Install Smart: Switch and receptacle placement should make sense

When I was an electrician, I tried to ensure the location and sequence of switches made sense, especially when there were several installed in one location. My goal was that homeowners could understand the installations and identify which switch controlled the lights, the ceiling fans and switched receptacles.

The National Electrical Code requires receptacles to be installed in dwelling units so that no point measured horizontally along the floor line of any wall space is more than 6 feet from a receptacle outlet. However, locating receptacles based on the NEC doesn’t make them easily accessible or readily used after installation.

As an electrician, I developed an easy way to determine the location and sequence operation of switches and switched receptacles in a room. Assume a family or living room installation has overhead recessed lights, ceiling fans with separate lighting and fan controls and switched receptacles. The installation would have four switches in a four-gang switch bank. The first switch from left to right would be the switch for the overhead recessed lighting, the ceiling fan lights, and then the ceiling fan, and the fourth switch would be the switched duplex receptacle with half of the receptacle switched and half hot all the time. To identify the switched receptacle in the room, I had my electricians turn it so the ground pin of the receptacle was installed in the up location, whereas the other unswitched duplex receptacles in the remainder of the room had the ground pins in the down position. The switched part of the receptacle was always the top half of the duplex receptacle.

We always located the bathroom ceiling exhaust fan switch at a location within easy reach of the commode. It’s also a good idea to install a duplex receptacle on the left side of the commode within 12 inches of the floor to provide power for a bidet seat with built-in heater and fan. I saw that type of installation in Japan.

We also provided a dedicated 20-ampere circuit for the receptacles in each bathroom to accommodate electric styling tools. For one customer, we installed a separate GFCI outlet without receptacles in a master bathroom that controlled the GFCI-protected receptacles in the daughter’s bathroom. This gave him the ability to hit the test switch in his bathroom to turn off the power in his daughter’s receptacles so she knew it was time to catch the school bus. The daughter was not happy about the arrangement.

In the bedrooms, especially the master, we located double-duplex receptacles on each side of the bed. Each set had a three-way switch connected to the top half of the receptacles at the bedroom’s entry. There was a corresponding three-way switch at the head side of the bed located low enough so a person could turn off the table lamp using the three-way switches. Otherwise, if the table lamp was switched off at night, someone coming into the bedroom the next evening would have to walk all the way to the table to switch the light back on again. Using three-way switches makes it convenient to turn the lamps on and off. Illuminated switches are even better, since they act as a night light.

One customer wanted the security lights on the outside of the home to come on when he opened the garage door. I connected the outside lighting circuits to a controller with a low-voltage coil rated at the same voltage as the garage door opener, and I located additional low-voltage switches in various areas around the house so he could actuate the controller.

When we wired a multistory home or one with a basement, I always installed an empty raceway, usually PVC, from the basement or the first floor to the attic to permit future circuits to be installed through the chase. Since the Phoenix area has so many swimming pools, many installed after the home’s initial construction, we installed a PVC conduit from the service location to the area on the opposite side of the home for future power for the swimming pool.

As a residential contractor, it’s always good to put yourself into the shoes of the homeowner while trying to understand how the space will be used. They might come back to you when they need more work done.

About the Author

Mark C. Ode

Fire/Life Safety, Residential and Code Contributor

Mark C. Ode is a lead engineering associate for Energy & Power Technologies at Underwriters Laboratories Inc. and can be reached at 919.949.2576 and Mark.C.Ode@ul.com.

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