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Why are electrical outlets at shin height?
December 14, 2013 10:42 AM   Subscribe

In my old, pre-1950s house, the outlets were in the baseboards. Today, that's against code. I've heard several reasons why: possibility of minor flooding; flammable vapors may settle near the floors; etc. But now that I know why they're not so very low anymore, my question is: why aren't they (usually) any higher than shin height? Why not eye-level? The stooping seems inconvenient enough that there must be some good practical reason to justify it.
posted by sarling to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, the obvious answer is that wires and outlets are pretty unsightly so most people would prefer to have them as low as possible.
posted by MadamM at 10:45 AM on December 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


My guess is that you'd like the cord to rest on the floor so that there's not too much strain at the outlet. Weight on the cord will put strain on the connector and also try to pull it out of the socket.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:50 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also wiring costs money. The extra foot or two of wiring needed to raise an outlet to waist or thigh height, multiplied by the number of outlets in a house, times the number of houses a builder builds can get pricey. The closer an outlet is to the junction box, regardless of the floor it's on, the better. So lower is cheaper than higher.
posted by CollectiveMind at 10:52 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Related to the unsightliness aspect: shin height means they are low enough to hide behind furniture. Safety wise, it's a lot easier to step over a cord stretched out at shin height than to avoid one at chest height. Outlets near a counter such as in a kitchen or bathroom tend be at a task-friendly height.
posted by jamaro at 10:53 AM on December 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also vacuuming, standing lamps and other appliances. I mean AFV would be happy with higher outlets, but people actually try not to trip over cords and stuff.
posted by Namlit at 10:53 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


In kitchens and bathrooms, outlets tend to be a lot higher, no doubt in part because of the tendency to have counters and tile in those rooms, but also presumably so you can easily plug in things like hair dryers and stand mixers. In living rooms and bedrooms, up until recently, most things that you needed to plug in -- like lamps and alarm clocks and televisions-- tended to stay plugged in, so it's not like you needed to think all that much about convenience. In the 80s the only thing I used to really regularly plug in and unplug every day was a vacuum cleaner, and that's a lot better off being plugged in closer to the ground anyway; otherwise you wind up creating a tripwire while you're using the thing.

The whole issue of constantly needing to plug in things like tablets and cell phones to charge them is a relatively new phenomenon. I imagine we'll start seeing things in new housing like gadget charging stations-- just like houses from a certain era in the U.S. used to often have a special niche to hold a large and unwieldy corded telephone (Complete with a little shelf for the phone book. Anyone else remember when you actually looked up numbers in a phone book, dialed a phone, and then had to stand there tethered to the wall while you talked on it? And we liked it, too.).
posted by BlueJae at 10:54 AM on December 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


To echo BlueJae- a friend lived in a 1920s era house with just such a phone niche. It had electrical wires, so she had an electrician in to turn it into a regular plug; the niche is now the cell charging station!
posted by holyrood at 11:03 AM on December 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


All very good, practical answers! I guess it's just better all around.
posted by sarling at 11:11 AM on December 14, 2013


In public/commercia areas in the USA, it's a requirement that they be no lower than 18" because of the ADA. In residences, most people find it easier to deal with outlets at 18" height than in baseboards (where there even are baseboards anymore) because that's a long way to bend down, plus you don't have to worry about being in the way of baseboard mounted heat. Switches should be at about 48".
posted by rmd1023 at 11:16 AM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


the answer to this, as to so many things in houses, is that is just how it is done. All the tools and jigs that the workers have are set up for that height, so building them all at that height saves time, and it is how the workers are trained. Most construction trades are not really encouraged to come up with innovative solutions often (and the building codes don't really allow for it either).

And then the people who develop land/houses are very conservative (not necessarily politically, just reluctant to change) and really, really leery about any change that might make people not want to buy one of their houses. That is why so many houses look soooo much alike. That and the unavoidable reality of the economics of mass production (but really they are the same thing in the end I think). There really isn't any good reason other than convention. Pretty much the same reason we are still building houses out of dimensional lumber even though there are several alternative that are faster, insulate better, and cost about the same or less. The codes allow it without any special inspections, the tools and workers are set up for it and everyone just expects it to be that way.

I mean, how many askme's are their about how can I sell this weird house or should I buy this weird house?
posted by bartonlong at 11:26 AM on December 14, 2013


Typically, an American house has a fridge-height plug in the kitchen area. Landry/utility room sockets are typically specialty outlets and also normal at odd heights.

What I want is a plug-overhead light combo. Saw one in an old New Yorker cartoon as a child and, despite the squalor of the scene, was completely sold on the idea.

You can still do this... and someday, I will.

Excellent question, sarling.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:39 AM on December 14, 2013


I have both eye level and shin level outlets in all my rooms (I live in Germany). The eye level ones are great when I'm vacuuming and want the cord to be free (i.e not tangled with chair legs and things) and accessible for plugging/unplugging as I move between rooms. They suck for everything else and it's the lower ones I use the most. Having cords come out of the wall and drape all over the place is ugly, a trip hazard, bad for the cord, easy to knock out, and not useful at all. The ones at shin height let me either run the cords along the ground or tidy them under the couch and most of them are behind or next to furniture where they're difficult to see. They are far superior.

The only other place that higher cords is useful is right next to the kitchen bench and even those are just above the bench height rather than up at eye height. My fridge plugs in down low too since that's where the cord comes out of the fridge anyway and it's less likely to be knocked out down there. My basement laundry has special plugs which are maybe shoulder height I guess, but there are weird meters and things down there so that each tenant is only charged for what their own machine uses. So I'm guessing that design decision was made for other reasons anyway.
posted by shelleycat at 11:54 AM on December 14, 2013


A few years ago, I looked at an older rental home (Built in the 20s or 30s or earlier, but no idea when electric was installed) where almost all the plugins were about 4 ft off the floor. The wiring was all run in metal tubes visibly along the walls - not IN the walls. The electric panel and the tubes leading up to it looked like a nightmare, and I'm a survivor of a electrical-related housefire, so it didn't matter how cool the house was otherwise... no way I could sleep peacefully in that house!
posted by stormyteal at 12:32 PM on December 14, 2013


You don't have a location in your profile and this will probably vary on where you are. Outlets have no minimum or maximum height by Code in Canada. Totally legal to install in baseboards. You can even put outlets right in the floor (with the right box); sticking up from the floor in a tombstone or on the ceiling. About the only exception is you can't put a plug facing upwards in a counter and rooms with flammable vapours have an 18" minimum. The 12-18" "standard" install height for non special purpose receptacles is merely an aesthetic default (as is the vertical orientation). When I'm wiring a house I don't even measure. Instead I use my hammer as a jig to set the box height (stand the hammer up on the floor and set the box on top of it) and then hammer it home.

Lesser Shrew: "You can still do this... and someday, I will. "

That keyless fixture does not provide a ground to the three prong adapter plugged into the screw in adapter screwed into the fixture and therefor isn't legal in Canada or the US.

However you can buy keyless and other fixtures with built in plugs so if that's what you want there are options.

CollectiveMind: "Also wiring costs money. The extra foot or two of wiring needed to raise an outlet to waist or thigh height, multiplied by the number of outlets in a house, times the number of houses a builder builds can get pricey. The closer an outlet is to the junction box, regardless of the floor it's on, the better. So lower is cheaper than higher."

With the exception of places like Chicago, where residential electrical has to run in pipe, the wiring methods used to run plugs are just as likely to use more wire running them at 18" than running them at 48". This is because most wire runs are horizontal with runs vertical limited to home runs and avoiding openings. And those vertical runs are about as likely to drop from the ceiling as they are to come up from the floor.
posted by Mitheral at 1:34 PM on December 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


When Comcast install my broad band connection, I had the man put it at desk top height. He was hesitant, but did what I asked. No one walks there.
posted by Cranberry at 1:41 PM on December 14, 2013


Just as an aside this very subject was a running joke throughout the recent movie Clear History.
posted by planetesimal at 2:07 PM on December 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


You don't have a location in your profile and this will probably vary on where you are. Outlets have no minimum or maximum height by Code in Canada. Totally legal to install in baseboards. You can even put outlets right in the floor (with the right box); sticking up from the floor in a tombstone or on the ceiling.

You can put outlets anywhere in the US as well, you just need to have outlets at 18" above the floor that are accessible from any point within 6' along the wall (which means outlets are generally 12' on center), or 24" on a countertop. Beyond that, go nuts.

A few years ago, I looked at an older rental home (Built in the 20s or 30s or earlier, but no idea when electric was installed) where almost all the plugins were about 4 ft off the floor. The wiring was all run in metal tubes visibly along the walls - not IN the walls. The electric panel and the tubes leading up to it looked like a nightmare, and I'm a survivor of a electrical-related housefire, so it didn't matter how cool the house was otherwise... no way I could sleep peacefully in that house!

The setup in most houses is plain old insulated wire running through holes drilled in the wood framing members, so I'm not entirely sure how that's necessarily a safer type of wiring vs. metal conduit.
posted by LionIndex at 3:02 PM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


almost all the plugins were about 4 ft off the floor. The wiring was all run in metal tubes visibly along the walls - not IN the walls.

This is generally necessary in finished basements and/or masonry construction. The height off floor is because of flooding potential, and the conduit is necessary for any wiring that is not protected by construction. As long as it's done right, it's quite safe (but a utility area made habitable might not have been done to code).

There are modern surface-mounted systems such as Leviton's that are much easier to install, and more attractive than galvanized-steel tube conduit, but also have some code limitations (wet locations, e.g.). This is also used for computer networking.

As to height, one rationale that comes to mind is placing your wiring so that you don't encounter any in-wall heat registers or other obstacles. In older homes this means roughly 12-24". But newer construction, say postwar and later, doesn't tend to use these tall registers.
posted by dhartung at 10:21 PM on December 15, 2013


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