Electrical Code For Outlets

Electrical outlet
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Electrical code specifies where your outlets should go and what types to use.  Code, fortunately, appeals to logic.  For example, one requirement--that kitchen countertop outlets should be no farther than 48 inches from each other is hardly draconian or arbitrary.  It's based on the average length of cord for most small kitchen appliances.  The intent is to prevent homeowners from stretching cords too far and creating hazards.

These are the most up to date electrical code requirements for residential wall outlets.  Your community may differ.  Be sure to check with your permitting department for particulars.

General Areas (Living Rooms, Family Rooms, Bedrooms, Hallways, etc.)

What Is the Required Outlet Spacing on Walls?

Every 12 feet.  The reasoning is that you should never have to extend an electrical cord for a light, appliance, computer, or other personal need more than 6 feet in either direction.  

Spacing outlets more frequently than every 12 feet is your choice, not required by code.  If the space gets heavy use--people charging phones, plugging in laptops, etc.--you may want more outlets than code requires.

Hallways more than 10 feet long must have at least one receptacle.

Are There Exceptions?

If the wall is less than 24 inches wide, an outlet is not required.  Placing an outlet on walls less than 24 inches wide is your choice.

What Type of Outlet Should Be Installed?

Either a 15A or 20A tamper-resistant outlet, depending on the amperage carried by the wire servicing that outlet.  Check that circuit's breaker in the service panel to know if it is 15 or 20 amps.

15 amp circuits for general rooms are permitted to be 20 amp if you wish.

What Is a Tamper Resistant Outlet?

As a safety measure, municipalities have largely begun to adopt requirements for tamper resistant outlets into their local electrical codes.  These are identified by the recessed letters "TR" on the face of the outlet.

TR outlets are not required:  a).  66 inches or more above the floor; b.)  If supplying an outlet behind a large appliance that is difficult to move (namely, a refrigerator); or c.)  If the outlet is part of a light fixture or appliance.

The idea is that spring-loaded gate within the outlet is too strong for young children to open by means of a knife or other flat object.


What Is the Required Outlet Spacing on Walls?

There must be a receptacle at least within 3 feet of the outside edge of the sink basin.

Generally, you will want to install the outlet above the countertop.  But the code's 3-foot designation gives you leeway in case the outlet is not directly above the countertop.

What Type of Outlet Should Be Installed?

Only install GFCI (ground fault current interrupter) receptacles in bathrooms.

No receptacles face-up on countertops.

Receptacles must be on at least one separate 20A branch circuit. The reason is because this receptacle usually powers high-wattage devices like hair dryers.


What Is the Required Outlet Spacing and Positioning Over Countertops?

Outlets should be placed no farther than 48 inches from each other.  The idea is that no point on the countertop should be more than 24 inches from an outlet.

Even 12" base cabinets (topped with a counter) will get an outlet, as any wall 12" or wider is required to have an outlet.

Outlets should not be positioned more than 20 inches above countertops. Exceptions are for the physically handicapped and for islands or peninsulas where this is not possible.

No face-up receptacles.

At least one receptacle for islands or peninsulas.

At least two branch circuits must supply the countertop receptacles.

What Type of Outlet Should Be Installed?

Only install GFCI (ground fault current interrupter) receptacles over countertops.

Electrical Code Resources

Electrical code--properly called the National Electrical Code, published by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association--is one of the most important documents a home renovator can have.

But if you want a copy of the National Electrical Code, you have to shell out upwards of $175. And forget their website: this non-profit organization is not about to give out any free information.

That said, the electrical code is much more than a restrictive document telling you what not to do. It's an instructive document that will help you learn how to do your own residential electrical wiring.

It is not necessary to buy a copy of the National Electrical Code to understand it. Instead, there are plenty of guidebooks that interpret the Code without overloading you with all kinds of unnecessary information (the Code itself includes things like commercial wiring that you won't need).

  • One good guide is House Wiring with the NEC by Ray C. Mullin (Delmar/Thomson).
  • Also try Black and Decker Codes For Homeowners (Cool Springs Press), which includes other codes as well as electrical code.