Safe storage of clothing in under-stair cupboard with fuse box
February 27, 2013 5:48 AM   Subscribe

I learned today that it's dangerous to store combustibles such as clothing near the fuse box or electrical intake. I keep my off-season wardrobe under the stairs, and the electrical intake/fuse box is also under the stairs. How far away do I need to keep this stuff? What is a safe distance? Is it feasible to use compact-o-stuff vacuum bags to reduce the crowding in the understair cupboard?

I have been storing my out-of-season wardrobe under the stairs. We also have our electrical intake, meter, fuse box, etc. under the stairs. The boxes of clothes come up very close to the fuse box.

I learned today that storing clothes this near the electrical intake is a fire hazard. I need to store them further away, but how far is far enough? An inch? Six inches? A foot away?

Even if it's safe to store them fairly close, the electrical equipment takes up quite a lot of the space along one wall of the understair cupboard, so I'm still looking at getting rid of half my stuff. There is no other suitable storage space anywhere in the house.

I see that most MeFites have had bad experiences with vacuum compact-o-stuff bags. Is it really unfeasible to compact the space the clothing takes up by sealing them into those bags?
posted by tel3path to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
I learned today that it's dangerous to store combustibles such as clothing near the fuse box or electrical intake.

I think you've got some bad information. In most houses the electrical box is directly fastened to combustible materials (wood).
posted by jon1270 at 5:52 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it worries you, go to any big box store and get a few of those big rubbermaid containers. Combined with the vacuum packing you could put a lot of clothes in one bin.
posted by sanka at 5:56 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I got it from Which? magazine and when I checked online, a variety of sources confirmed it. The directive was very clear: nothing flammable on, around or near your fuse boxy stuff. Especially not under the stairs, because a fire under the stairs removes your main escape route.

What none of them said was what they meant by "not near".
posted by tel3path at 5:57 AM on February 27, 2013

Best answer: As long as you don't have anything in contact with the fuse box etc., and there is plenty of clear space to get at that electrical equipment in an emergency, then you should be okay. I'd say:
* Nothing higher than the equipment (in case the stuff topples over, so it won't topple onto the fuse box etc.).
* Nothing in contact with any of the equipment, or blocking access --- and by that I mean, if anything has to be moved to get to/into the equipment, it's too close. Also, if anything needs venting or gets hot (or even warm), move the stored items away from there.
* Nothing flamable; no chemicals, aerosol or paint cans are ever to be stored in the closet.
posted by easily confused at 6:05 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I find that the Space Bags slowly allow air back in, so after a while, they kind of re-animate. Also, if you cram enough stuff in them, they become incredibly heavy!

I agree, some large plastic containers might be the way to go. You can compress your stuff with Space Bags, then put it in the tub.

That should help cut down on the volume of stuff under the stairs at least.

A tip. Put a nice dryer sheet in with each bag to keep things nice and fresh smelling.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:06 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The main point is that there should always be clear access to the power box. Never store anything in front of it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:00 AM on February 27, 2013

It's not unfeasible to vacuum-pack clothing -- my mom did it. But when you take everything out, it generally has some pretty tough wrinkles to get out. If you have space under your bed, storing things in plastic containers made for that space generally works pretty well; you can still vacuum-pack if you like, but if you don't, you won't get those die-hard wrinkles and creases.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:08 AM on February 27, 2013

When they say flammable in this context, they mean stuff like gasoline and turpentine.

And yes, the best advice is to always keep the area in front of the panel clear so that it is easily accessible in an emergency.
posted by gjc at 2:08 AM on February 28, 2013

Response by poster: According to the article I read, "flammable" explicitly means clothing, paper goods, coats, etc. not just gasoline and turpentine.

The reason for keeping it a distance away is supposedly that a spark could ignite fabrics if a fuse blows etc. Not simply to allow access in an emergency. Supposedly a number of fires get started this way each year. This is "Which?" magazine, not Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster! Scaremongers Weekly!

The reason why this puzzles me is that, in order to keep flammable stuff out of reach of a spark, I would theoretically have to stop storing stuff in the understair cupboard altogether. I'd have to put it in another room.
posted by tel3path at 2:16 AM on February 28, 2013

Best answer: Supposedly a number of fires get started this way each year.

Did the article say how many? Breaker boxes don't throw sparks in any normal circumstance even inside the box, let alone ones that could escape the box and travel some distance to kindle nearby materials. Volatile liquids like gas, turpentine, paint thinner, solvent alcohol, etc. are a different story since containers can leak and gasses could accumulate to dangerous levels in an enclosed space, but for the sorts of materials you're concerned about to be ignited at a distance, a lot of other things have to go wrong first. Maybe that's the sort of situation they're addressing? Certainly there are houses that haven't been inspected or updated in decades, where incompetent homeowners have DIY'ed themselves into dangerous situations. I've seen a number of posts on forums that primarily serve professional tradesmen, showing pictures of crazy arrangements discovered in customer's basements, all sorts of code violations and obvious hazards, disasters waiting to happen. In cases like that, sure, you don't want anything nearby that could burn. Many readers of the magazine (with which I'm not familiar) might have no idea whether their houses are wired properly, so erring on the side of caution might be prudent. But that doesn't make this something that most people need to obsess over.
posted by jon1270 at 3:53 AM on February 28, 2013

Response by poster: All flammable liquids things removed. No clothing boxes touching the intake, which is being replaced soon anyway to keep it up to code.

Thanks, MeFi. I was wondering why I hadn't heard of this one before.
posted by tel3path at 1:40 PM on February 28, 2013

Response by poster: Well, it seems like Which? magazine wasn't completely exaggerating. The electrician himself told me that, ideally, we wouldn't be storing anything in the same cupboard with the fuse box. And he meant it.

But anyway, we now have less clutter in there and a clear path to the fuse box. Which he acknowledged was, you know, okay, considering this is the real world.
posted by tel3path at 1:41 PM on March 20, 2013

1 meter of clear space in front of the panel is the legal requirement in Canada. There are several reasons for this. Breakers and to a lesser extent fuses can throw significant sparks when they trip/blow. You don't want melted bits of metal to land on anything that may be flammable. More importantly though if you need to access a breaker quickly (say an electrical load is arcing or causing a fire) you don't want to have to clear a bunch of stuff away before you can access the panel.

Most people don't maintain that space of course because electrical equipment by and large is very reliable so your average person rarely needs access. Keeping in mind modern realities of small spaces I'd much rather see say a bike parked in front of an electrical panel than a stack of cardboard boxes filled with books.
posted by Mitheral at 8:36 AM on September 10, 2013

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