What Homeowners Should Know About Electrical Codes

by Shelley Frost
Electrician at work with screwdriver fixes the cable in the sockets of a residential electrical system. Construction industry.

Thinking about doing your own electrical work? You might be shocked (no pun intended) to find out how many electrical codes apply to your DIY projects.

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Doing your research first helps you decide if you should handle the project yourself or hire a professional. Electrical work can be dangerous and complicated, so it's important to be realistic. 

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What Are Electrical Codes?

Electrical codes are a set of minimum standards or guidelines for various electrical components and processes. The purpose of having electrical code requirements is to reduce the risk of electrical hazards, including electric shocks and fires, in the home. They standardize the way DIYers and licensed electricians handle wiring and other electrical tasks. 

Some electrical codes are room-specific. For instance, in bathrooms, all outlets must be GFCI-protected because of the water sources in the room. Other regulations apply to the entire house. 

What Are Some Examples of Electrical Codes?

Residential electrical code specifics cover several aspects of electrical work, including the type of materials used, controls for fixtures, outlet placement, required amps and circuit requirements. Some examples from the National Electrical Code include:

  • Kitchen lighting needs its own separate 15-amp circuit.
  • All kitchen appliances need separate, dedicated circuits. An electric range needs a 240-volt, 50-amp circuit. Refrigerators, dishwashers and garbage disposals require 120-volt, 15- or 20-amp circuits that are GFCI-protected.
  • Bathroom receptacles must be 20-amp and GFCI-protected. 
  • Bathrooms need a 120-volt receptacle located within 3 feet of the outer sink basin edge. One receptacle in the middle can satisfy the requirement for a double sink.
  • Wall switches controlling ceiling lights should be placed near the door.
  • Ceiling fixtures need wall switches and not pull cords. 
  • Every wall needs at least one receptacle. They should be no more than 12 feet apart. All wall sections that are 2 feet or wider need a receptacle.
  • Hallways over 10 feet long need a receptacle. 
  • Hallway light fixtures require three-way switches located at the top and bottom of stairs. 
  • All receptacles should be tamper-resistant. 
  • When using metal raceways, metal boxes must be used. When nonmetallic cable is used, plastic or metal boxes work. 

Keep in mind that your local building authority might have other requirements for wiring. The codes won't be more lenient than the NEC, but they could be more restrictive. 

Not all details are included in the NEC. For instance, the guidelines don't specify how high general wall outlets or light switches need to be off the floor. 

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Who Sets the Electrical Codes? 

The National Fire Protection Agency publishes the National Electrical Code. It's also referred to as NFPA 70. Every three years, the NFPA updates the regulations. While NEC is considered the standard for electrical codes, it's not a federal law. Instead, state or local authorities determine the electrical code requirements for that jurisdiction. Most of those authorities use the NEC as their standard, but some have other codes. Or they might start with the NEC requirements and modify some parts of them. 

How Could Electrical Codes Impact Your DIY Project?

As a homeowner, you should follow all building codes when you do a project. That means any electrical work you do should comply with the electrical codes established by your local building authority. Many electrical projects technically require a permit before you begin work. When you get a permit, an inspector will check the work to verify that you followed the electrical wiring code related to that work. If your work doesn't meet the specifications, you might have to redo the work or hire an electrician to fix it. 

Before you begin any electrical work, find out which local agency regulates building codes. Don't assume the NEC standards are good enough. Your area might have stricter regulations. Review the building codes that pertain to your project, including any codes that apply only to specific rooms. Bathrooms and kitchens often have the strictest standards.

If you're unsure which codes apply to your project, the local building authority should be able to answer your questions. In some areas, you might be required to submit your plans before you do the work. This allows an electrical inspector to review what you plan to do and let you know if something won't meet the electrical code requirements. 

If the electrical codes are overwhelming, consider hiring an electrician instead. Professionals are well-versed in the requirements for safe, compliant electrical work. You'll know the wiring is done correctly, and you won't have to worry about redoing the work if it doesn't pass inspection. 

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