Technical Lighting Help

Closet Lighting

An exposed light bulb with a string hanging down to the middle of the doorway had been the de facto method of closet lighting. That changed many years ago because of countless fires. Now lighting in closets is heavily regulated. The National Electric Code (NEC) has very specific location and placement requirements designed to separate lighting from the flammable garments and materials stored therein. The creation of cooler operating LED has made compliance easier, but the rules must still be followed. Here are a few things to understand about closet lighting.

Allowable lighting in Closets

There are three types of lighting that are allowed in closets.

  1. Surface mounted or recessed completely enclosed, incandescent or LED
  2. Surface mounted or recessed fluorescent
  3. Surface mounted fluorescent or LED listed as suitable for closet applications

That means, there are lighting products that cannot be used, such as the aforementioned exposed light bulb with pull chain in addition to open recessed cans.

Closet Storage Areas

The NEC regulations define areas where content is stored. Light cannot be located in these area. The NEC illustration is somewhat difficult to understand. Below are two illustrations front view (looking into the closet) and side view that help define where storage occurs and lighting is prohibited.

Closet Front View – Areas highlighted in pale blue are considered “storage areas” and lighting cannot be positioned in these spaces.
Closet Side View – Areas in pale blue are considered storage and lighting cannot be located in these spaces.

Lighting Placement

Now that the limited areas where lighting can be installed are understood, there are still clearances that must be met.

Distance between an installed luminaire and the nearest point of storageType of Luminaire
12”Completely enclosed LED or Incandescent
6”Surface mounted fluorescent
6”Completely enclosed LED or incandescent recessed can
6”Recessed fluorescent

These dimensions are for ceiling mounted lighting, or lighting mounted on the wall above the door opening.

Surface Mounted Incandescent or LED lighting must be located a minimum of 12″ from any portion of the shaded (storage) area. Light on right side of illustration is located on the wall, over the closet door.
Surface Mounted Incandescent or LED lighting must be located a minimum of 12″ from any portion of the shaded (storage) area.
Surface Mounted Fluorescent lighting must be located a minimum of 6″ from any portion of the storage areas.
Fully enclosed Incandescent, LED or fluorescent recessed cans can be no closer than 6″ from any portion of the storage are (pale blue.)
Fully Enclosed Incandescent, LED or Fluorescent recessed cans must be a minimum of 6″ from any portion of the storage area. On wider closets, remember to check left, right and depth to insure compliance.

Luminaire Suggestions

I recommend LED lighting for closets. The lighting is small, creates only limited amounts of heat and high quality color options are readily available. If the closet is a single-door, small type, there are many surface mounted, very flat options from which to choose. If the closet is wider, linear LED models are available. LED can also be built into the clothing rod, or installed under the shelf, over the rod of clothes. The low-voltage wiring is small and can easily be hidden out of sight.

If an alternative is needed, consider fluorescent. If this choice is made, ALWAYS buy a high quality lamp with excellent color temperatures (CCT) and Color Rendering Index (CRI.)

What Color Light?

This is perhaps the most popular question in all of closet lighting. What color temperature should I use? With only one light source in an average sized closet, use a 3000K color temperature with a high CRI in the mid-80s or above. Whether LED or fluorescent, this will deliver excellent results to virtually all colors in the spectrum.

With larger closets, or customers who have very specific color requirements, two colors could be considered. Perhaps the user has an office with 4000K lighting. They may want to have two light sources installed. Each with a separate switch. When selecting clothes for work, the 4000K switch is flipped. The second switch could be connected to a warmer 2700K source. This color would help in a selection when staying at home, or dining in a restaurant. Two lights would provide the best of both worlds.

As one of the smallest spaces in a home, lighting in a closet may be the most highly regulated and cause the most concern from users. Following these guidelines can deliver good results for each and every closet in a house.

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