Holiday Cooking and the Impact on the NEC and Safety of Today’s Kitchen Electrical Systems
As we begin our menus and meals for the holidays, I thought this would be the perfect time to talk about kitchens. Did you know that traditional holiday food events significantly transformed the electrical systems in today’s kitchens? Yes! And to understand this relationship more fully, we first need to understand the purpose of NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (NEC), which is stated very clearly in section 90.1(A): the practical safeguarding of persons and property from the hazards arising from the use of electricity. In other words, the NEC aims to install an electrical system in a building that is going to minimize that system’s potential to harm the building or the people in the building.
Commercial/Industrial Properties and Dwellings
Still wondering what that has to do with turkey, stuffing, and cranberries? Well, the NEC approaches receptacle outlet placement two different ways. First, in commercial or industrial type properties, it is generally known what will get plugged in and its placement. So, the NEC doesn’t see the need in those occupancies to specify where receptacle outlets must be placed. Sometimes however, it’s not clear what equipment will need connections or where that will/should be. Dwellings (such as homes) tend to fall into this second category. It means that if there isn’t a spot to plug in a given piece of equipment, an extension cord is most often used to bring the power to where it needs to be.
This has led the code making panels (CMP) over the years to tackle dwelling unit systems with more of a proactive approach. Simply put, receptacle outlets are now placed throughout the space such that the typical equipment used in that area is never out of reach of an outlet. This helps minimize the use of extension cords and reduces the risk of fire hazards due to these cords being used constantly as though they are a part of the permanent wiring system of the home.
Today’s Modern Kitchen and Receptacle Placement
That brings us back to the kitchen. Having sat in on discussions taking place at CMP meetings about where to place receptacle outlets in kitchens, I have the pleasure to report that these panels have absolutely considered just about every conceivable kitchen configuration possible. And in this consideration, they have also considered just about every possible use scenario as well. This is where we tie holiday meals to receptacle outlet placement in the NEC. When it comes to family gatherings, or at least my family’s gatherings, if there is open counter space, it’s probably going to get taken up by a slow cooker or other small kitchen appliance like warming trays and coffee percolators. Based on discussions at the code meetings, it seems everyone around the tables have had the same experience. So, CMP-2 has done their best to consider as many kitchen layouts as possible, and as many kitchen use scenarios as possible to ensure that no matter who buys the house and how they use the kitchen, they’ll be covered. This translates to a few different requirements in the NEC that we should be aware of.
Wall Space Behind Kitchen Countertops
First, let’s take a look at receptacle outlets along the wall space behind the kitchen countertops. Any countertop space that is 12 inches in width or more is most likely the place where Aunt Edna’s famous green bean casserole will go and therefore it needs at least one receptacle outlet. From there, the requirement is that no space along the countertop wall line should be more than two feet from a receptacle outlet. Anyone want to take a guess at the standard length of a kitchen small appliance cord? You guessed it, two feet! So, this is what has become known as the “2 & 4-foot” rule. Place the first receptacle outlet within the first two feet of countertop and then every four feet after that, making sure that there is one within the last two feet of countertop. That way, an appliance should never be sitting out of reach of a receptacle outlet. While this rule is great for countertops with walls behind them, what about peninsulas and islands? Well, the last few cycles have had discussions around these types of installations, as well, because what was once a kitchen feature that was rather rare, now has become a rather popular design tool in today’s age of open concepts and feng shui.
Island Countertops and Peninsula Space
In order to ensure that your island countertop or peninsula have enough receptacle outlets, they took the approach of basing the number of required outlets on how large the island or peninsula countertop space is. The requirement is to install one receptacle outlet for the first nine square feet and then one for each additional 18 square feet or fraction thereof. This means that the bigger the island or peninsula, the more receptacle outlets you are going to need. However, with the exception of one within the last two feet of a peninsula, the placement of these receptacles is up to the owner or designer. For an example, let’s say we build a kitchen where the only countertop space happens to be an island. The dimensions measure 24 feet long by 30 inches wide. We know we need one receptacle for the first nine square feet, but how many do we need after that? In total, this island is 60 square feet. This means after the first nine square feet, we still have 51 square feet to account for. Dividing 51 square feet by 18 square feet gives us 2.83, which means we need a total of three additional receptacles for a total of four receptacle outlets for this island. Previous editions of the NEC only required a single receptacle outlet to serve this island, which just wouldn’t be enough to fulfill the demand for today’s large family holiday events like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
So, the next time you find yourself at a holiday event, look around to see if there are enough outlets in your kitchen to serve demand, while still in alignment with the purpose of the NEC. If there are, you can give thanks to the members of Code Making Panel 2 who spent considerable time discussing how families will use their countertops and applying the needed, related code requirements to help keep everyone safe from electrical hazards.
For more information about this topic, check out one of our recent blog posts that highlights three key changes in the 2020 NEC that helps make kitchens safer.
Tips and resources about cooking fire safety can be found on NFPA’s Thanksgiving and holiday safety webpage.