Tips for sane cable storage

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I spent Sunday morning doing my annual cable purge and sort. That plus cleaning out unused apps on my Mac and iOS devices is basically my Spring Cleaning for Nerds.

This may have been my best cleaning project yet. My system has gotten good enough to be worth documenting. I mean, I’m no expert, I only halfheartedly recommend taking all of my advice, but this is working for me and has proven maintainable over a few years now.

First, a product endorsement. I’ll mention these in both of the following sections, so I’ll rave about them at the top. VELCRO One Wrap Thin Ties were first recommended to me on an episode of Systematic, though I’ve lost track of which one. They’re little cable wraps that come in a roll, 100 to a box for $7. They’re perfect for just about any size cable wrapping, fast and secure. And you can even fasten them one handed if you need to, with a little dexterity.

1. Power Adapters

Somehow I’ve amassed 50-some power adapters over the years. From 5W chargers to 30W power supplies, it’s a mess. A box of them quickly becomes unmanageable and unsearchable, and gets even worse if any of the electrical wires come unwound and tangled.

One option, obviously, would be to throw them out. It’s so rare that I need a power adapter of some of the weirder varieties I’ve accumulated that it almost seems ridiculous to keep them. Yet, every once in a while I can save my own day or someone else’s, so I do. I’m more pragmatic with cables, so bear with me on this.

  1. I lay them all out and unwind the cables (to make reading the specs easy). I also remove any power cords that are of a standard connector type and group those elsewhere (see part 2). It makes the size of larger 24V adapters much more manageable for storage.
  2. Go through and add sticky notes listing each one’s output voltage and amperage, grouping duplicates together (for no reason other than making them easier to find for the next part).
  3. Make a spreadsheet of all the various V/A specs and turn them into labels. For me, this means printing, laminating, and cutting with a roller-cutter. Because I have crafty stuff around. I like crafty stuff.
  4. Attach the labels to each adapter. I attached mine by wrapping the tail of the label around the base of the wire and stapling because, well, that’s easiest. Punching little holes and using zip ties would be an option. If you’re using a sticky labeler, you need to find a way to stick them on that will work for visibility after you’ve wrapped the wires. Whatever works.
  5. Wrap the cables using One Wrap thin ties. On thicker cables, I often wrap the cable part up separately and then fasten it to the “wall wart” or converter with the thin ties. Wrapping around the body of some of the various shapes leads to some nasty kinks in the often-thin-braided wires.
  6. Store them. If you have the right size boxes for your collection, I’m sure that storing them in separate containers by voltage and sorted by amperage or connector type would be tons of fun, but for the number of times a year I’m actually searching for a power adapter the tradeoff between time and storage space isn’t really worth it to me.

Now I can sift through a box quickly to find an adapter that matches the volts/amps I need, then just check to see if the plug works. You could, I suppose, add a diagram symbol for the plug type to the label, but you could also create a barcode check-in/check-out inventory system and then even I would label you crazy. Or someone who has too many adapters not to be in the business of selling adapters.

2. Cables

USB. A-B, mini, micro. USB 3, 3.1, C. Thunderbolt. Lightning. HDMI. Optical. Firewire. If you’ve been using a computers or mobile devices for more than a couple years, you have a stash of these. Likely at least a drawer full, possibly tangled boxes. I used to.

  1. Sort them. Dump them out and start making piles by type. Very specifically, not just “USB cables.” Sort them by connectors: B, C, 2 and 3 mini and micro… you get the idea. Cables in a group should have exactly the same combination of end plugs.
  2. Go through each pile and decide how many you need. It’s likely that your minimum needs are already covered by cables that aren’t piled in this box/drawer. So how many extras could you ever actually use?

    This can differ by cable rarity.

    • Old cables like Firewire 400 and uncommon adapters (Mini Display Port to HDMI-mini) are usually “singles” for me. I don’t currently have devices that use them, and if I ever needed a cable it would be to boot an older machine in Target mode or transfer data off a salvaged device. Any new device I get is going to come with yet another cable anyway.
    • USB A-to-micro and Lightning are such common charging cables that I’d probably choose to keep one-per-current-device around. iPhones, iPads, a couple kindles, some Qi chargers, etc.. So those bundles might have 5-10 cables, respectively. Great for guests that forgot theirs, friends that lost theirs, or yourself when you want an extra charging station around the house.
    • For data cables, like Thunderbolt, USB-3/C, etc., it’s worth it to me to keep a few around, but as with the “single” cables, any new device I acquire that needs them probably comes with its own.
  3. Discard. Throw away anything above and beyond the minimum you’ve chosen. You can throw away the cheapest ones, any that are worn or brittle, and decide whether you want the longest ones, or the shortest ones, or a combination. I so rarely need short cables, and I prefer fabric wrapping and gold plating, the choice is usually pretty easy for me.
  4. Bundle them. My favorite trick: toilet paper tubes. You should only need 5-10 of them, and a couple of paper towel tubes. Just save them over a couple months1. Line the cables up with the “defining” ends even (the Lighting plug, USB-B plug, whatever differentiates them). Wrap the group around your hand, keeping the defining end sticking up at the top, and tuck the bundle into a tube (with the defining ends sticking out).
    • In cases where the cable type is braided and needs a more careful, 1/4 turn wrapping job, it’s best to wrap them individually and use thin ties to group them together.
    • If the bundle has more than 4 cables in it, it’s also smart to wrap each one individually and then tuck them in as a bundle. This is because when you actually go to get one, you’ll have to pull them all out and unwrap them to get a single cable, and with 8 cables together that can be a pain. Individually wrapped they’ll just pop out.
    • The paper towel tubes are for long, thick cables like Ethernet or longer USB A-B cables. By wrapping them at a longer length you can avoid crimping and still fit them in a tube. Anything that can’t be pushed into a paper tube gets a thin wrap.
  5. Label. Maybe. If you’re going to have a bunch of tubes, labeling them with marker on the paper tubes can be handy. I usually don’t, it’s easy enough to just scan the ends in most cases. I did this time to make the picture prettier. Maybe… I have bad handwriting.
  6. Store. All these little tubes fit nicely in a drawer, especially after you’ve thrown out the bulk of them. I actually use two drawers: one by my desk with cables I commonly need, and one that goes in a plastic storage container for less frequently accessed cable types. You can organize them into sections (USB 2, USB 3, Thunder/Lightning, etc.) if you have enough types to confuse you, but I rarely find myself confused when looking at my cable drawer.
The graveyard of discarded cables for this year
This year’s cable graveyard

I’m sure there are plenty more tips to add. I’m working on getting better at managing the cables on my desk. I’ve made lots of attempts but they get unruly quickly. If you have any tips to add to the cable storage part, or pointers for my desktop situation, feel free to share in the comments (or on Twitter).

  1. Or less if you have a few people in the house.