Published In April 2001
Call me old-fashioned, but I have long held the opinion that, in a dwelling unit, an outlet box must be installed wherever a lighting fixture is to be installed. (There are many exceptions in other occupancies: fluorescent fixtures that are designed for end-to-end assembly or connected together by recognized wiring methods; outdoor architectural illumination fixtures; pole-mounted fixtures, etc.). The basic requirement is found in Sec. 300-15(a): “300-15. Boxes, Conduit Bodies, or Fittings—Where Required (a) Box or Conduit Body. Where the wiring method is conduit, electrical metallic tubing, Type AC cable, Type MC cable, Type MI cable, nonmetallic-sheathed cable, or other cables, a box or conduit body complying with Article 370 shall be installed at each conductor splice point, outlet, switch point, junction point, or pull point, unless otherwise permitted in (b) through (n). A box shall be installed at each outlet and switch point for concealed knob-and-tube wiring. Fittings and connectors shall be used only with the specific wiring methods for which they are designed and listed.” The only (b) through (n) item that pertains to this discussion is “(j) Fixtures. As permitted in Section 410-31 where a fixture is used as a raceway.” Other Sections which clearly indicate the need for a box at a lighting outlet are 300-14 Length of Free Conductors at Outlets, Junctions, and Switch Points and 370-27(a) Boxes at Lighting Fixture Outlets. In the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) guide card information (white book, 2000) on pg. 34 under Fluorescent Fixtures (IEUZ) appears: “Ceiling-mounted fixtures include cord, stem, chain, and cable suspended fixtures in addition to outlet box mounted fixtures.” This says that a ceiling-mounted fixture must be mounted on an outlet box, unless it is supported by one of the methods indicated. Many contractors are installing, and inspectors are accepting fluorescent fixtures at the bathroom mirror location in dwelling units, with a nonmetallic sheathed cable stubbed out at the rough stage. At the finish stage, a KO is cut in the back of the fixture and the NM cable enters the fixture through a cable connector. The fixture is supported by screws through the back plate into wooden structural members behind the gypsum board finish. Sec. 410-14 (a) has been interpreted to recognize this method: “410-14. Connection of Electric-Discharge Lighting Fixtures (a) Independent of the Outlet Box. Electric-discharge lighting fixtures supported independent of the outlet box shall be connected to the branch circuit through metal raceway, nonmetallic raceway, Type MC cable, Type AC cable, Type MI cable, nonmetallic sheathed cable, or by flexible cord as permitted in Section 410-30(b) or (c).” It is my belief that this Section was written for chain-suspended fixtures, not for wall-mounted fixtures with no outlet box, and this opinion has been confirmed by a UL spokesman. This method is much easier and faster than where the fixture is supported by an outlet box. See the requirement of Sec. 410-14(b): “410-14(b) Access to Boxes. Electric-discharge lighting fixtures surface mounted over concealed outlet, pull, or junction boxes shall be installed with suitable openings in back of the fixture to provide access to the boxes.” A recent development is the installation of incandescent fixtures using this same method. These are sometimes referred to as “bar” fixtures: a shallow pan approx. 1/2 inch x 4 inches in cross section and from 18 inches to 4 feet or more in length, with two, three, or more, incandescent lamp sockets in the face. This is definitely a Code violation, for the application of Sec. 410-14 is clearly limited to fluorescent fixtures, even when improperly interpreted. The inspector may have passed the cable stub-out on the rough on the assumption that a fluorescent fixture was to go there, but on the final is faced with an incandescent fixture, and can not tell if there is a box behind it or not without taking the fixture apart. Many local inspectors are accepting these incandescent fixtures without a box. Each new edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) is full of improvements in safety, but unfortunately also contains some items that undermine traditional methods. This no-box method of supplying fixtures is apparently in wide use, but it does not conform to the Code. If it is a desirable method, then the Code must be changed, and any changes necessary in the product standards will follow. It is not too soon to consider changes in the 2005 NEC to legitimize this installation practice. These waters will be further muddied by the proposal, No. 18 to19, on page 704 of the 2001 ROP, accepted in part by Panel 18, which would remove the words “electric discharge” from the title of Sec. 410-14, and from 410-14(a). By the time this appears in print you will probably know whether this change got through the comment period. Since Sec. 410-14(a) applies to chain-hung fluorescent fixtures, this change will not serve to correct the situation, only to complicate it. SCHWAN is an electrical code consultant in Hayward, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.