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First a bit of background:

I have most other kinds of physical and virtual "stuff' organized, but over the years I have accumulated scores, if not hundreds, of cables & adapters from a variety of computers, printers, external HDs, GPS devices, monitors, speakers, PDAs, cell phones, DVD players, routers, scanners, ...

When I've traveled, moved homes over the years, or just relocated things between rooms, these would get bundled together or with their devices, though over time they eventually became separated from the devices. They are now trapped in a big container like slumbering snakes.

When I can't find the right adapter for a device, I often find something similar. For electronic connectors, such as USB cables, this isn't too bad, though not everything is a USB-USB cable. There are phone cables, USB/mini-USB cables, ethernet cables, and much more. For power adapters, the situation is more problematic: one doesn't want to match the wrong amps to the device - too low and there's not enough current. , too much and one gets smoke. (Update 1: I realize from the answers that I was wrong about current and I missed the issue of polarity.)

Now, the question: If I had done this right a long time ago, I'd have labeled every cable to match its device. How else can one sort a snake pit of cables and adapters?

For now, my best guess is to practically start over with a full inventory, as follows:

  1. Inventory electronic devices
  2. Find matching cables & adapters, label these and store in labeled zip-lock bags
    • For generic cables (e.g. USB/USB) - bundle these into a labeled bag.
    • For device-specific cables and adapters, label the cable and place in a labeled bag.
  3. Donate/recycle unwanted devices (with cables)
  4. Dispose of non-working devices (and cables) and unmatched cables with municipal computer waste facility. (NB: Many also take batteries, so no need to dispose of those in the standard landfill waste stream.)

For some types of cables (e.g. computer/printer, USB/USB, etc.), there need not be a matching device. For power adapters, there usually is. However, some types of adapters can be used with multiple devices and I am not sure how to organize these into generic bundles, like USB cables, or if even doing that is a bad idea. Unlike USB cables, it doesn't seem clear that there's a generic name, like "1 amp cable, with medium-sized connection", so cataloging seems rather difficult, other than to ID the device.

Are there other methods for organizing that are better?

Note 1: By the way, I found that searching Google for [how to organize cables] tends to lead to results about organizing those in use, to avoid cluttering a desk or floor area - I don't have that problem. I'm interested in organizing those not currently in use, so that I don't have to waste a lot of time when I do want to use a particular device. When I think of sorting or organizing, I also think of cataloging, but I can't seem to create anything better than the "obvious" cataloging method.

Note 2: Assuming that I do a full inventory, any improvements to the above plan are very welcome. I've not done this before, and would prefer not to do it again.

Update 2: My revised plan, based on the answers given, is as follows:

  1. Inventory electronic devices
  2. Inventory and sort cables and adapters into separate groups
    • Label all adapters with device (if possible), polarity (test with a multimeter if necessary), voltage, current
  3. For each device, find matching cables & adapters, label these and store in labeled zip-lock bags. More precisely:
    • Label any non-obvious cables (USB, ethernet, etc. are rather obvious)
    • For device-specific cables and adapters, label and place in a labeled bag.
    • For generic cables - bundle these into a labeled bag.
  4. Donate/recycle/sell unwanted devices (with cables)
  5. Dispose of non-working devices (and cables, adapters) and orphaned cables/adapters with municipal computer waste facility. (NB: Many also take batteries, so no need to dispose of those in the standard landfill waste stream.)
  6. Periodically cull unused devices or cables (i.e. set a tickler) - best to get these in the hands of others that could use them, or at least out of the way.

Update 3: A little plug (no pun intended) for others wanting to find electronics recycling centers: I found that was very helpful. I overlooked mentioning it earlier, as I didn't need such info, but anyone else happening on this Q&A may not know where to recycle their stuff. Unfortunately, it looks like it's a US-only site.

Update 4: I've learned today that most cellphones (excepting iPhones, it seems) now use a standard micro-USB charger. So, that may imply that most old phone chargers can now be discarded/recycled, assuming the old phone is long gone. That's useful, and that environmental impact is a major reason for the standardization.

share|improve this question
I don't know, that seems like a pretty solid plan. I even like the idea of labeling the generic cables and perhaps storing them together as miscellaneous. The only thing I would add is I'd set a tickler for a few months after the initial organization to re-visit your organized items and toss any that were on the bubble when you kept them, but that the intervening months have made clear you can toss or donate. – Adam Wuerl Nov 15 '11 at 12:42
@AdamWuerl That's a good bit of advice. There are certainly cables for which I've disposed of the device, though the cables were reusable with similar devices. Over time, the whole class of device has become obsolete, so the cables are relics. Think "Palm Pilot". :) – Iterator Nov 15 '11 at 12:46
Over time manufacturers come up with better ways to make cables (USB cables in particular) so when culling it makes sense to just chuck all the oldest cables. – Bryce Jun 29 '12 at 16:31
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I've also been trying to solve this problem. For standard cables, the best solution I've found so far is to drape like cables over a hook or post. For example, at my office I have several USB cables draped around one of the corner posts on a wire shelving unit, and several PC power cables draped around another corner post.

If you know what all your adapters and cables go to, then labeling them individually and categorizing by some attribute (like device type) is a good solution. However, if you're sorting through all your devices and cables anyway, it might be a better idea to just tape the cables onto their matching devices (or put the device and its cables together in a labeled box or bag). Then if you want to use or get rid of the device, you don't have go go searching for its cables.

I try to sort orphaned AC adapters by polarity (center pin + or -), volts, amps, then connector, in that order. You could also use this system for all your AC adapters if you decide not to store them with their devices. My reasoning goes as follows:

  1. Plugging in an adapter with the wrong polarity is likely to fry the device.
  2. Plugging in an adapter with the wrong voltage could either fry the device or just fail to work.
  3. You generally need an adapter whose rated amperage is at least as high as what the device specifies (although you can sometimes get away with a slightly lower-current adapter). It is safe to use a higher-rated adapter on a lower-draw device, because the device will only draw what it needs.
  4. The connectors can be replaced or you can make an adapter from one connector to the other. Note that this trick also works for switching the polarity, but because the wrong polarity can fry your device, I still think it's more important to sort by polarity first. Sometimes I have an AC adapter that dies, so I can just snip part of the wire off along with the connector, and graft that onto the replacement adapter.
  5. Sorting this way also allows me to find a likely candidate the most quickly. It seems like most of my AC adapters have different connectors anyway, so if I sort first by polarity and voltage, I can quickly weed out all the adapters that can't be safely used as-is. Then if I sort by amperage, I can start by looking at adapters that closely match the required current, which usually cuts down the potential candidates to just a few adapters at most (and possibly even none at all). If I don't find a match right away, I can start moving my search up in amperage--although if I've already gotten rid of all my orphaned adapters and devices, I probably won't need to do that.
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This is EXCELLENT advice, thanks! I didn't even think about tip polarity. That put me on track to find this RadioShack page that gives more insight & links to related information. – Iterator Nov 16 '11 at 0:26

I keep all mine labelled with the product they plug into, and if they don't have the voltage and polarity marked on them, I add that to the label.

When a device fails, as long as the power supply still works it then goes in a drawer along with all my others. I try to keep them in groups (eg 9v, 12v, 24v) but to be honest, I usually have less than 25 in there so it doens't take long to find one if I need it.

share|improve this answer
Is there some easy way to determine polarity? – Iterator Nov 16 '11 at 12:06
For ones that don't have it marked I just use a multimeter:-) – Rory Alsop Nov 16 '11 at 12:35
More good advice. I just found this reference for determining the polarity of an adapter. I'm starting to see a plan here - when I inventory, I should make a note of these characteristics. – Iterator Nov 16 '11 at 12:40

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