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ASK THE INSPECTOR: Amps question proves outlet for confusion

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QUESTION: My house was built in the 1950s. The wiring is original. It is not knob and tube and is not aluminum. I have been told to replace 15-amp outlets with 20-amp outlets in the kitchen. Should I do this? Thank you. Diane Jasl

ANSWER: I'm not sure who has recommended the upgrade you mention, but the need for this depends on various factors. The underlying question is whether you are planning other kitchen renovations or is this a stand-alone issue? If you currently have properly wired and grounded receptacles, and are not doing a major renovation, keeping the status quo should not be a problem.

There have been several changes to code requirements for electrical receptacles in kitchens, particularly those on counters near a water source, over the last few decades. These revisions are designed to make these receptacles safer, but that doesn't mean that your original ones are dangerous in their current state.

If the original wiring is still in place with sheathing undamaged, has a grounding wire as well as the other two conductors, and is properly installed, there should be little concern. This is also contingent on the old duplex receptacles and circuit-breakers remaining fully functional, with no physical damage.

Many older homes have receptacles and panels that have been previously updated, and safety should not be compromised as long as the new components were properly connected. If this is the situation in your home, and you're not planning to gut your kitchen, the advice you have been given may be unwarranted.

Receptacle requirements have changed over the years to keep pace with the modernization of kitchens. When your home was built dishwashers, electric can openers and under-counter lighting were probably rare luxuries. Countertop appliances were normally limited to a toaster, mixer and maybe an electric kettle. Automatic coffee makers, microwave ovens, food processors and other current everyday kitchen fixtures did not even exist.

Because of this, the requirements for kitchen-counter receptacles were limited. Many kitchens had only one or two locations to plug anything in above the entire countertop. In the '60s and '70s, when more electric kitchen appliances began to emerge, code requirements started to adapt.

While the actual duplex receptacles did not change much -- still allowing 14-gauge wire supplying an outlet with a maximum of 15 amps capacity -- the number of kitchen-counter receptacle requirements increased to prevent the need for extension cords or excessively long appliance cords.

Countertop receptacles were also required to be "split" to allow two different circuits on the same receptacle. This was done to prevent using two appliances on the same circuit at the same time, which might draw more than 15 amps and trip the circuit breakers. It was also not permissible to put two split outlets adjacent to each other that utilize the same two circuit-breakers, again to deter overtaxing the system's capacity.

To accommodate these changes, several more 15-amp kitchen circuits would have to be installed when a home was built. Older homes like yours that had a complete kitchen renovation had to be brought into compliance with the new regulations as well.

The biggest change came several years ago when GFCI receptacles were required above all kitchen counters, including island receptacles, within a certain distance from a water source. GFCIs have been used for many years in bathrooms and other areas subject to high levels of moisture. The difficulty with this requirement is that GFCI receptacles are not capable of being split, like standard duplex units, to allow more than one circuit per device. This is likely the reason that the use of these special receptacles was not mandated in kitchens much earlier.

The solution to this dilemma was to boost the requirement for kitchen outlets to 20-amp capacity from 15, which could prevent overtaxing of receptacles with two appliances are plugged in. However, this move requires modifications to wiring and panels as well. Because typical 14-gauge copper house wiring is only rated to safely carry 15 amps of current, larger 12-gauge wiring is needed to supply the new 20-amp. GFCIs. Circuit-breakers rated for 20 amps also have to be installed in the distribution panel to supply these receptacles.

There is no current requirement to upgrade existing components of a home until renovations are undertaken. While 20-amp GFCI receptacles must be installed in all new homes, the thousands of existing homes with properly grounded 15-amp duplex receptacles should be fine.

However, if you plan on replacing your cupboards, sink, built-in appliances and other kitchen components, a building permit from your local municipality will have to be obtained and any modifications will have to be to current building codes. That will mean replacing some of your older wiring with modern 12-gauge to allow installation of 20-amp GFCI receptacles above the new counters.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors -- Manitoba (www.cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be e-mailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at (204) 291-5358 or check out his website at www.trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 F2

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