Electrical layout – ground rules

I have fun with the electrical installation and I am learning a lot in the process. My electrical literacy is on the rise. With that I also feel better equipped to make decisions on electrical layout details.

There are a couple of driving factors that shape layout decisions:

  1. Convenience and safety, and
  2. Energy conservation

Let’s start with the latter.

Convenience and safety

Lights, switches and outlets must be located in convenient and easily accessible locations.

When I step into a dark room, I need immediate access to a light switch — or even better, before I step into a dark room I should have access to a light switch. This is a simple safety issue. Who wants to navigate half blind through a room on the search for a light switch?

Outlets should be located where we may have electrical appliances, stereos, computers, printers,floor lamps, etc. Having the outlets close to the electrical fixtures reduces the power cord jungle and amount of extension cords needed.

The mindful placement of outlets also cuts down on the number of power strips and helps with decluttering things.

Energy conservation…

… is dominating the electrical layout decisions. To make the process easier, we used two distinct categories:

  1. power gobblers, and
  2. small ticket items.

Power gobblers

Let’s first look at the big ticket items, the power gobblers. Do we really need a refrigerator as big as our walk-in closet, or will a simple but energy efficient 18 cubic foot model do the job? Or – do we really need a second fridge?

Other typical power hogs are big screen TVs, electrical space heaters and central air conditioning units. With our thermal envelope, we won’t have a need for a space heater. Air conditioning should not be an issue either, but dehumidification may be. If so, we can pick a simple but highly efficient mini-split unit.

In short, energy conservation starts with eliminating electrical fixtures with large loads.

Small ticket items

Once that is done we can look at the small ticket items, where the conservation is more subtle but begins to matter cumulatively.

A user friendly layout, as described above, is critical. If a light switch is located in a convenient location when exiting the room, it is more likely that the light will be turned off. That said, there are some rooms that are notorious for having the lights on when nobody needs them.Closets, pantries and corridors are good examples.

To assure that the lights get turned off in these locations, we can employ occupancy sensors. You enter a closet or pantry and won’t have to worry about the light at all. It comes on when you enter and turns off shortly after you leave. Occupancy sensors also turn the light control into a hands-free operation, which is particularly useful in corridors, such as from the kitchen to the dining room, where one may have to carry something with both hands.

The use of Energy Star fixtures should be considered, whether we are talking about lights, ceiling fans, or kitchen appliances.But again, the first consideration should be whether the appliance is needed at all, or if a smaller appliance would suffice.

Do I need to add extra lights? Do I really need a TV in every room? How useful is that electric can opener, really? Could I survive without a garbage disposal in the kitchen sink?

The kill switch

Then there is the concept of a “kill switch.” I don’t know if you have noticed, but there are more and more electrical gadgets that you literally cannot turn off. Some may have an on/off button, but even when turned off they still draw a phantom load.

I have come across products for commercial office environments that manage those phantom loads as well as lighting by cutting the power to the devices. I have not yet seen something equivalent for a residential application. No problem. We can take the basic principle and come up with our own, home-made solution.

Because most devices and electrical gadgets are powered through outlets, I thought of a kill switch in every room that, when turned off, cuts power to all the outlets.

Well, it is not quite that simple because some items, such as a radio alarm clock, should possibly remain powered. In these cases I need to make sure there is one dedicated outlet that still has power even with the kill switch turned off.

Would this really work? I checked with my electrician, Percy, to see if this was possible at all and if it was reasonable to install. It turns out that the implementation of a kill switch is much easier that I would have imagined. The only complicating factor is about 10 additional feet of wire per room – that’s it.

About Marcus de la fleur

Marcus is a Registered Landscape Architect with a horticultural degree from the School of Horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from the University of Sheffield, UK. He developed a landscape based sustainable pilot project at 168 Elm Ave. in 2002, and has expanded his skill set to building science. Starting in 2009, Marcus applied the newly acquired expertise to the deep energy retrofit of his 100+ year old home in Chicago.

1 thought on “Electrical layout – ground rules

  1. We bought a product called a “Smart Strip” for our computers and home theater to deal with phantom power. It’s a surge suppressor/power strip that uses a sensor on one of the outlets. When power usage on that device drops, it turns off power to the remaining outlets. When power is drawn from it again, the other devices are turned back on.

    When I put my computer to sleep, the speakers and monitor are turned off. When I turn off my receiver, the tv, video game consoles, and subwoofers are turned off as well. I used a kill-a-watt to measure the difference and between two smart strips we’re saving about 40 watts of phantom load.

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