Closet Lighting Must Follow National Electrical Codes
by Bill Huntley
I was completing the installation of some closet doors last week when my partner Denise said, "Hey, what's all that smoke?"
My response was, "Huh, smoke?" How the heck could screwing hardware to a closet make smoke?
The doors are at the upper shelf of the closet and hinged at the top so that they swing up close to the ceiling. I was in the process of installing the support arm that would hold the door in the open position. When I lowered the door the painted finish was smoldering and smoking!
A little research informed me that both the type and placement of these light fixtures are not in compliance with electrical codes. The lighting in this closet consists of two rows of recessed halogen lights placed about two feet away from the walls. The bulbs were uncovered. Absolutely not allowed! No bare incandescent lighting fixtures are allowed in clothes closets. Covered incandescent fixtures are allowed, but a twelve inch clearance is required between the light and shelving. Since our shelves are nineteen inches deep, the light was barely five inches from the closet unit, and with the 15" door open. . .well, close enough to catch it on fire. Halogens get very hot which is why cooler burning fluorescent lighting is more often the choice for closets.
The thing is, there was no lighting yet installed in this closet when we measured and installed the shelves and verticals. The home was near completion with some details lagging behind. The lighting was only in place two weeks later when we returned to install the custom doors. And, while the contractor had the plans in hand for weeks prior to our arrival, I'm willing to bet he never shared it with the electrician.
We have never encountered non-compliant lighting in new construction before, but in older homes, bare bulbs in closets are not uncommon. This recent experience has opened my eyes to the danger of bare light bulbs. The electricians of the past I'm sure never imagined the way today's closet systems can fit into spaces and the demand of homeowners to maximize every bit of space.
My advice to all is to check with your local code officer or fire department if you have any questions about the safety of your existing closet lighting. The same is true if you are choosing lighting for your new home or remodel. If you do have any old-time bare-bulb fixtures in your existing closets consider calling an electrician to change them to an approved fixture.