Wires vs. Cables

The terms wire and cable are often used interchangeably, but they refer to two distinct electrical components. Using one in place of the other probably wouldn’t confuse the average person, but there are important distinctions between the two.

In general, a cable is made up of multiple wires, which can also be used on their own. Of course, the distinction is more nuanced than that, but it gives us a good starting point. Wires and cables come in many different types and can accommodate similar or highly specialized demands. Understanding the difference is vital if you want to make the right choice.

What Is the Difference Between Wires and Cables?

Let’s start with some individual definitions:

  • Wire: A wire is a single conductor made up of an electrically conductive material like aluminum or copper. This conductor can be made up of one strand of material or a group of strands and may be left bare or surrounded by a color-coded sheath. Regardless of the number of strands used to make the conductor, having a single conductor means you’re working with a wire.
  • Cable: A cable is made up of multiple conductors surrounded by some type of insulation. You can also have a cable in which conductors are individually insulated and then twisted together. Cables often have a hot wire that carries current, a neutral wire that completes the loop and a grounding wire.

In essence, cables are made up of multiple wires, while wires are made up of one or multiple conductors. Both can have a wide range of purposes, with wires providing the backbone for a vast range of cables that go in everything from appliances to buildings to heavy machinery.

Wires are measured with the American Wire Gauge (AWG), a standard that indicates wire thickness according to its diameter. The smaller the number, the larger the wire and the greater amount of current it can carry. AWG typically applies to wires that use single strands of its conductive material, but it can also be used to refer to stranded wires and cables. In these cases, it refers to the diameter of the cross-section.

How Are Wires Used?

Wires are used in a wide range of applications, from carrying electricity and transmitting signals to conducting heat and comprising manufactured parts, like pins and bulbs. You’ll also find them used for non-electrical purposes, like jewelry and clothing design.

How Are Cables Used?

Cables are usually built for specific purposes and applications based on their makeup. Speaker and HDMI cables, for example, are built for high-quality audio and video transmission, while an Underground Feeder (UF) cable is designed to withstand the elements during in-ground installation. Cables can also be used for much more demanding applications, such as high power transmission, telecommunication signals and carrying larger amounts of electricity.

Types of Electrical Wires

The two main types of electrical wires are solid and stranded wires:

  • Solid: In a solid wire, the conductive material is drawn into a single strand of thin, bendable material. It offers less resistance and more durability than stranded wire, and it is often used for high-frequency applications.
  • Stranded: Stranded wire groups multiple strands of solid wire by twisting or braiding them together. Stranded wire is usually insulated and more flexible than solid wire. You’ll commonly find stranded wire used in tight spaces or applications that otherwise require a lot of bending.

Both kinds of wire can be used in cables and coated or insulated.

Types of Electrical Cables

Electrical cables come in a few styles geared toward different purposes:

  • Twisted pair cable: In this kind of cable, two cables are twisted together, which helps minimize noise to improve signal quality. It is often used in industries like telecommunications, sound engineering and entertainment.
  • Multi-conductor cable: As the name implies, a multi-conductor cable groups conductors together. It also insulates them from each other to reduce interference. These are also good for signal quality, making them popular in communications installations.
  • Coaxial cable: Coaxial cables are made up of a solid inner conductor and are surrounded by an outer foil conductor. Both are separated from each other with an insulating dielectric and further protected by layers of insulation. They are commonly used in the broadcasting industry for telecommunications signals.
  • Fiber-optic cable: Fiber-optic cable uses optical fibers instead of traditional conductors. These fibers are very thin and made from glass or plastic. Through light travel, they can carry more information faster than their metal counterparts, but they cannot transmit power.

The Advantages of Wire vs. Cable

In some applications, you have a choice between using wire or cable. Wire is usually the more cost-effective option and is good for installations that require low resistance, but it may be more limited in its durability. Cables are heavier-duty and come in a range of styles to meet demands for ruggedness, flexibility and other applications.

Protecting Your Wires and Cable

One thing that both wires and cables have in common is that they can be torn or damaged if they don’t have the proper protection. Two essential components of cable protection include conduit and cable entry systems.

Conduit helps to route your cable or wire where it needs to go and protect it from threats like corrosion and mechanical stress. Conduits come in a wide range of materials, such as polyamides, metal and plastic to suit various demands and applications.

Cable entry systems have a similar purpose, keeping cables securely attached and routed to control panels, enclosures, switch cabinets and other endpoints. They offer strain relief for the cables and prevent ingress of dirt and moisture, as well as protection for specialized environments, like applications that need electromagnetic compatibility or to stay extremely clean for hygiene purposes.

When choosing your cable entry system, look for features like:

  • Splittable frames and glands: Entry systems with divisible frames or splittable cable glands are the ideal solution for pre-terminated cables. They make it easy to manage the wide variety of cables you might work with the help of snap-in inserts.
  • Double-membrane designs: If you need high levels of protection for multiple non-terminated cables, our cable plates can accommodate them with a double-membrane system that offers exceptional ingress protection and strain relief.

Learn More From the Experts at AerosUSA

The experienced team at AerosUSA puts innovation and quality into every product in our arsenal, from conduits that withstand industrial stressors to cable entry systems designed for medical-grade ingress protection. Many of our clients come from rigorous industries like rail and transit, energy, military and healthcare. We put customer service front and center and can help you find the right protection product for your application.

If you still have questions about wire and cable or selecting protection solutions for a successful installation, please reach out to our expert team today.

Reviewed for accuracy by: George Sims.
George Sims is an engineering and service-oriented leader in Cable Protection and Cable Management Products. Focus is on 100% commitment to customer satisfaction. AerosUSA is a small, agile, independent company whose focus is on our customers.