Regulations for Running Electrical Wire in Exposed Locations

Best Practices for Safe Wiring

Electrical wires stapled to wood stud


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A favorite target of electrical inspectors is the improper use of non-metallic cable (NM) in exposed locations, such as basement foundation walls or along the face of studs and joists in unfinished framed spaces. The National Electrical Code, which is the basis for all local building codes, has specific regulations for installing electrical wires so that they are protected from damage. 

Proper Uses

NM cable, also commonly known by the common trade name Romex, is the most common form of electrical wire. NM cable is simply a bundle of individual conducting wires wrapped in a plastic vinyl outer sheathing. Normally the cables carry 10-, 12-, or 14-gauge conducting wires for individual house circuits. The sheathing on NM cable really offers little in the way of protection against physical damage, so it is approved for use only in situations where the cables are protected against damage, including:

  • Inside wall cavities covered with finished wall surfaces, where the cable will not be accessible
  • Running between exposed joists or studs, provided the cables are recessed away from the face of the framing members. This is normally done by boring holes in the centers of the framing members and running the cables through the holes. 

Improper Uses

The National Electrical Code forbids the use of NM cable in situations where it is exposed in a manner where physical damage is possible. Most commonly, this is seen where an amateur electrician attaches NM cable across the front face of studs or ceiling joists, or where it is attached across the face of concrete foundation walls. While it's allowable for NM cable to run through holes bored in the centers of exposed framing members, it cannot be attached across the front face of studs, since this creates the possibility of snagging or damage to the cables. Similarly, NM attached to the face of concrete walls is susceptible to damage and is thus outlawed.

Wiring for Exposed Locations

There is, however, an approved way to run wiring across exposed surfaces. In these situations, the proper wiring method is to mount an approved rigid conduit across the framing members or wall, then run individual THNN conductor wires inside the conduit. Such wiring is very well protected against physical damage. 

The specific citation from the National Electrical Code is as follows: 

Protection from Physical Damage. Cable shall be protected from physical damage where necessary by rigid metal conduit, intermediate metal conduit, electrical metallic tubing, Schedule 80 PVC conduit, Type RTRC marked with the suffix -XW, or other approved means.

The most common type of conduit is known as electrical metallic tubing (EMT), but other types of conduit are also used, including flexible metal conduit (FMC), intermediate metal conduit (IMC), which is sturdier and offers more resistance to corrosion, plastic conduit (PVC), most often used underground, and rigid metallic conduit (RMC), the heaviest gauge available.

Electrical conduit is designed for use with specific types of individual conductor wires. The most common wires are THHN wires, which are individual copper conducting wires with a color-coded, heat-resistant plastic insulation around them. The National Electrical Code has specific regulations for how many conductor wires can fit into within a conduit of each diameter size. A 1/2-inch conduit can hold as many as nine 12-gauge wires or twelve 14-gauge wires. A 3/4-inch conduit can hold sixteen 12-gauge wires or twenty-two 14-gauge wires. 

NM Cable Inside Conduit?

If an electrical inspector has flagged NM cable that has been run incorrectly, you might be tempted to install the conduit, then reuse the same NM cable by running it through the new conduit. This is a subject of some debate among electricians. Some pros argue that NM cable inside conduit may be susceptible to heat build-up and is therefore not allowed. Others take a more lenient view. While the National Electrical Code does not expressly forbid inserting NM cable inside conduit, in practice, it is very difficult to do so, and very few professional electricians will do such an installation.  

It is accepted practice to run only individual THHN conductors (or another approved form of wire) inside the conduit. THHN wires are relatively inexpensive and are much easier to run through conduit.