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My wife and I are renting a house that was built around 2007 in Washington State. It has a peculiar wiring arrangement that I've never seen before. Every bedroom and the living room has two switches near the entry - one for the ceiling mounted light fixture and the other for wall outlets. Not just one wall outlet, but every single one. Each outlet is split so the top is always on and the bottom is switched.

I find this to be a horrible idea, because it essentially eliminates half the plugs in each room, resulting in more power strips and extension cords.

My recollection of building codes is that there has to be a switched outlet if there is no ceiling fixture - is that still current? If so, why would the house be wired this way - is it local custom in certain parts of the country, or perhaps just a unique request from the original homeowner?

  • The good news is, if your landlord is OK with it, it is easy enough to change the outlets to not be switched. – manassehkatz-Reinstate Monica Jan 6 at 21:23
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    Pick up some “switch guards” or “switch locks” (both are removable inexpensive plastic parts) and leave the second switch always on. – Tyson Jan 6 at 22:09
  • We'll only be here for another 6 months, so we're just living with it. If it was my house, I'd change the wiring. The switch guards look like a great idea for this situation. But my question is why it's done this way - and based on Ed's answer it looks like the original owner wanted it this way. – Mark Jan 6 at 23:14
  • Sounds like it's to allow the user to control free-standing lights/bedside lights in one go without turning off all the sockets in the room. – Niall Jan 7 at 1:09
  • The owner simply preferred lamps to ceiling light, or at least wanted the option. It's not that big of a mystery. – isherwood Jan 7 at 16:58
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Is it possible that the house was originally not wired with ceiling fixtures and the ceiling fixtures were added later?

A long shot possibility is that this wiring was designed as a safety measure to allow shutting off receptacles to protect a child or a (cord chewing) dog from shock or electrocution.

EDIT

This was a speculative suggestion on my part motivated by my finding that our new dog had chewed two cords all the way to conductors that were plugged into switched outlets that were off.

This was what I imagined: The house was built by a family of dog lovers who knew they would have a succession of young dogs who will go through the "chew on everything" phase. While they have a dog in that phase they plug everything in certain rooms in switched receptacles. These are rooms that the dog would be in unsupervised.

Another possibility for switching half of all the receptacles in a room is to be able to turn off all "parasitic" draws with one switch. (Of course, to be effective this would require that loads of this category be plugged into the switched receptacles.) Some people say that the total of parasitic draws in a house is significant.

Another possibility is to allow multiple switched lamps all around the room.

  • I guess it's possible, but I don't see any evidence that they were added after the fact. Even so, though, why would the switch be wired to all the outlets rather than just one? The safety measure is a good thought, but it seems that would also require training dogs and children to only mess with the upper receptacles; if someone can do that, they might as well just train them not to mess with any receptacles ;-). – Mark Jan 7 at 5:52
  • Editing my answer above. – Jim Stewart Jan 7 at 13:32
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This is a rather easy problem to fix

Modern receptacles have 2 sockets, and a nifty feature -- each side has 2 terminal screws, and a nifty break-off "tab" between them. Tab in place, the 2 screws are connected so 1 wire can feed both sockets and the second screw can carry power onward to the next socket. Tab broken off, the 2 screws are separated and the 2 sockets can be controlled individually.

Typically you break off the "hot" tab, and feed one socket with the red wire, the other with the black wire.

You could replace with a socket with the tab not broken off. Connect only the black (typically always-hot) wire, and simply cap off the red wire with a wire-nut (and tape), or if somehow the old socket was used to splice the supply and onward red wires, join them with a wire nut.

Tenant law prohibits you doing the work yourself without permission.

Landlord law requires them to hire a licensed electrician for any work done in the rental unit. Residential law requires you to "pull a permit" for any substantial electrical work, but excluded from that is trivial work such as "changing a receptacle". So check with your permit issuing authority, but it's likely that merely changing a receptacle is something a licensed electrician is not needed for. Tell them you want to do it for aesthetic reasons, don't go so far as mentioning the desired change in function.

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    And there are the questions we've seen where people really are changing for aesthetic reasons and then find out the hard way that since the new receptacle has the tab installed by default, the 1/2 that used to be switched is now always on... – manassehkatz-Reinstate Monica Jan 7 at 22:42
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Actually this is much more expensive wiring method than most, I have been asked to do this on 1 home over my years in Oregon , can it be changed yes, but as a renter you cannot do it legally.

  • I'm not sure. Changing a receptacle is typically dismissed as a "trivial" repair in which you would not need to pull a permit for. Perhaps this also ducks under the "need to hire an electrican, because it's a rental property" rule also. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 6 at 22:41
  • No permit needed in Oregon or WA as long as it is on the existing circuit so no problems there for a home owner but rentals require a licence for changes in both states or a licensed handyman with no new circuits. – Ed Beal Jan 7 at 0:27
  • @Ed Beal in the one case where you were requested to wire this way did the homeowner state why he wanted it that way? – Jim Stewart Jan 7 at 18:55
  • I did not ask but mentioned it was going to cost more and they did not care. To me it sounded strange but that house had individual circuits for lighting and outlets in each room and 5? In there main living room and everything was wired with number 10 as they requested. – Ed Beal Jan 7 at 19:49

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