Outlet Receptacle Orientation: The Great Debate

Receptacle Orientation, it’s all in the profile

Is outlet receptacle orientation really a thing?
Do outlets have an up?
Have you ever looked at your outlets and noticed that one or more are oriented differently?
Have you ever been curious about whether there is a “right way” to install an outlet?

I’m going to guess no, and are probably thinking, “Who cares??”… but then there wouldn’t be anything to write about.  Moving on.  There may be more to the orientation of a receptacle than you realize. However, according to the National Electric Code (NEC), there is no “right way”. In this post, I’ll give you the quick and dirty of the not-so-great debate.

So why the different orientations?

power receptacleNorth Americans have become accustomed to a specific way of installing power outlets in their homes. Conventionally, the receptacle orientation has the outlet with the two surprised faces staring back at us, as shown in the example image.

A Case for Change

Reversed power receptacleIn new construction homes, situations, where receptacles are installed “up-side-down”, are becoming more common. You may wonder whether Sparky (i.e. electrician) made a mistake or was simply not paying attention when they installed it.  Perhaps, it was 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. However, it may not surprise you to learn that receptacle orientation is often intentional.

Go on…

In most cases, it indicates that the outlet has been installed on a switched circuit. But what exactly is a switched circuit? Essentially, it’s an outlet that a conventional wall switch controls, much like a light fixture. This is a convenient feature that allows you, the homeowner, to plug in lamps that can be controlled by the wall switch. It’s worth noting that typically, only one of the ports of the duplex receptacle is connected to the switched circuit leaving the other available for uninterrupted power. Modern conveniences – aren’t they grand!

An unfounded case for safety

Recently, there have been pundits asserting the safety implications of installing the outlets one way vs another.  I have to admit, I used to be one of them.  The theory was, with the receptacle orientation set in reverse, the ground plug is then located at the top of the outlet, resulting in a safer condition should an appliance plug be only partially inserted, some sort of metal object falls, makes contact with the exposed terminals, and then someone touches it.  However, this is an incredible set of circumstances wrapped in a giant coincidence.
Is it impossible? No.
Impractical? Yes.
Probable?  Also, yes.


Regardless, if the moon and stars aligned perfectly and such an incident occurred, would there really be any danger?  Based on modern electrical standards and the copious safety measures and devices in place… not remotely.  The circuit breaker would trip the moment a metallic object bridges the hot and neutral conductors, rendering the entire issue moot.


Really?! There’s an update to this topic?!  Yes, yes there is.  Through my interweb journeys, I have come across some insight for the inverted receptacle.  Healthcare and commercial facilities.  Going back to the concept that a half-plugged device or appliance could allow objects to come in direct contact with the conductors, most healthcare and commercial buildings utilize metal wall plate covers due to their durability.  As they are used the plates can work loose and create that shock hazard we’ve been talking about.  To circumvent this potential disaster, you would be more inclined to find inverted receptacles in these locations… that is all.

There is another way

Up to this point, we have assumed that the receptacle is installed in portrait orientation. However, we need to consider landscape orientation, or side-to-side installation, as this could be the only scenario where the position of the conductors is relevant. Let’s revisit the hypothetical situation where a metal object falls and connects the conductors. If both neutral terminals are on top, the situation is likely safe and there is no need for concern.neutrals up hots upHowever, if the hot terminals are facing up, there could be a safety issue. It’s important to note that although this scenario is unlikely, Murphy’s law dictates if it can happen, it will. Consider the possibility of a curious toddler with a butter knife exploring the area. It may seem far-fetched, but don’t let me say “I told you so.”Head scratcher

If you’re wondering how to reclaim the time spent reading this post, I apologize.  This has been something that’s been bouncing around my head for a good minute.  And I figured, why should I be the only one tortured (err, blessed) with this brain nugget?  For more interesting readings, check out my other blog posts.

Looking for some light reading?  Check out the NEC online.  It’s FREE!


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