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What is best location for attic access hatch?
Thursday, November 11, 2021
Let’s start with the code requirements. A minimum of one attic access opening must be located in a “hallway or other readily accessible location” according to the International Residential Code (IRC R807). Also, the “minimum unobstructed headroom in the attic space shall be 30” at some point above the access” and the minimum rough framed access opening "shall not be less than 22” by 30”. When the access is a door, the opening must be at least 30” high by 22” wide.
However, it is possible to install an attic access that is code-compliant, but frustrating and miserable to use. Here’s other important considerations for placing the access opening:
• Clear space needed for ladder below opening. Putting the attic hatch in the corner of a closet was once an unobtrusive and popular choice for homebuilders, but it means having to remove stuff from the closet, and sometimes even shelving, to use it. There should be clear space below the hatch to fully open a step ladder, or extend down a folding attic ladder, and still have room at the base of the ladder to land safely on the floor when coming down.
• Preferable at a lower ceiling. One of the more difficult locations for an access opening is under a 10-foot or 12-foot ceiling, which requires a taller ladder—that most homeowners don’t have. If the high access opening is in the center of a master bedroom closet, it’s even worse, due to the limited space below it to maneuver a big ladder into place. Bits of attic debris always rain down on the hanging clothes below when the hatch is opened. And if there is no barrier around the opening to keep blown insulation back, opening the hatch can make a huge mess. See our article Does the code require a barrier/well around the attic access hatch for blown insulation? for more on this.
• A location that is not air-conditioned may be better choice. When the access is in a conditioned space, the opening must be sealed and insulated to prevent energy loss. This is why so many are located in the garage. Unfortunately, most pull-down attic ladders are not rated for installation in an attached garage because the face panel does not meet the code requirement for minimum 1/2” drywall or equivalent necessary for fire separation. If access is located in a carport or gable end, it should also be lockable. More on this at Why are most pull-down attic ladders not approved by building code for installation in a garage?
• Should be near any appliances in attic if there is a furnace, air conditioner, or water heater up there. Also, the opening must be big enough for eventual removal and replacement of the appliance. To get code specs for required access catwalk and service platform, go to What are the code requirements for an attic catwalk/walkway?
• Located close to under peak of roof. This gives you the most headroom for safely getting into and out of the attic, and makes it easier to scan most of the attic from one location. A hallway access opening is most likely to get you there.
• Attic ladder top landing should face tallest area. The attic ladder shown below lands near the edge of the roof, requiring backward gymnastics to get in and out. Should face the other way.
• Two access openings may be necessary if there is an impassable obstruction at the middle of the attic. Typically, this happens when there is a cathedral ceiling between the two sides of the house.
For more about attic pull-down ladders, see our article What are the warning signs of a dangerous attic pull-down ladder? And, by the way, attic access is only required by code when the attic area is 30 square feet or more, and has a vertical height of 30” or more.
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