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What is the Electrical Code?

Code Basics for Homeowners


The electrical code--properly called the National Electrical Code, published by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association--is one of the most important documents a home renovator can have.

But if you want a copy of the National Electrical Code, you have to shell out upwards of $175. And forget their website: this non-profit organization isn't about to give out any free information. I can understand the costs of printing out a code book, but why can't they make a copy available in .pdf format on their site?

That said, the electrical code is much more than a restrictive document telling you what not to do. It's an instructive document that will help you learn how to do your own residential electrical wiring.

Let me give you some code highlights, and then I'll tell you how to educate yourself on the code--more cheaply.

Bathroom Electrical Code

  • Only install GFCI (ground fault current interrupter) receptacles in bathrooms.
  • There must be a receptacle within 3 feet of the outside edge of sink basin.
  • No receptacles face-up on countertops.
  • Receptacles must be on at least one separate 20 amp. branch circuit. Reason is because this receptacle usually powers high-wattage devices like hair dryers.

    General Rooms

    • Wall receptacles every 12 feet.
    • Receptacles on any wall space more than 24 inches wide.
    • Hallways more than 10 feet must have at least one receptacle.
    • 15 amp circuits for general rooms can are permitted to be 20 amp, if you wish.


    • All countertops receptacles must be GFCI.
    • No receptacles more than 20 inches above countertops. Exceptions are for the physically handicapped and for islands or peninsulas where this is not possible.
    • Receptacles above all countertops 12 inches or wider.
    • No face-up receptacles.
    • At least one receptacle for islands or peninsulas.
    • At least two branch circuits must supply the countertop receptacles.

      Learn the Electrical Code

      It's not necessary to buy a copy of the National Electrical Code to understand it. Instead, there are plenty of guidebooks that interpret the Code without overloading you with all kinds of unnecessary information (the Code itself includes things like commercial wiring that you won't need). One good guide is House Wiring with the NEC by Ray C. Mullin (Delmar/Thomson).
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