The Ugly Electrical Panel-Why Can’t It Be Covered?

Hi Everyone,

Greetings on this balmy fall evening. I was out for a while as I made an appointment for two vaccines:
Covid and RSV. I had Flu and Pneumonia six weeks ago. So, I should be all set for a while. Yes, I’m a masochist. No, I just don’t want to get sick.

I went to the CVS near my real home and, of course, stopped by my place on the way back to the Beacon Hill sweat box.*


When I arrived at the job site, I was pleasantly surprised to see the fridge and range installed.

And, not only that, the soffit over the glass cabinets and range wall is in. The crown moulding won’t be for a while, most likely.


If you want to see the latest pics, please check out the Reno News and Deets Page here.


This is my online renovation diary. The newest entries are at the top.

*It’s a sweat-box because the heat is on, and I can’t turn it off. Right now, I have the console unit covered with two towels and a blanket! And, I have my feet on an ice pack!


Okay, the electrical panel.


The other day, after I mentioned wallpapering over the electrical panel, Rachel left a terrific comment. Here it is:

Electrical Panels: The code where I live says, thou shalt not cover the electric panel door so that it is not immediately recognizable and easy to reach and open. Or something to that effect.


The idea is that a fireman should be able to find the panel door to switch everything off quickly.


[Yes, indeed!]

So I dismissed the idea of putting it inside a cabinet and thought about putting a picture over ours, then disguising it with wallpaper, but then I thought about what if?


Is seeing it more important than fire safety? Uhhh, no. So, our panel door is painted the same color as the wall; it blends but is definitely recognizable as the electric panel if you were looking for it. I’ve considered painting it a contrasting color and inscribing it in cursive.“Electric.” Probably never do that.


Okay, I realize there’s some confusion, and I’ll explain my theory in a sec.


However, it is possible and legal to make your ughhhhly electrical panel a thing of beauty.

Butttttttt, there are some caveats that we have to follow. So, let’s break it down. The electrical panel must be easily:






That makes sense.

However, nowhere in the International Building Code (IRC), which most municipalities use as a model for local codes, says that one cannot paint or wallpaper over the steel door. No place in the code says that another flat panel or painting that can be quickly opened or removed cannot be there, either.


Here’s why they’re not going to say it’s okay to paint, paper, or hang a painting over your electrical panel.


The reason they won’t say that is this: the breaker box needs to be easy to access, and some idiot is going to paint or wallpaper over the door, sealing it shut. Or, they’ll get wallpaper behind the door because they’ll think it’s okay to wrap it around the door. Plus, the panel might not be easy to find. And that is a problem we’re going to address in a sec.

So, here’s the deal.

You can paint and wallpaper over the steel panel door, but there cannot be even one microscopic bit of paint, paste, or wallpaper inside the electrical panel door. Plus, the door MUST be accessible at all times with nothing in front of it for 36″ and nothing to either side for 30″.*  This is to give easy access to switch the power off quickly and safely.

* Mark H. pointed out in the comments that I must’ve meant 15″ on either side of the center point. He’s right!


The electrical panel cannot go into a closet– ever.


Now, what about the fireman being able to find the electrical panel, AKA breaker box or fuse box, if it’s so well disguised?

Ah, there’s the rub, and worthy of discussion. That’s because in the event of a catastrophic fire, which became so because the fireman couldn’t find the bloody electrical panel because it was hidden, good luck with your insurance company covering your losses.


Therefore, let’s consider several scenarios.


There’s a fire, and the place is filled with thick smoke. The fireman runs in, hooked up to his oxygen tank, but he can’t see anything and realizes any further delay in getting out of harm’s way could endanger his own life. He couldn’t find the electrical panel because it wasn’t visible– period.

In the case of my building, there are five units plus a panel for the building, making six electrical panels. I believe all the electrical panels can be shut down from the mother building panel. After all, think about a huge apartment building. Imagine the firemen going through 200 apartments to turn each panel off individually.


My electrician did need to access the building’s electrical panel, so that is almost definitely the case.


In addition, if, for some reason, they needed to shut mine down individually, that scenario is as follows: Presuming I’m there, which I am 99.9% of the time, I’ll simply tell the firemen where it is. Go downstairs, then at the bottom, take a hairpin, turn right, and walk four feet. The panel will be on your left.

But, let’s say I’m not home. Let’s say I’m away for a week. I will probably engage the deadbolts, and I am the only one with the key. Getting in, while not impossible, will take some doing.


So, here’s the skinny.


The electrical panel’s steel door can be covered with paint or wallpaper. To reiterate, no paint can go behind the front of the door. And, no wallpaper or anything combustible inside the electrical panel door.

It can also be covered by a painting or something flat on hinges that opens up so that the steel door can open freely and quickly. The steel door can never be replaced with this other door. (or doors, if doing two doors) This flat piece with hinges goes over the electrical panel door and must still be flat against the wall.

Again, the word is accessibility.


Bottom line.


To be safe, if you do decide to do a heavy disguise of your electrical panel, I would recommend putting up some sort of signage that makes it crystal clear where the electrical panel is located. That way, you’ve covered your arse in case of a dire situation.  Rachel is correct. It’s not worth it to create a potentially devastating situation for yourself. However, I think it’s possible to create a beautiful or fun wall and still have it be 100% safe.

And no, you don’t have to use one of those horrid signs uglier than the ugly gray box. You could make or paint your own sign.

Electic panel inside




Maybe you could have a funky neon sign made.



Or, make one yourself as a graphic, like I did on Picmonkey.


Sometimes, the panel is in the kitchen. Some folks use a chalkboard on hinges. If that’s the case, maybe keep a permanent note at the top of the board:


The E Panel is behind here.


Below is a mini widget with some interesting ideas for safe and attractive covers for your electrical panel box. The plain one could be anything, including a piece of art. The Chinoiserie panels are another idea for a panel that opens to expose the ugly electrical panel without making it inaccessible.



Okay, then, for Monday, I will show you what I have in mind for my downstairs entry and hall.

This will be a two-part post that will also talk about ideas for hall lighting. Plus, my ideas for hiding the electrical panel and paint colors, too!

Today, when I left, while there’s still much left to do, I can see my vision coming to life!



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20 Responses

  1. I live in El Paso, Texas in a historic home. We have 2 electrical panels, one is in a closet and the other behind a cabinet in ur conservatory, out of view. Maybe I should make them? It is nice to have them out of view. Our home was built in 1950.

  2. Laurel, you can’t just put a calligraphy “Electric” on your panel door… all word art MUST come in threes, such as Eat Pray Love, Faith Fun Family, etc. Your box will have to say something like Electric Eclectic Exciting. 😉

  3. Love all your posts and love seeing the updates on your kitchen. It is gorgeous and I know you can’t wait to get back at home and cook in it.

  4. Love the kitchen!!! What a darling fridge!

    I will say, when I had to call the fire dept 3 weeks ago, I was glad I hadn’t covered my panel. I had smoke in 2 rooms, and the panel & gas lines in between. I grabbed my laptop, my two small sons, and got as far away as we could outdoors. Smallest son finally admitted, after the fire personnel left, that he had lit a match in one room, and threw it away in another. Doused the trash can with the match, and then he and dad made a trip to the fire department to apologize. But now I’m re-thinking my plan to paint/cover the panel.

    I do know lots of homes have them on the exterior. We need to do a reno, so I wonder if it’s possible to move it to back exterior wall? 🤔

    1. Hi Gabrielle,

      Thank God everyone was okay and it looks like it was under control quickly. I had a client my first year in business whose four-year-old was showing her two-year-old the dangers of matches. He lit one and also set the house on fire. There were four children including an infant, and she threw them all outside. No one got hurt, but the house was.

      This was in northern Westchester County, a stone’s throw from Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren. The fire department arrived, however, the available water took a while to get to the house and in the meantime, it was destroyed.

  5. Soooo interesting! Here in TX they seem to be everywhere! I’ve got one in the garage and one outside on the exterior wall – not even close to the garage. Good luck to fireman trying to turn them off if I’m not home.

  6. I put a picture over the door to the electrical box, in a frame larger than the electrical box door and using using Velcro, since there is also a modern barn door that slides over the box when the door needs to be accessed. The inspector in NYC was fine with it, though admittedly, the picture was added later. Velcro was used to keep the picture flat and close to the wall, to allow the door to move past it. The picture molding formed a recess behind the picture, which allows for the slight projection of the electrical box door.

  7. “The electrical panel cannot go into a closet– ever.”
    This is a generalization. An electrical panel cannot go in a CLOTHING closet because of the potentially flamable materials in there, like clothing, shoe polish, etc. Electrical panels are routinely installed in janitors closets.

    “Plus, the door MUST be accessible at all times with nothing in front of it for 36″ and nothing to either side for 30″.
    #6” in front is correct. But the phrasing for the “nothing to either side for 30″ could be misleading. IIt is a TOTAL of 30″ width from the center of the panel, not 30” to EACH side.

    Thanks for the continual renovation stories. It keeps my spirits up for my own in-progress home remodel.


    1. Hi Mark,

      This is for residential design. I don’t know anyone with a janitor’s closet in their home. However, in Massachusetts, the electrical panel cannot go in any closets. I’ve been told this repeatedly by every contractor for the last two years, I’ve been working with. It’s one of those hard and fast rules like the minimum width of a stairwell at 36″ no matter what.

      However, yes, you are definitely right about the 30″. I did mean from the center point. (I’ll go change that.) In other words, it’s no good to park a low cabinet underneath the EP.

  8. I had my cabinet maker build a cabinet door that was placed over the electrical panel. Now it just looks like a cupboard, and when you open it, it’s the electrical panel. I wish I knew how to send you a picture.

    1. Hi Rita,

      If you’re a subscriber, you can always send an email to me that way from any email you’ve received from me. They get sent from Convertkit, however, responses go to my email.

  9. Ah the beauty of basements–we have three panels, all in the ugly part of the basement. The main one that was here when the house was built, almost 100 years ago, originally with 40 AMP service. We couldn’t use the coffee pot and the hair dryer at the same time without blowing a circuit! Then during many renovations, had to add extra panels. Now we have 400 AMPs :/

  10. I just looked at the updated kitchen pictures. Know that when you bought that place and walked in, your unit heaved a big sigh of relief and thought “Thank G-d, you’re here!”

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Awwww… That’s such a sweet thing to say. I have thought many times about the original owners of this home 143 years ago. I’m quite sure they’d be horrified to see what had been done to their lovely place. And, scratching their heads trying to figure out why a “lady” was sleeping in the kitchen! haha!!! Yes, you’ve probably already read that my bedroom was the home’s original kitchen.

      Of course, all of the wood trim was stained in 1880. However, that was because it was fashionable at that time. Most trim in Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival homes was painted. It’s all painted in the Otis House built in the late 18th c.

  11. Laurel,
    So enjoy seeing all the progress! Perhaps I missed an earlier discussion, but would love to hear how you selected a radiant range rather than an induction one. I’m going to need to purchase a new cooktop at some point and was thinking of going with induction. But I’m sure you’ve considered the options fully and would love to understand your thinking.

    1. Hi Shawn,

      Please see my response to Vanessa. I have nothing against induction except it requires magnetic cookware. That’s not a big deal, however. Many readers have chimed in how much they love theirs. I don’t recall anyone regretting that choice.

      This is by far, the most high-end cooking appliance I’ve ever owned. Yep, it’s been GE, Whirlpool, Kenmore and the like, all the way. I didn’t purchase them, except for the last range in New York right before I sold my place. They were what came with the place. When our townhouse range went kaput after 20 years, our neighbor gave us their old range.

  12. It is always such a surprise to me how often your topics touch on or even cover something I’m thinking about.

    I too, have a small electric box in my hundred year old condo kitchen and I was going to put a painting over it. Now, perhaps, I will not. Thanks for the info!

  13. Electric Panel: Great info. When remodeling this old house years ago, we put exit doors and double staggered drywall in every bedroom, (but not the ceilings, duh, didn’t think of that), but there is pex up there, maybe a fire would melt it and the water would put out the fire. We specified a switch that turns on the ceiling lights next to the beds in every bedroom, and there are battery lanterns an arms length away. Now, there are many better things you can do when building to accent fire safety. Back to the panel…your post really helped, now I’m thinking a glow in the dark electric zigzag symbol on the panel door…in chartreuse of course.

  14. I live in a $2 million dollar house and I have an electric panel in the garage. Why isn’t yours in the hallway outside your apartment downstairs or in your laundry closet?

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      Okay, the panel can’t go inside a closet and has to be in a conspicuous spot. As for outside the apartment, I’m sure it’s a matter of wiring and also might not be allowed. As it was, I was lucky the guys could move it to its new location perpendicular to where it was.

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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