG. What does a computer power cord’s AWG mean, and should you worry about it? What AWG makes a good gaming PC power cord?

With a typical desktop computer, even a light-duty power cord is sufficient and you don’t have to worry about AWG. High-end computers like servers or gaming PCs with high-power video cards in them do benefit from a heavier-duty power cord, such as 16 AWG or even 14 AWG. Using a heavier cord than the manufacturer specified won’t cause any problems, but a too-light cord can cause various issues.  

Not all PC power cables are the same

PC power cables are all the same, right?

PC power cables all pretty much look the same from the outside, but no, they aren’t all the same. If you’ve ever unboxed and deployed a server, you probably noticed the power cables that came with those servers are a bit thicker than the ones that come with desktop PCs.

computer power cord AWG
Who knew this innocent-looking power cable could be controversial? But the right AWG for a gaming PC power cord can be a confusing topic.

Using the power cable that came with a typical office desktop PC on a server can cause heat issues. If the server is under very heavy load, it can theoretically pose a fire hazard. If a supervisor told you not to use a desktop PC power cable on the server, that’s why.

The tell-tale sign is to touch the power cable while it’s in use. If it’s warm or hot to the touch, you need a heavier cable.

AWG power cord meaning: Does it matter for a gaming PC?

AWG stands for “American Wire Gauge.” Gauge is simply the thickness of a wire. Therefore the number printed on the power cord refers to the thickness of the wire, measured in gauge. Lower is thicker. Standard PC power cables use 18, 16, or 14-gauge wire.

Assuming the printing hasn’t faded away, along with the AWG rating of the wires inside, the cable will also say what amperage draw it’s rated for. Thicker wire allows for more amperage. Usually you can also find amperage ratings molded onto the power connectors themselves.

Thicker wire also reduces voltage drop. But unless you’re making a super-long PC power cable, voltage drop from your power cable shouldn’t be an issue in PC applications. You have to go to extremes to get the voltage to drop more than a couple of volts, and PC power supplies are designed to be able to run off 110-volt current while most houses give 115-120 volts these days. You’ll run into heat issues before you run into voltage drop issues in this case. The amperage is the bigger concern, especially for a gaming PC.

14 AWG vs 18 AWG power cord

A light-duty 18 AWG power cord is good for about 5 amps. That’s OK for a PC with up to a 600 watt power supply. Above 600 watts, assuming your computer is actually using that much power, you push the limits of an 18 AWG power cord and can expect the cord to heat up and possibly malfunction.

A 14 AWG power cord is good for 15 amps. That’s more than you need unless you have an 1800 watt power supply and, again, you’re actually using it. We’re talking Bitcoin mining rigs here. You won’t hurt anything buying a 14 AWG cable to use as a gaming PC power cord, but it’s overkill.

Most enthusiasts and gaming PCs only need a 16 AWG PC power cord. For that matter, if your gaming PC has a 600-watt or smaller power supply, an 18 AWG cord is fine.

There’s no harm in using a big ol’ 14 AWG cable if you don’t need it. But if you don’t already have one and have to buy one you’re wasting a little money. At a length of 6 feet, a standard 18 AWG PC power cable costs around $2. A 16 AWG PC power cable costs around $3. A 14 AWG PC power cable costs around $4. If you want to be really safe and get an overengineered cable, at least we’re not talking about a huge cash outlay.

How much power does my PC use?

In the 90s we definitely tended to underestimate how much power our PCs used because 300-watt power supplies were hard to find and very expensive. In 1996, PC Power and Cooling charged $99 for a 250-watt power supply. Their standard 230-watt model was $59, which was still expensive compared to the 230-watt boxes your local computer store sold. A 400-watt box cost $200.

Today it’s not hard to find a quality, reputable 500-watt power supply for $45-$50, so there’s no reason not to get one.

Power consumption jumped during the Pentium 4 era, but in recent years it came way back down to reasonable levels again. If your video card doesn’t require a dedicated power connector from your power supply, you’re probably under 300 watts. Possibly way under 300 watts. On desktop PCs, the most common thing to drive power usage up over 600 watts is multiple high-end video cards. If that sounds like you, you may benefit from a heavier duty power cord.

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2 thoughts on “Computer power cord AWG: Why it matters

  • May 31, 2020 at 4:24 am

    Hey Dave! Thanks for a nice and detailed explanation.

    I got a question though.
    I’m living in a country with 220v line.
    In this case, would an AWG 18 cable be safe to use with a 750w PSU? The cable that came with it is an AWG 16 but I am unable to find a replacement better than AWG 18.

    • June 6, 2020 at 2:48 pm

      Well, the math says you’re probably OK but it really depends on how much of that wattage you’re actually using. Not knowing what your actual power usage is, and the electrical codes in your country, I cannot say for sure. If you’re going to use an 18 AWG cord, use the shortest cord you can find, and if it gets hot under heavy load, replace it with 16.

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