SAFE INSTALLATION ELECTRICAL AND SERVICE PANELS IN RESIDENTIAL CLOSETS

This month’s column discusses contentious issues and topical topics that usually resurface in NECA’s online “Code Question of the Day.” The columnist shares his opinions through his responses and welcomes feedback on the topic covered. Give your thoughts via email.

QUESTION: Can a service panel for a residence be installed in a walk-in closet? Section 240-24(d) is unclear on this.

ANSWER: According to section 240-24(d) of the National Electrical Code (NEC), which specifies that “Overcurrent devices shall not be located in the vicinity of easily ignitable material such as in clothes closets,” you are not permitted to do so. This section doesn’t distinguish between one clothes closet type or another. This is further confirmed by the denial by the NFPA code-making panel of a proposal for the NEC 1999 edition, which demanded an exception to 240-24(d) to read: “If the working clearance room specified in Section 110-26(a) is met, panels shall be allowed in walk-in closets.” The reason for the proposal was that “Jobs would no longer fail if sub-panels are placed in walk-in closets”. This exception would also address the option of challenging sub-panel positions to satisfy Code requirements, especially in large custom homes. “In opposing this suggested revision of the NEC, the panel statement reads:” A walk-in closet is designed for storage of materials, many of which may be easily ignitable, and installing overcurrent devices in this area woud constitute a hazard. There’s no way to control how this space would be used since it has been designed for storage, even in a big custom home. “Author’s remark: Actually, walk-in closets are designed to store items, many of which can easily be ignited. But as far as constituting a threat is concerned, we no longer talk of mounting fuses in a wooden cutout box in porcelain fuse tubes. Currently, overcurrent systems are enclosed in metal enclosures, which would have me curious about other places if not deemed worthy of living in a walk-in closet— in fact any place where panels are permitted. Should we say that store spaces, basements, garages and basement do not contain items that are easily ignitable? The only point to note here is that of “proper clearances.” I would doubt the logic behind installing panels in a single-family home in any sort of closet, but there may be conditions under which this may seem like a reasonable solution.

QUESTION: Often, installing electric panels in apartments or condominiums is a challenge. What’s amiss with setting up a panel in a walk-in closet or a clothes closet?

ANSWER: Let’s do a bit of research on this issue, because it’s always coming up. According to the 1975 edition of the NEC, the position of overcurrent protection equipment was called “Location in Premises” and was contained in Section 240-16(c), which states, “Not in the vicinity of easily ignitable materials.” This provision was moved to Section 240-24(d) in the 1975 edition but the terminology stayed the same. For the 1981 NEC, a proposal was introduced for a new subparagraph (e) of Section 240-24 which reads, “Overcurrent devices shall not be located in clothes closets.” The substantiation for this proposal reads as follows: “The practice of panels (overcurrent protection) in clothes closets in my opinion creates a hazard as much as, if not more than, a fixture not properly installed per Code. For occupancies of the form of home, closets are lined with panel-covering garments, and are also behind closed doors. With the use of several panels (overcurrent protection) mounted in the closets of the building, renters are unable to quickly reset their GFI to the bathroom (if a breaker is used). Locating overcurrent protection in wardrobes contradicts 110-16, 422, and 440-14. “(This information is presumably taken from the 1978 edition of the NEC, which was in effect at that time.) The unanimous vote of the Code panel on this amendment plan was’ Accept as revised.’ The revision of the panel added the words ”such as in clothes closets ” to Section 240-24(d). And what did 240-24(d) mean? Indeed, it forbids the installation of overcurrent equipment near easily ignitable items. Author’s Comment: First, I can not believe the following substantiations:* “Panels in closets create more hazard than a fixture not installed per code.” * “Closets are filled with clothes covering panels and they are behind closed doors.” “Tenants are unable to reset their GFI for bathrooms quickly.”* “Overcurrent protection devices in closets violates 110-16, 422, and 440-14.” There is not a single comment about the substantiation for this proposal in the panel statement. One public comment was made calling for revocation of the panel decision. The substantiation for this submission read: “The only appropriate action to be taken on this proposal is to delete it on the grounds that it has been in the Code since the days when it was common practice to install fuses in porcelain fuse holders in a wooden cabinet. The law once made sense, but now it doesn’t make sense, because all overcurrent systems are now in metal cabinets. As a panelboard location, the clothes closet is not especially preferred, but there are few other places within a dwelling unit that are aesthetically pleasing to architects or inhabitants. The clothing in a clothes closet can be changed quickly and easily. The panel recommendation will not improve safety.” This public comment was rejected with the panel assertion “CMP-4 believes safety will be enhanced by the acceptance of Proposal No. 19.” Indeed, this occurred 20 years ago and it is still with us today. No requests to amend Section 240-24(d) were presented during the latest NEC review process of 2002, implying we can continue to operate for the foreseeable future under the existing NEC language of 1999.

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