The ability to allow kitchen countertop receptacles located below the countertop is more limited than some have interpreted.

Important changes have been made that reduce the number of required receptacle outlets on island and peninsular countertops and restrict the ability to use a receptacle below a countertop to serve that counter space. The question is, without invoking Sec. 90-4, can an AHJ permit a receptacle below the top of a wall-mounted counter, such as under the front lip, and can receptacles be put below certain other counter spaces without review by the AHJ?

The EC&M panel's response

We think that receptacle outlets must only be in certain locations, and then only with the inspector's permission. The rule in question is the first sentence in Sec. 210-52(c)(5) and the exception following:

(5) Receptacle outlet location. Receptacle outlets shall be located not more than 18 in. (458 mm) above the countertop...

Exception: Where acceptable to the authority having jurisdiction and to meet the special conditions as specified in a or b below, receptacle outlets shall be permitted to be mounted not more than 12 in. (305 mm) below the countertop. Receptacles mounted below the countertop in accordance with this exception shall not be located where the countertop extends more than 6 in. (153 mm) beyond its support base.

a. Construction for the physically impaired.

b. Where island or peninsular counter space construction precludes practical mounting above the countertop.

The rule does two things, only one of which is clear. It sets the maximum distance above a counter at which a receptacle can be allowed for that counter space, namely 18 in. It also requires receptacles to be above counter spaces, unless the exception applies.

We recognize that the literal text doesn't actually say this, and that a receptacle 30 in. below the counter would, in fact, not be "more than 18 in. above the countertop." Since the exception sets limits on receptacles below countertops, if you say the main rule would allow receptacles below countertops by right you are leaving the exception without any meaning. Remember, the exception is permissive and therefore won't apply if the rule is satisfied. Code provisions must be read in concert to the greatest degree possible, and interpreting the rule to require receptacles above the counter is the only way to give voice to both the rule and the exception.

The next question is whether in the exception there are two independent qualifications (inspector acceptance and placement restrictions) either of which is sufficient, or whether both of those qualifications must be met at the same time.

We think that both must be met simultaneously. No comma sets off the opening phrase, and the word "and" is a coordinating conjunction that joins elements of a sentence that have equal weight. Although we agree that the wording could be clarified, we think that the contrary interpretation is incorrect because it would allow receptacles below countertops by right in handicapped construction and on peninsulas and islands. This would be inconsistent with the wording in condition "b" that cannot be applied without considerable judgment on the part of the inspector.

Although a code-making panel statement cannot substitute for the literal text, this interpretation agrees with their position:

The basic text requires that the receptacle outlet be located not more than 18 inches above the counter top. However, an exception has been added to permit the receptacle below the counter top, with permission from the authority having jurisdiction [emphasis supplied]. This permits the local authority to make a judgment as to whether or not the construction of the island or peninsula necessitates the receptacle to be mounted below the counter top.

That statement clearly shows that both the inspector's judgment and location restrictions are intended to be involved. We think the literal text does support that intent.

In summary, to place a receptacle below a kitchen countertop you must have permission, which may only be given in two cases. You may do this in kitchens requiring handicapped accessibility, whether or not the countertop is located against a wall. Secondly, it can be done on an island or peninsular counter, provided the "construction precludes practical mounting above the countertop."