Installing Electrical for Your Basement - A 21 Item Checklist

installing electrical lightingInstalling electrical in your basement is my favorite part of the whole basement finishing project.

You just feel bad-ass doing it. You've got the wood dust everywhere from drilling holes. You're pulling wire and hooking up lights. People come down to the basement and they're like "man, you could kill yourself doing that" and your like "I know. But I won't, because I've got all the right tools".  

So what do you need?  Well here's my list. I just went downstairs and inventoried my "electrical bucket", this is everything I used to install the electrical in my basement.  Enjoy!

21 Things You Need for Installing Electrical in Your Basement

If you see anything on here that you need, click on the image and it will take you to Amazon via my affiliate link (which supports this website !)

installing electrical

Voltage (Line) Tester - This is one tool you should always have with you if you’re going to be working on an outlet, a switch or any electrical device. Touch it to a line to see if it has electricity running through it.

Wire Cutter (Stripper) - wire stripperFor cutting wire (duh). Oh, and for stripping insulation off of wires and for making loops at the end of cooper wire.  Don't cut your finger in one of these... it really, really hurts, trust me.

Sheathing Stripper -  romex sheathing stripperMore strippers? What kind of a place is this? Used for removing the white or yellow sheathing that wraps the wires within the Romex. You can make do without this tool, but it's cheap and saves a lot of time.

12-2 romex wire 50 feet12 Gauge Romex Wire - You will probably need a 100 feet or so, it really depends on the size of your basement.12 gauge is thicker and can carry more load. Commonly used for a circuit containing only plugs. Usually sheathed in yellow. I would not recommend using 12 gauge wire for light circuits.

14-2 romex wire 50 feet14 Gauge Romex Wire - Thinner than 12 gauge. Carries less load but it is much easier to work with. Usually used for circuits of lights. With a light circuit you know you won't be plugging a treadmill or anything into it so you can get a lot of lights on one 15 amp circuit.

14-3 Romex wire for hallway lightsThree Wire, Wire -  You need this type of wire for any series of lights that can be turned on or off from two different switches.

For example, hallways. (hallways are required by code to have a switch at the beginning and end that control the hallway lights.

Light Switches -  light switchLot of options here. You can get motion sensing, dimmable, LED dimmable, timers, etc. I put in about 90% dimmer switches, a couple of regular and 1 motion sensing switch.

Be sure to buy light switches that hook up either with wire-nuts or screw terminals. Push-in type connections are allowed but the inspectors I met (and some pros) "don't particularly care for them". Here's a post on installing a motion sensing light switch.

Outlet Receptacles (aka Plugs) - I recommend buying the "pro" plugs (stronger plastic, less give). It feels more solid and less flimsy. Other than that, it's fairly straight forward.

Blue Electrical Boxes - I have a entire post on blue electrical boxes. These are the very first things that I installed.

Spade Drill Bits - spade drill bit for electrical wiring3/4 inch spade bit, for drilling holes in your ceiling joists (check your code first).  1/2" spade drill bit for drilling holes in the walls stud to run the electrical wiring.

A Good Drill -  You will be drilling a lot of holes. Be sure you have a good drill with 2 batteries so you can swap one out if the other one dies.

romex insulated wire staplesRomex Insulated Wire Staples - You will need these to secure the electrical wiring to the studs just before they go into the blue electrical boxes for both outlets and light switches.  Get the big ones and don't hammer them in to tight, there should be a little bit of play.

Let's take a little break here.  I'm wiped out and we're less than half way through. If you think this site is better than slamming your finger in a car door, you might also like the newsletter.

wire connectors for installing electricalWiring Nuts - Green and yellow, red and white they are children in his sight... Sorry, flashbacks. The green ones with a hole in the top are for the ground wire, you don't have to use a special green one but it makes it easier. I like the wire nuts with wings, makes it much easier to twist. BONUS: You will get super strong hands during the wiring phase.

A Hammer - To hit yourself on the head when you screw up and cut the wrong wire... kidding, kidding of course. The hammer is for nailing in the blue electrical boxes (not sure why they don't come with screws - but they don't).

You can also use it as a guide for how high above the ground the electrical box should be. The bottom of the box should be about one hammer height above the ground.

sharpies for marking electrical wireBlack Marker (Sharpie) - Very handy for marking where the electrical boxes should be installed and for writing on electrical line or boxes.

Builders also tend to put a small black dot above any outlet that can be controlled by a switch. Check it out, if you have a newer house, seems to be universal.

black electrical tapeBlack Electrical Tape - Theoretically you shouldn't need this. If you strip and twist the wires correctly within the wire nut then you should not have to wrap tape around the bottom of each connection. But, sometimes you mess up, and the tape can save you from having to re-strip the wire.

Never leave exposed wire in a light switch setup. If a little is sticking out of the wire-nut near the bottom, wrap it with electrical tape. (tape comes in colors, all of which mean something I think, so I stuck with black to avoid any confusion)

GFI outletGFI Plug - You must have at least one plug in the bathroom and it has to be a GFI (ground fault interrupter).

For my bathroom I bought one that has a small green LED light on it, just enough light to get your "business" done if you stumble in the bathroom late at night and don't want to turn on the big guns. (if you are building a wet bar you'll need a GFI there as well)

Design and plan for my finished basementAn Electrical Plan - If you want to just add a light or a plug or two then you don't need a plan but before you get down to the main event I would absolutely plan out my circuits, plugs, light switches, etc.

If you don't, there's a good chance of wasting quite a bit of money and just getting confused on what you're end game is.  Check out my post and video on designing your electrical plan.

wiring a basement-recessed light

Recessed Can Lights - I started with lights, then went to plugs, so these were some of the first things I bought. They come in boxes of six. Here is an article about installing recessed lights.

Other Lights - It helps to know what other lights you are planning to install. For example, I installed square electrical boxes for my sconce lights but then bought sconces lights that have a round base.  It was tricky selling my wife that that was "how it was supposed to be".

20 amp breaker for installing electrical15 and 20 AMP Breakers  -  If you're going BIG DOG and installing your own breakers then you'll want to pick some of those up. 15amp for the light circuits and 20amp for plug circuits.

But, if you're doing that then I assume you pretty much know what you're doing. I did some of mine but only on the sub-panel where I knew I could easily kill the power to the entire panel first.

Electrical Books - Hold on there speed racer. Do NOT start any electrical stuff (ANY!) until you've read a book or two on wiring (preferably two). Reading this blog does not, in any way, qualify you to start channeling your inner Ben Franklin.  Here are two books that I personally read before installing my own electrical work.  Complete Wiring (Stanley Complete) and Ultimate Guide: Wiring, 7th edition (Home Improvement)

What You Need to Install Your Electrical

This is pretty much everything you'll need. You don't have to buy all of this at once or even at the beginning. You can start with just wiring your plug circuits, for that you only need the wire, wire cutters, staples, boxes, a drill, spade bits, the hammer and the marker. Aaaahhhh ok, that is quite a bit I guess, but some of that stuff you already have I'm sure.

basement finishing jasonI probably did forget something, feel free to leave a comment if you think of it. I tried to setup most of these products in my Amazon Store if you want once place to get everything.

The Amazon prices are actually pretty good and if you have Amazon Prime you get free shipping. These are all affiliate links, proceeds go towards supporting this website.

Cheers -  Jason

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Questions and Comments

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  1. Jeffrey Beyer says

    I've been reading electrical code and it says any unfinished part of a basement needs gfi protection. I need to know exactly what that means. Does it mean every outlet has to be a gfi or do you just need one per circuit.

    • says

      Hey Jeff - As long it's unfinished it needs GFI protected outlets. Once you finish it the outlets can be regular outlets and do not need to be GFI unless it's in the bathroom. For any bathroom, including a basement, you need a GFI outlet and in most areas a dedicated circuit for the bathroom. Double check your local code.

      So bottom line - if you want to "just" add some outlets to an unfinished basement, yes the need to be GFI. But if do the permits, framing, drywall, etc. - then it's finished and outlets can be standard.

      Hope that helps!


  2. Greg says

    Do nec require basement outlets to be wired with 12/2 w/g or can I use 14/2 w/g? Also I heard that 12 gauge is required for all residential outlets. Is that correct

    • says

      Hi Greg. I'm not an electrician so don't quote me 100% on this but it appears you can have 15 or 20 AMP circuits. 15 AMPS use 14/2, 20 AMPS being the 12/2. However, I highly recommend only using 12/2 for outlets, even if that means running a new line. There are also some rules by room type. Kitchens, bathrooms, and some other room types "require by code" that the circuit be 20 AMP (12/2).

      Hope that helps. - Jason

  3. Travis says

    Hi Jason! I just finished wiring half of my basement and had a first-time go on my inspection (in Montana here). A few things my inspector said: Every outlet requires AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupt) protection. You can either have the first outlet on the circuit be an AFCI outlet or you can install an AFCI breaker in the panel. My builders left me an existing light circuit (one switch for the whole basement) that I expanded into can lights for each room - 4 lights in each of my four rooms seems plenty. I then added two outlet circuits, one for the two bedrooms and one for the office and media room. When the inspector saw this, he said most outlets and lights are on the same circuit now since 2014 NEC requires light switches to have a neutral line. He didn't say push-ins for outlet receptacles are against code, but he did say pigtails were required for the ground instead of attaching both lines on the screw. I didn't install a sub panel because I still have plenty of room on my main panel, I just turned power off to the whole house and added the AFCI breakers.

    Hope that's all clear as mud and let me know if you have questions! I even got my 3-way switch installed correctly.

    • says

      Hey Travis - Thanks for the info. Any other Montana basement finishers out there, take note! Congrats on doing the wiring yourself - you saved a ton and I'm sure had fun with it once you got the hang of it. Good luck on drywall! - Jason

  4. Jeff says

    Looking to buy a new house with unfinished basement. I don't know any electrical. Would it be to expensive to have the builder do it as the house is built and about how much would it cost? Or should I hire someone after the house is built? I'm not sure on what end I can save money seeing either way I can't do it myself.

    • says

      Hi Jeff - This website is all about doing your own electrical to save money. I do have some tips for how to choose a great contractor - that could save you money. Beyond that there's not much I can do to help out here. The estimated cost to have your builder do the electrical is entirely dependent upon the builder, the size of your basement and the other conditions of your project - so I'm afraid I can give you a good answer. Sorry I couldn't help you more here. - Jason

    • says

      Hi Debbie - Technically, yes. But is there a reason why you'd want to do that? And... in certain areas (like Chicagoland) you are required to use metal - so make sure you're not violating any local codes. - Jason

  5. Jack says

    Just installed new 15amp breaker and did a run of 5 outlets from it. All tested positive but only first outlet will run my drill. I used pigtail grounds to each outlet except the last one in the run of course. I connected all hot wires to bronze and all neutral to silver on the boxes. Any help?

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