Remodeling Around Electrical Panels
Know the code requirements for electrical panels before you start a remodeling project around one.
I have a large laundry room in my basement that has a door leading to the backyard. An electrical subpanel is located over the dryer (the main panel is in the garage), and there is a utility sink next to the dryer. I wanted to move the wall that the subpanel is on to make room for a small mudroom on the other side. I also wanted to find a way to add a toilet in the laundry room. However, I’m reading that electrical panels are not allowed in bathrooms. Does this mean that my panel near the sink is not up to code? If I do add a toilet to the laundry room, would I have to relocate the panel to the other side of the wall where the mudroom bench will go? If I do this, a coat rack might cover the panel door, which also sounds like a possible code violation. What are my options?
—Danny F., via the FHB forum
Electrical consultant John Williamson replies: These are great questions because they address several common occurrences and interrelated topics in the 2023 National Electrical Code (NEC). Before tackling your specific questions, let’s look at what the code has to say about where an electrical panel or subpanel can’t be placed and why.
Whether it’s the main service panel or a subpanel, the NEC requires there to be adequate working space in front of every panel, and that has everything to do with safety. Imagine working in a cramped space where bumping an elbow could misdirect a tool to come into contact with energized components, resulting in an explosive arc-flash and possible electrocution. A person needs to be able to stand comfortably in front of the panel to work on it safely, or be able to easily escape the working space should there be an electrical accident. There needs to be a volume of space in front of the panel that measures at least 36 in. deep, at least 30 in. wide, and at least 78 in. from the floor (or the height of the equipment, whichever is greater). The 30-in. width does not have to be centered on the panel, but in all cases the workspace needs to permit a 90°opening of the hinged panel door.
A panel cannot be located where it would be exposed to physical damage, such as over the steps of a stairway where someone could trip and fall into it. Panels are also not allowed to be located in the vicinity of easily ignitable materials, such as clothes in a closet. In addition, the allowable space in front of a panel cannot be used for storage; electrical panels have to be readily accessible in case power needs to be shut off quickly in an emergency.
The NEC defines a bathroom as “an area including a sink with one or more of the following: a toilet, a urinal, a tub, a shower, a bidet, or similar plumbing fixtures.” Concerns about working space, emergency access, and damage prevention are why a main service panel or subpanel is specifically not allowed to be installed in a bathroom. Many bathrooms are located in small spaces not large enough to meet the minimum working-space requirement. And it’s not uncommon for bathroom doors to be locked. If someone is taking a shower with the door locked, the panel in that bathroom will not be easily accessible in the case of an emergency. Another reason the code does not allow electrical panels to be installed in bathrooms is because of the corrosive effects of airborne moisture and humidity from bathing and showering and the resulting damage that can cause to fuses, circuit breakers, and the interior components of the panel.
Now back to your specific questions: The fact that your subpanel is in the vicinity of the utility sink is not a violation of the electrical code. The thinking here is that unlike toilets, sinks do not hold standing water or produce high-humidity conditions like a tub or shower. But while your sink is fine, the dryer is not. Placing a dryer in front of a subpanel violates the requirement for working space. Adding a toilet would transform your laundry room into a bathroom, which would also prohibit a panel from being located there. And installing a panel under a coat rack in your mudroom would violate the provision about electrical panels needing to be readily accessible to shut off power in an emergency situation and not located near combustible materials. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in order to be code compliant, you need to move the dryer from in front of the subpanel and skip the toilet in your laundry room, find a different location for your coat rack, or relocate your subpanel.
Drawing: Patrick Welsh
From Fine Homebuilding #316