Many aspects of electrical wiring installation have very specific guidelines set forth by the National Electrical Code (NEC) and local building codes. However, the NEC says nothing about the precise height that electrical wall switches must be. Positioning the wall boxes for switches is left up to the homeowner and the builder. Still, some local codes specify parameters, and builders and electricians follow routine building standards to ensure that switches will be located at good working heights for most people. The standard switch positions may vary, however, for unique circumstances, such as in a home occupied by people in wheelchairs or with physical limitations.
Wall Switches in Standard Construction
Typically, light fixture wall switches in standard residential construction are set so that wall switch boxes are somewhere between 48 and 52 inches above the floor. There are a couple of advantages to this. First, it puts the switch at a comfortable height for most people in a standing position. Second, it makes for easy installation of wallboard during home construction. Standard sheets of 4-foot wide wallboard are installed horizontally in most new home construction, and if switch boxes are set at about 48 inches from the floor, it allows for easy measuring, marking, and cutting of the wallboard panels to fit.
The switch box can be installed so either its top or bottom is at the 48-inch mark, or it may be centered on the mark. Carpenters installing wallboard can easily cut openings in the panels to fit around the switch box. Placing the bottom of the switch box at 48 inches from the floor means that the top of the box will fall at 52 inches above the floor. This allows the drywall installer to cut the switch box opening out of the top sheet of wallboard, with the bottom sheet lying flush with the bottom of the switch box.
In remodeling applications, you may want to measure the switch boxes in finished areas of the house and make sure the new switches in remodeled areas are consistent with those in the rest of the house.
The standard 48- to 52-inch height can be varied for people who find other heights more comfortable, and different standards apply for specialty applications.
Residents With Physical Limitations
If one member of your family is considerably shorter than average or uses a wheelchair, you may want the switches set lower to make them more convenient. Although ADA (Americans with Disabilities) standards do not recommend a specific wall switch height, many builders familiar with these situations recommend that wall switches be set at 36 inches above the floor to put them in easy reach of residents in wheelchairs.
Switches Above Countertops
Switches located above countertops will vary in location, depending on the age of the home and the type of kitchen cabinets. Generally speaking, wall switches should be about 4 inches above the countertop. Since the standard height of most base cabinets with countertops is about 36 inches, this means that the bottom of the switch box should fall at least 40 inches above the floor. This allows the switch to clear a standard countertop.
The exact position of a wall switch above a countertop can vary depending on the specific situation, such as where the upper cabinets fall. Some builders try to split the difference between the top of the countertop and the bottom of the upper cabinet when positioning the wall switches.
Furnace Disconnect Switches
Switches used for furnace disconnects can also vary in height. Setting this height is a judgment call, and it depends on the layout of the furnace. Very often this switch is positioned a bit higher than the standard 40 to 52 inches.
Garbage Disposal Switches
When the switch for the garbage disposal is above the countertop, follow the same guidelines used for other countertop switches. If the switch is located under the sink, set it as high as possible to minimize stooping. In this situation, you may want to add a switch that controls the wiring for the dishwasher, as this gives you a convenient shut-off point that simplifies any future service work on the dishwasher.
Hot Tubs or Whirlpools
One other special switch to consider is the timer switch that may be connected to your hot tub or whirlpool tub. The NEC has a very specific requirement on the location of the switch—it must be at least 5 feet away from the tub. This ensures that you cannot reach the switch while standing or sitting in water—a safety measure to prevent potentially fatal shocks. In addition, you may want to set this switch higher than the standard 48 to 52 inches, in order to prevent small children from operating the tub.
Swimming Pool, Hot Tub, Building Permit Application Procedures and Checklist. Town of Portland Code Enforcement Office.