Kitchen Power Outlets

kitchen electric kettle home inspection solid state

I remember when my parents brought home our first ever microwave oven. It was likely around 1980 and it changed out countertop forever. It also used one of the few available electric plugs in our 1970’s designed kitchen and if you tried to use it and the toaster at the same time, someone would be making a trip to the breaker panel to reset the overloaded circuit.

Our electricity use in our kitchens has changed considerably over the last half century and kitchen electricity supply has gone through a few generations of changes to keep up.

Origins of Kitchen Outlets

Ungrounded Outlet

Common in pre-1970's kitchens

For much of the mid 1900’s, outlets in the kitchen were primarily for the refrigerator, wall clock, and perhaps one extra outlet on the counter. The kitchen plugs that did exist often were not grounded, likely had one plug-in, and often had just one 15-amp circuit shared for the whole kitchen. As home owners began bringing home microwave ovens, countertop coffee makers, electric kettles, toasters, and a myriad of other kitchen appliances, the power supplies in these kitchens was often over loaded.

When home inspectors see kitchens with this older power supply in a home inspection we always need to investigate the power supply. It is common for the single plug to be replaced with a dual plug outlet and as frustrated home owners wanted more power for countertop appliances, occurrences of 'over fusing' the kitchen circuits with a 20-amp (or larger) fuse or breaker is a common problem. Over fusing can be very dangerous as the wiring is not designed to carry this load and could burn out and potentially start a fire. Even when the configuration is safe, home inspectors should still advise clients there is limited power available so they can set their expectations accordingly or arrange for electrical updating. 

Split Outlets

Grounded 15-Amp Outlet

This is still a common style plug today for 15-amp circuits. In kitchens, the top and bottom plugs can be 'split' onto different circuits.

Starting in the 1970's, we saw two major changes to the kitchen electricity supply. First, we saw grounded plugs introduced which increases occupant safety significantly. Second, we saw the development of multiple ‘spit-outlet’ circuits in the kitchen.

In a ‘split’ outlet configuration, multiple 15-amp circuits are delivered to the kitchen. In order to help prevent overloading at busy counter plugs, the top and bottom outlets in the plug are wired to separate circuits. This potentially allows 30 total amps from one outlet (15 top and 15 bottom) allowing a microwave oven and a toaster can be on the same counter plug without tripping the breaker.

Split outlets can still be a nuisance however in that multiple outlets are shared on each circuit. This could mean if a microwave and toaster are plugged into separate outlets, they still may be on the same circuit in the shared configuration. The simplest fix for this is to switch one of the appliances to the other plug on the same outlet.

In a home inspection, we cannot visually see which outlets are on which circuit but we can determine from the electric panel that the correct breaker sizes are in place and there should be a tie-bar between circuits on the same outlets. This tie bar is a safety feature so the outlet is either on or off and cannot be in a half-on state surprising someone making electrical changes.

20-Amp T-Outlets

20-Amp T-Style Outlet

This type of plug is becoming common in kitchens. The T-style slot does not impair use of normal 15-amp appliances.

As our demand for electricity and convenience in kitchens continues to grow, we are seeing two major changes in the most recent generation of kitchens. We now see ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI’s) at many or all kitchen plugs which increases our safety from electrocution risks, particularly near sinks. Second, we have seen split 15-amp circuits replaced with single 20-amp circuits.

20-amp circuits mean that the breaker and wiring from the electric panel is designed for a 20-amp load. This 20-amp electricity supply is available at each plug in the kitchen in the same circuit. In one sense, this is potentially less power at an individual outlet (we used to have 15-amps top + 15-amps bottom = 30amps) where now we only have 20-amps total, however, we also can deliver 20 amps to a single plugged in appliance. Two other advantages to 20-amp circuits are that it is safer to work on (there is never the possibility of half the outlet live and half not), and it is easier and faster for electricians to wire and re-wire as they only need to bring one 2-way line to each outlet.

When circuits have 20-amps of supply available, electricians install an outlet which has a T-shaped opening on the left hand prong. This T-shape still allows us to use regular 15-amp appliances but now we can also safely use appliances that require more power by making them incompatible with 15-amp circuits.

In a home inspection, we test the GFCI plugs to ensure they are functioning correctly and confirm the correct breakers and wiring at the electrical panel.

Final Thoughts

If you are in the process of purchasing a new home, your home inspector will be able to confirm for you the type of electric supply you have available in your kitchen and any improvements you may want to make to the electrical supply or changes to improve your safety. As always with electricity, never attempt to make changes on your own. Always leave changes and improvements to a professional electrician.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.