New Rules for Closet Lights

A luxury walk-in closet

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Whether you are building a new closet or simply upgrading an existing one, your choice of closet lights is important, both for safety and convenience. The National Electrical Code (NEC), which is published by the National Fire Protection Association, sets the rules and standards that apply to building regulations in most areas.

The most recently published edition of the NEC was published in 2008. It contains very specific requirements for the types of light fixtures allowed in closets as well as the clearances that must be maintained between storage spaces and light sources. Perhaps the most significant change introduced in the 2008 code was that it allowed the use of LED fixtures.

Even if your closets and their existing lights are old, the current requirements are a good benchmark for them. Many closet lights are fires waiting to happen; this is especially true of exposed light bulbs, which generate more than enough heat to start a clothing fire.

Here is a summary of the NEC's current requirements for closet lights:

Fixtures and bulbs/lamps

  • Surface-mounted or recessed fixtures are both permitted, but exposed (uncovered) light bulbs are not.
  • Light fixtures can accept fluorescent, incandescent or LED bulbs.

Minimum clearances fixtures must maintain from any storage space (shelf, rod, etc.)

  • 12 in. from surface-mounted incandescent and LED fixtures with completely enclosed light sources
  • 6 in. from surface-mounted fluorescent fixtures installed on the ceiling or the wall above the door
  • 6 in. from recessed incandescent or LED fixtures with a completely enclosed bulb/lamp installed in the wall or ceiling
  • 6 in. from recessed fluorescent fixtures installed in the wall or ceiling