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Background

I recently bought a house which was made in 1965 and which still had the original Bryant outdoor main box and breaker, a subfeed to the original GE subpanel in the garage, and (with a few modern exceptions, which seemed to be added by the previous owner) the original GE breakers. Most of the wiring is 1960s-vintage fabric-covered, rubber-insulated 12/2 Romex which is still in reasonable shape. With the exception of some high-power circuits, like those feeding the electric oven, stove, a spa (which had been removed by the previous owner), electric dryer, and AC unit, all the circuits used 20A tandem breakers (see photo).

A neighbor having a similar house made at the same time by the same builder has a near-identical setup, with the same use of 20A tandem breakers for the branch circuits.

Original GE breaker panel.

I've since had the exterior main breaker, subfeed to the subpanel, and subpanel replaced to support a solar installation. The new panel is a BR model by Eaton with more slots so tandem breakers don't need to be used. The electricians simply used new breakers of the same rating for each circuit (e.g. a 20A breaker in the old panel was replaced with a new non-tandem 20A dual-function AFCI/GFCI breaker in the new panel).

The new panel and solar installation was done by a licensed electrician and passed inspection. So far, so good.

I've been going around the house replacing old, worn-out switches and receptacles with new ones, checking for and replacing loose original crimp connections with wire nuts, etc., and noticed that several lighting circuits have 14/2 wiring but are still fed by a 20A breaker. It appears that those lighting circuits have 12/2 running from the subpanel to the first switch or fixture on that circuit, with 14/2 being used for the remainder of the circuit. From what I can tell, all the wiring is original 1960s vintage (i.e., the previous owner did not re-wire the circuits to use 14 AWG wire, it had always been that way).

Clearly, this does not meet modern code requirements and I've ordered replacement 15A dual-function AFCI/GFCI breakers to replace the 20A ones feeding circuits with 14 AWG wire to be safe.

My Question

Since the house was built by a reputable builder and presumably passed whatever permit/inspection requirements existed in the 1960s, that prompts me to ask: was it ever (specifically in the 1960s) acceptable or to-code to use 14 AWG wiring with 20A breakers for household branch/lighting circuits? Clearly this is not the case with the modern code (barring rare exceptions not typically found in a suburban home), but was it ever acceptable?

  • Unrelated to your question: that tandem 30/40A double pole breaker is nifty. The 40A breakers are bonded in the middle, and the 30A with that funky swing-out metal handle. Doesn't necessarily inspire confidence, but it is interesting! – Shimon Rura Oct 2 '18 at 20:57
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    @ShimonRura Yeah, it's clever. It actually has two separate common trips: the 40A poles are common-tripped together, with the 30A poles also common-tripped together. The 40A breaker mechanism is totally separate from the 30A mechanism and they're for different circuits. In this case, the 40A went to the AC unit and the 30A to the dryer. I'd never seen one before that. – heypete Oct 2 '18 at 23:37
  • For the record that panel is still modern stock, now marketed as Eaton BR (for BRyant) and it and all the breakers are sold at most big-box, though an Eaton distributor will have better selection obviously. – Harper Oct 3 '18 at 16:55
  • @Harper I should hope the new panel is modern stock -- the electricians just got it from a supply shop a month ago. :) The old panel pictured in the original post is the 1960s-era GE panel, and I suspect it's not available these days. – heypete Oct 8 '18 at 16:33
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    Oh, sorry, I took it to be the BRyant. Should've recognized the lack of technicolor breaker handles but I just figured they were alien breakers. Just goes to show I'm not ThreePhaseEel. Yes, GE now has a different design language in their Q-line, and a very different (almost FPE) method of tackling double-stuff breakers. – Harper Oct 8 '18 at 16:45
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The short answer is NO. 20 amp fuses and breakers have been the rule for 12 awg and 15 amp for 14 awg. This goes well prior to your home being wired. Some one may have swapped them out over the years to prevent tripping at an increased fire risk. Because they used 12awg for the run. It also have been done by a contractor with good reputation and not caught because of the 12 in the panel. Not all states use the NEC today and back then there were more not using the NEC.

  • Thanks. I don't know about someone swapping them out at some later time: the neighbor's house with the same general footprint (they builder used a variety of common elements when building this neighborhood) also has 20A breakers of the same type and they haven't replaced them. Either way, I don't like it and will swap out the affected breakers with 15A ones today. FWIW, this is in California. – heypete Oct 2 '18 at 23:44
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    @heypete yeah, the Bryant panels became Eaton BR (for Bryant) and BR double-stuff breakers are readily available for about $9. – Harper Oct 3 '18 at 2:14
  • @Harper, now if only Eaton would get around to making two-pole dual-function AFCI/GFCI breakers that cost less than $200+, I'd be happy -- the house has two shared neutral multiwire branch circuits (e.g. dishwasher & garbage disposal, and dining room & something else I forget at the moment) which have standard breakers and a pass-through AFCI/GFCI receptacle, but I prefer AFCI/GFCI breakers. All the other 120V circuits have AFCI/GFCI breakers, but the two-pole ones are way too expensive at the moment. – heypete Oct 8 '18 at 16:37
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I could imagine a misinterpretation of the Tap Rules that might coax a contractor into thinking he can spur 15A taps off a 20A backbone. However the Tap Rules certainly do not apply to any residence and only apply in industrial, where your wiring will be also contained entirely in metallic conduit or raceways. Typically in open ceilings where trouble would be visible.

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    It's not that the tap rules don't apply in residential, it's that the branch-circuit tap rules don't apply to receptacles in any occupancy. (You can do luminaire taps or oven/cooktop taps in a residence, no problem.) – ThreePhaseEel Oct 3 '18 at 3:33
  • Lighting is what they are doing @ThreePhaseEel . – Harper Oct 3 '18 at 3:35
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    I take my prior remark back -- while 210.19(A)(4) doesn't specifically call out maintaining conductor ampacity here, the OCPD is required to be 15A to conform to 240.4(D)(3) (which is the Code section violated here) – ThreePhaseEel Oct 4 '18 at 22:34

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