Electrical Code for Outlets in the Home

Electrical outlet
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Electrical code specifies how electrical outlets should be spaced and which types of outlets to use in general areas, bathrooms, and kitchens. Far from being arbitrary, electrical code as it relates to outlets tends to yield to practicality. One prime example of this is with outlet spacing. In the kitchen, countertop outlets should be no farther than 48 inches away from each other. This spacing is based on the average length of electrical cord found on most small kitchen appliances. The intent is to prevent homeowners from stretching cords too far and creating hazards. Code requirements for residential wall outlets may differ from one community to another since model building codes can be adopted and adapted as a community sees fit. Be sure to check with your permitting department for particulars.

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Outlet Spacing Code for Walls in General Areas

General areas are considered to be places like living rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, and hallways. Wall outlets should be spaced no farther than 12 feet apart. The idea is that you should never have to extend an electrical cord for a light, appliance, computer, or another personal item more than 6 feet in either direction. 

Spacing outlets more frequently than every 12 feet is sometimes found and it is your choice, but it is not required by code. If the space receives heavy use, such as with people charging phones or plugging in laptops, this type of frequent spacing may be desired.

One exception to the rule specifying 12-foot placement of outlets: If the wall is less than 24 inches wide, an outlet is not required. Placing an outlet on walls less than 24 inches wide, again, would be your choice.

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

Code for Types of Outlets to Be Installed in General Areas

For general areas that do not require GFCI (ground fault current interrupter) outlets, install either a 15 amp or 20 amp outlet, depending on the amperage carried by the circuit servicing that outlet. Check the circuit's breaker in the service panel to find out whether it is 15 amp or 20 amp service. Fifteen amp circuits for general rooms are permitted to use 20 amp-rated outlets, if desired.

Code for Tamper-Resistant Outlets

As an additional safety measure, many municipalities have begun to adopt requirements for tamper-resistant outlets into their local electrical codes, for general areas of the home. These outlets are identified by the recessed letters "TR" on the face of the outlet. In tamper-resistant outlets, a spring-loaded gate within the outlet prevents young children from pushing objects such as knives into the outlet. Tamper-resistant outlets typically are not required:

  • When located 66 inches or more above the floor
  • If supplying an outlet behind a large appliance that is difficult to move (namely, a refrigerator)
  • If the outlet is part of a light fixture or appliance

Outlet Spacing Code for Walls in Bathrooms

On bathroom walls, there must a receptacle at least within 3 feet of the outside edge of the sink basin. Generally, it is desirable to install the outlet above the countertop. But the code's 3-foot designation provides leeway in case the outlet is not directly above the countertop.

Code for Types of Outlets to Be Installed in Bathrooms

Only install GFCI (ground fault current interrupter) receptacles in bathrooms. No receptacles may be installed face-up on countertops in bathrooms.

Receptacles must be on at least one separate 20 amp branch circuit since this receptacle often services high-powered devices like hair dryers.

Outlet Spacing Code for Walls in Kitchens

In kitchens, electrical 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 smaller size 12-inch wide base cabinets topped with a counter must have an outlet, as any wall 12 inches or wider is required to have an outlet. No outlets may be installed face-up in kitchen countertops.

Outlets should not be positioned higher than 20 inches above countertops, with certain exceptions for physically disabled persons and for islands or peninsulas where this height rule cannot be met.

Code for Types of Outlets to Be Installed in Kitchens

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