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I’ve seen a few posts here – including one on a question I asked yesterday – that say junction boxes and the like need to be accessible without tools. The “without tools” requirement is clear in the code definition of the term readily accessible, which applies to things like breakers and disconnects that require rapid access. But as far as I know it does not apply to junction boxes, conduit bodies, etc., which need to accessible but not readily accessible.

Is there a code section which requires junction boxes and the like to be accessible without tools? If so, what is the code reference?

I understand that the final authority on interpreting any ambiguous terms will be the local inspector, but I'm just interested in clarifying what the code says.

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There are a few different "access" issues that get thrown together. Sorry, I don't have NEC specific references here, but this is based on a lot of Q & A I've read over the past several years:

Panels

Main breaker panels, subpanels and similar types of equipment need a very large area in front to be accessible - 30" x 36". This allows working space in front of the equipment. Flipping a breaker requires no space at all. Replacing a breaker requires very little space. Properly installing a new circuit requires a lot of space. Older panels often did not have this working space - aside from some other practical reasons, my new breaker panel is to the left of where the old fuse & breaker panels were because there was a laundry sink blocking access, and even for removing circuits, that lack of space made the job harder for my electrician than it would have been if the current code requirement had been met.

As I understand it, this means a breaker panel can't generally be inside a cabinet. It also has to meet certain height requirements (can't be so high that you need a ladder to reach the breakers).

Disconnects/shutoff, GFCI

Disconnects (required for certain hardwired equipment if the breaker is not in line of sight and within specified distance, for feeds into separate buildings such as a shed, etc.), GFCI (which can be together with a receptacle, together with a breaker or standalone) and similar equipment needs to be accessible without any tools (because you need to get to it quickly and easily when you really need it) and below a certain height (no ladder required to reach it). Practically speaking, this means that a GFCI-protected ceiling (or very high on the wall) receptacle has to have the GFCI protection someplace else in the circuit. But these types of things can be inside a cabinet (e.g., GFCI below the sink connecting to disposal and/or dishwasher). Definitely no tools.

Junction Boxes, Conduit Pull Boxes, etc.

Almost any place where wires are joined together (junction boxes, switch boxes, receptacle boxes, etc.) needs to have access to the wires with no damage to the building. This also applies, as I understand it, to conduit pull boxes because access is needed if a wire needs to be replaced. This does not mean "no tools" - after all, normally the covers of these boxes are screwed shut for safety! Plus fixtures (e.g., lights, ceiling fans) often need to be removed to access ceiling junction boxes. But the key is that normal access - e.g., replace a receptacle or switch, patch in a new cable to a junction box to power something else, etc. - does not require any damage to the building.

Part of this is planning for future use and for future users. For example, if a piece of plywood is screwed in place then it will be quite obvious to the original owner. The next owner may paint the whole house and now the screws are no longer visible. Then when access is required, it could easily become "cut into the wood" and a major repair.

There is one exception: There are certain types of splices permitted inside walls without a junction box. That can save a lot of time & trouble for certain repairs, with the presumption that these splices are super-reliable and won't need future access. But that is an unusual situation.

A lot of rules in code have to do with avoiding damage to wires inside walls, both because the damage will be hidden and the repairs will be a lot of work. With the exception of significant wire damage (rodents chewing through wires, nails or screws going through wires, flood damage), almost all electrical problems and work are in a junction box of some sort - so those boxes must be accessible.

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  • Thanks for all that. It matches my understanding but with a lot more detail :). The last point (junction boxes etc.) is where the code question comes up. I agree that something that's accessible by the code definition for the person who installs it may become inaccessible if someone else modifies things later. At the same time, while one can easily point out, as you have, that common sense and good practice suggest paying attention to that possibility, I think all the code requires is that the wiring methods (boxes, etc.) be accessible when they are installed.
    – trawson
    Sep 21 at 17:25
  • Correct. Which is why the "when they are installed" is normally understood to mean "not behind any screwed in panels" because inevitably the result down the road would be truly "not accessible". Sep 21 at 18:01
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All junction boxes and conduit bodies I've ever used do require tools to open because they are secured by screws. The question should be, how do you access the wiring?

Look in Article 100.

"Capable of being removed or exposed without damaging the building structure, other electrical equipment, other building systems, or finish of the building."

The answer is no, the code does not say "without tools".

However, regarding your other posted question, covering a junction box or conduit body with plywood would mean that you have to damage the "finish of the building" to then access the wiring, unless this plywood is somehow made into a door or access panel.

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  • Thanks. Re the plywood, it would be intended as an access panel with a small number of visible screws to remove it. It is certainly part of the building finish, but removing it would not damage the building finish because it would be designed for removal.
    – trawson
    Sep 21 at 12:29
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    It wouldn't damage the building finish until the next guy decides to paint "the ugly plywood with the exposed screw heads" a different color. He does a really good job, so you can't even see the screw heads any more (just like you can't see the screw heads in properly installed and finished drywall). Now what do you say? Sep 21 at 14:16
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    @trawson rationalize your heart out, but Code is crystal clear on this point, and you repeatedly re-asking and re-asking isn't going to change the answer. Plywood panel screwed down = Code violation. Done. Move on. Why are you stuck? Sep 21 at 19:37
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica the question is really the original one which is, does the code require junction boxes to be accessible without tools? People say it does but I have not seen any reference to a section that says that, and one answer to this question says the opposite. There’s a specific code reference to accessibility without tools in the definition of “readily accessible” but that does not apply to junction boxes. Re screwed down plywood panels, that came in from the other thread and it was not the clearest example -- though I don't see a "crystal clear" prohibition of it either.
    – trawson
    Sep 21 at 21:33
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    @trawson as others are saying, forget the plywood. Just hang a picture over the spot. Looks better, and is compliant. Sep 21 at 23:59
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314.29 Boxes, Conduit Bodies, and Handhole Enclosures to Be Accessible. Boxes, conduit bodies, and handhole enclosures shall be installed so that the wiring contained in them can be rendered accessible without removing any part of the building or structure.

100 Definitions. Accessible (as applied to wiring methods). Capable of being removed or exposed without damaging the building structure or finish, or not permanently closed in by the structure or finish of the building.

(box and conduit body covers are approved by UL as part of the UL Listing for that equipment, see NEC 110.2.)

The rationale for the rule is very simple. At some point, someone will need to service or inspect this wiring. The electrician cannot possibly be expected to remove every single screw-down panel in the entire building on the blind hope that a junction box or pull point might be behind it.

(only to find out the mystery box or conduit body is actually behind none of them, and is actually behind finished drywall).


Separately, you are relying on a false premise that the plywood panel can be removed non-destructively. That doesn't work out IME. The screws seize up (excessive torque to remove, camming out screw), or they expand from moisture, or they stick, or one thing or another.

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  • I mostly agree. It seems like these are great arguments for good practices, but they don't seem like things stated in the code. For example, I would certainly want access panels to be identifiable as such and not just look like part of a surface, but I don’t think it’s a code requirement, unless I missed it. And of course you don’t want them to later become inaccessible – but afaik the code doesn't say you can't use screws for access panels because they might break later, and there are commercial access panels that do use screws. Etc. I'm seeing the points but not a direct code basis for them.
    – trawson
    Sep 21 at 21:45
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    @trawson You missed it. You are suffering justification/rationalization, in which your brain is overinvested in a particular pre-chosen outcome, and will dream up a quarrel with any facts presented which might threaten that outcome. You'll just have to wait for whatever chemical thing is causing that to subside. Then it will make sense. There's a lot of this going around lately, for some reason. Sep 21 at 22:16
  • Well I do suffer from various things, not sure if that is one of them :). I regret that this discussion ended up trying to cover both the original question of “does the code require that junction boxes be accessible without tools?” and one from another thread about “is screwed-down plywood a code-compliant access panel?” That was partly my mistake in responding when the second issue was raised instead of sticking to the first. Anyway, as far as I can see the answer to the original question is clearly no, there's no such code requirement.
    – trawson
    Sep 22 at 3:21
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    The answer to the second question is less clear to me, but I didn't mean to be obstinate about it. From the discussion, especially about what might happen down the road, I can see that a screwed down panel as I planned is not a good idea, and I don’t expect to use one (I will probably screw down the larger plywood panel, then put an access door in it). Anyway, my interest there was not in rationalizing anything, more in the logic of code language, and what the code says in so many words vs. what is subject to interpretation. That's just how my brain works. Sorry that wasn’t clear.
    – trawson
    Sep 22 at 3:21
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    @trawson: I wonder why there isn't a standard procedure for providing indications of where access panels are located? An access panel that was disguised, but whose precise location and instructions for access was noted by a tag in the breaker box, would seem more easily usable than one behind an ordinary junction box cover that was located behind some shelves full of books.
    – supercat
    Sep 22 at 17:58
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Without tools means that it can be access easily.

Junction boxes must be accessible without tools as well as panels.

A door in front of it would be access without tools, just open the door. Same as a picture hanging or a piece of furniture that can be moved by hand.

Screwing a cabinet or covering with drywall(make it hidden) over the box is a no-no, needs tools to remove.

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  • Can you give a code reference for the "without tools" part? I can't see anything in the code that prohibits the use of -- for example -- screwed down panels with visible screws, for items like junction boxes that need to be accessible. They would not be allowed as far as I know for something like a disconnect that needs to be readily accessible.
    – trawson
    Sep 21 at 12:24
  • Don't know the code that well, but have read a few questions/answers on here that do mention about not hiding in walls or behind screwed in cabinets, but also mention you can have a junction box in the accessible attic for stuff, instead of being seen in the ceiling.
    – crip659
    Sep 21 at 12:29
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    @trawson A "screwed down panel" is too ambiguous. We're talking about the difference between a faceplate vs a sheet of plywood or drywall. So, is it the finish of the building? Or is it an access panel? You might want to look at the local building code regarding requirements for access panels. Sep 21 at 12:29
  • @RobertChapin yeah that is part of the issue. In this case the plywood piece is ~12" x 36" and will be screwed down but easily removable without damaging anything. If I instead design it as three pieces ~12" x 12" with the middle one as an "access panel" and the other two as just "building finish" is that different? I suppose ultimately it's up to the AHJ. I looked for access panel info in the building code but so far I can't find much that's relevant -- most of the provisions are about preserving insulation and fire rating integrity.
    – trawson
    Sep 21 at 12:39

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