How to Easily Set Standard Outlet and Light Switch Heights

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    Set Outlet and Switch Heights for a Flawless Installation

    Electrician Working on GFCI in Kitchen - 185268524
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    Setting standard heights for electric outlet and light switch boxes is important both in terms of ease of installation and access to the installed outlets by users.

    Installing multiple boxes along a wall is made far easier when each box is the same height. Any variance in height slightly increases the friction on the Romex or other NM (non-metallic sheathed) wire as you pull it through the holes drilled into the studs. Uniformity becomes even more critical when you are pulling rough-surfaced BX armored cable. Uniform box heights also help with cutting and placing the insulation in the walls and the drywall on the studs.

    Setting standard box heights is most important in terms of access and ergonomics. Inconsistent light switch heights, for instance, can be disorienting. Boxes placed too high or too low can be inconvenient or even inaccessible to the disabled or the elderly.

    Electrical Code and Box Heights

    The National Electrical Code does not specify one height for standard wall outlets (receptacles) and for light switches. As a result, heights are often a matter of convention or preference. However, your local electrical code is the ultimate voice with these matters, since municipalities often adopt and adapt model building codes. Be sure to check with your city's building department for any specific requirements.

    Box Height Variations

    While it's best to stick to box height standards as much as possible, sometimes boxes may have to be slightly raised or lowered due to circumstances. For example, if you are finding it too difficult to drive a nail into a wood knot in one of the studs, it is permissible to move the box slightly up or down to avoid the knot.

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    Standard Outlet Height

    Double-Gang Electric Outlet
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    The standard height for wall outlet boxes is about 12 inches from the top of the floor covering to the bottom of the receptacle. If you are setting box heights prior to the installation of the subfloor, floor covering, or any underlayment, be sure to account for this expected height difference. For the disabled and elderly, 15 inches above the top of the floor covering is usually considered the lowest standard height. 

    Individually measuring each outlet height with a tape measure is one way to set outlet heights. However, there are a few other tricks you might wish to try to speed up the process:

    Measure With a Laser Level

    Determine your preferred box height and make a single mark on any stud. With a laser level placed on the other side of the room, shoot a line across the entire length of the wall you are working on. Work off of this line as you place each box or, to preserve batteries, make pencil marks on studs and then shut off the laser level.

    Measure With a Drywall Square

    This quick method works best before the floor covering is installed. If you have a drywall square, place the long end of the square's "T" perpendicular to the floor. Hold the longest part of the square roughly parallel to the floor. Mark a line across four studs by running your pencil along the bottom part of the straight edge. Place the receptacles at this height. This gives you a height of 14 inches. If you then lay a floor, thus raising the floor level, you end up with a height of roughly 12 inches.

    Measure With a Hammer

    Most 16-ounce hammers are about 13 inches long. Set the hammer on the floor with the head down, then set the box on top of the hammer handle, resulting in a roughly 12-inch high outlet height after the floor covering is installed.

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    Standard Light Switch Height

    Installing a light switch
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    The standard height for wall switches in most rooms (excluding those over kitchen counters) is 48 inches above the top of the floor covering. For wheelchair users, 48 inches is usually specified as the maximum height, since higher levels can be difficult to reach when sitting in a wheelchair. 

    Measure With a Story Pole

    One free item that is easy to make and which helps you set multiple light switch heights is a story pole. A story pole is a homemade tool that's nothing more than a piece of scrap two-by-four clearly marked with any height you need. You only have to pull out the tape measure one time: when you make the story pole. You can use a single story pole for all of your box heights, and you can even combine different heights (outlets and light switches) within the same story pole.

    Simply stand up the pole next to a wall stud and mark the stud at the appropriate height. Make sure to mark the pole clearly. Notes like "Bottom of outlet box" and "Center of switch box" help prevent mistakes. 

    When you are finished with your project, you can store the pole for later use or use it as a building material.