We live in the age of electricity. So many things in our houses and offices and cars and boats and planes need to be plugged in that having a nearby receptacle outlet is very important. And electrical codes have kept up, by increasing the number of receptacles required and the places where they’re required.
But many older houses that I inspect still don’t have enough receptacle outlets spaced around the house – especially in the bedrooms – to meet modern demands. And this can lead to the use of extension cords, which is generally a fire hazard and unsafe. It can also just be annoying.
Here is a description of where receptacle outlets are required by the 2023 version of the National Electrical Code. This isn’t a complete list, but it’s pretty close.
In most rooms of the house you should be able to go to any point on a wall and have a receptacle outlet within 6 feet of that point. So this generally means that there should be a receptacle outlet every 12 feet along the wall, and there should be one within 6 feet of a doorway or a fireplace (which don’t count as a wall space). The idea is that you should be able to place a lamp anywhere along the wall and its 6-feet long cord should reach a receptacle.
If there’s a wall section that’s more than 2 feet wide then it needs to have a receptacle in it. So for example if there are two doors, and the wall space between them is 2 feet 1 inch, then there must be a receptacle outlet in that wall. This floorplan shows these requirements.
Receptacle outlets that are controlled by a switch don’t count towards these requirements. So if you want to install a switched receptacle then the typical way is to have one side of a duplex receptacle be controlled by the switch and the other side be constantly live. This is a problem I see quite frequently: a duplex receptacle that has both sides controlled by a switch. That’s wrong.
Other receptacle outlets that don’t count towards these requirements are any that are inside a cabinet or cupboard, part of an appliance, or installed more than 5.5 feet above the floor.
Receptacle outlets are not allowed to be installed over electric baseboard heaters, because the cord of whatever’s plugged in can hang down and be damaged by the heat from the baseboard. Most such baseboard heaters will have a receptacle outlet built in.
In a hallway that’s more than 10 feet long there should be a receptacle outlet.
In the kitchen there should be at least 2 circuits, each at 20 amps, serving the receptacle outlets at the counter surfaces. Receptacle outlets should be placed so that no point on the counter surface is more than 2 feet from a receptacle outlet. Again, the idea is that you should be able to place an appliance anywhere on the kitchen counter and its 2-feet long cord should reach a receptacle. And each countertop surface that’s more than 12 inches wide needs to be served by a receptacle. This is another common problem I see: a kitchen countertop surface that isn’t served by a receptacle.
Until the 2023 version the National Electrical Code required that there a receptacle serving each kitchen island or peninsula work surface. Now the requirement is simply that if there’s not a receptacle outlet installed to serve a kitchen island or peninsula area then provisions must be provided to install one later. So for example if there’s a kitchen island that’s fixed in place it needs to at least have electricity run to it so that a receptacle outlet can be installed later.
In a bathroom or powder room there should be a receptacle outlet installed within 3 feet of the edge of each sink. The receptacle can be on the wall or on the side of the sink’s vanity cabinet as long as it’s not more than 12 inches below the sink’s countertop.
In a garage there should be a receptacle outlet in each vehicle bay, not more than 5.5 feet above the floor.
There should be a receptacle outlet in each unfinished portion of a basement. (Requirements for a finished basement are as noted above for any other typical room of the house.)
For a typical one-family or two-family dwelling there should be a receptacle outlet outside at both the front and the back, accessible from grade level, and not more than 6.5 feet above grade. Each attached balcony, deck, and porch should have a receptacle outlet.