Unlike traditional doors, access doors aren't designed for everyday use, and they don't give people access to rooms or buildings. In fact, access doors have more in common with wall panels than regular doors, which is why some contractors and construction workers use the term "access panels" instead.
What is an Access Door?
Technically, an access door is a panel that allows you to access fixtures, ducts, valves, switchboards, pipes, wires, safes, and anything else that's installed or located behind a wall, ceiling, or floor.
Because you don't need to access these spaces on a daily basis, access doors don't usually have protruding handles, knobs or frames (though some are compatible with optional knurled knobs). Instead, they have a recessed keyhole or space for a locking mechanism that will activate its latch release. This keeps your access doors flush with the rest of the surfaces in which they're installed, allowing for seamless interior décor and uninterrupted foot traffic.
Access doors often protect sensitive items, such as valuable belongings that need extra security or electrical equipment that is hot to the touch. Because of this, they're available with multiple materials, finishes, latches, springs, and insulation levels. It's important to make sure that each access door you install provides sufficient protection and accommodates the specific safety and privacy risks of the items or spaces that it conceals.
Choosing the Right Access Door
Whether you're constructing a mobile home or a sprawling warehouse, an important part of the structure’s safety is the quality and specific features of its access doors. Make sure you install the appropriate access doors for your construction project by paying close attention to the following three features.
If your access door will be installed outdoors, in a highly visible place, or near a heating element with a fire risk, it's especially important to choose a material that will withstand extreme conditions without turning into an eyesore or safety hazard. Access doors are available in several different materials, each one appropriate for a specific set of applications.
- Stainless steel access doors provide maximum security for safes and expensive equipment, and they're also attractive and durable enough for areas with high visibility. If your access door will be installed outdoors, stainless steel withstands extreme temperatures and won't corrode if it's exposed to salt spray (e.g. sea breezes or residue from salted, snowy roads). Because it's not a thermal or electrical conductor, it's also the safest option for access doors near HVAC systems, generators, electrical wiring, and anything else with high temperatures or electrical currents.
- Galvanized steel is also scratch-resistant, weather-resistant, and anti-corrosive. However, these properties don't last forever. Unlike stainless steel, which contains durable chromium and nickel throughout, galvanized steel is dipped in zinc to create a thin, protective coating. This coating wears off over time, but you can prevent this by opting for a stainless steel finish.
- Aluminum access doors, meanwhile, are typically the least expensive, most lightweight, and easiest to install. Some include inlaid drywall that resists moisture, which prevents mold or mildew buildup in indoor spaces with plumbing fixtures or in outdoor spaces exposed to precipitation. If steel isn't necessary, aluminum doors are ideal because they require less time, money, and labor to install and maintain.
Of course, your access door must be large enough to allow access to every part, surface, and space that need to be maintained.
For fuse boxes, safes, motors, and other small installations, hand access doors are sufficient. These range in size from 6"x6" to 12"x12", and rectangular options include 12"x24" and 12"x18".
Person access doors range from 18"x18" to 36"x36", but often require hinges that are only partially concealed.
Access doors may be integrated into your stucco or drywall construction, or sit flush with ceiling tiles or floorboards. They always function as access points, but because they expose and protect a variety of different spaces, each specific door must have features that won't get in the way or create additional risks or expenses.
Some access doors have ventilating slats that allow air to circulate, regulating your indoor temperatures and preventing dangerous heat or humidity buildup. Others seal and insulate, preventing outdoor drafts from entering indoor spaces. Your access door's functionality also depends on its hinges, spring, latch, and locking mechanism.
Common Access Door Options
There are many different types of access doors for many different purposes, but the following three types are the most common:
Fire-rated access doors prevent extreme heat from passing through them, and some withstand flames and smoke for a specific amount of time.
- Drywall access doors are installed in drywall to allow access to any wires, insulation, pipes, or ducts that are located within the wall itself.
Security access doors range from medium-grade security to heavy duty, maximum security installations. In hospitals and prisons, these provide an extra layer of protection for vital equipment. In homes and office buildings, they often lead to safes.
How to Install an Access Door
In order to enjoy all the protection and convenience that your access door was designed to provide, your installation process must be precise and thorough. Learn how and where to install the following types of doors, and make sure you have all the necessary tools and safety equipment before you get started.
Some access doors require a more extensive measurement process, others require specific fire modifications to satisfy buildings codes, and most have frames and latches that require preparation beforehand.
Fire-Rated and Security Access Doors
Each specific door's fire safety rating will tell you the maximum temperature it will withstand, how many minutes or hours it will last during a fire, whether it will block smoke or fumes, and how it should be installed in order to maximize its protection.
In order to keep your structure as safe as possible, it's important to pay close attention to this rating and to thoroughly inspect every material you use. These doors often depend on fireproof glazes and mineral wool insulation to resist flames and heat, so make sure these are installed correctly too.
Tools and Materials
- Fire safety rating information
- Building code requirements
- Appropriate insulation
- Safety goggles
- Tape measurer
- Door, frame, and instructions
- Make sure you understand the fire safety requirements of the door and its surface. Some may only be installed in walls, and others require certain types of insulation.
- If you're installing a safe along with the door, make sure it's secured in place before beginning. If you need to access a fuse box, measure the distance from the floor and wall to each side of it, so that you know where it is behind the wall.
- Hold up the door frame to the wall, and mark the perimeter with pencil.
- Saw it open in increments, checking after each cut to make sure it isn't too big.
- Follow all fire safety standards to install the frame properly (with screws or fire-safe adhesive). Each door has its own specific installation needs.
- Install steel anchors to hold the frame in place, and add wool insulation if required.
- Fit the door inside the frame.
- Add any protective glaze necessary.
Tips and Challenges
- Because security access doors protect confidential, valuable, or dangerous items, they must comply with two sets of standards: the fire safety requirements, and your own security requirements.
- Install high-security, fire-rated doors with tamper-proof, non-combustible screws and anchor them inside the wall with heavy steel.
- Optional features include key code locks and locks that require more than one key, but these should already be in place within the door panel itself. Make sure they comply with the wall's fire rating too.
Drywall Access Doors
Aluminum or galvanized steel are often sufficient for drywall access panels, and their welded frames are installed directly into the wall, often with the option of inlaid drywall. It's much easier to complete this process during the initial construction, because you'll already know where the vital equipment is located.
Tools and Materials
- Drywall saw
- Measuring tape
- Construction adhesive
- Paint, primer or protective glaze (if necessary)
- After you install your plumbing pipes and electrical wiring, measure the distance from the floor to the fuse box, valve, or pipes that you'll need to access. Then measure the distance to the edges of the wall and the ceiling. Write these down.
- Finish installing your drywall.
- Cut a small opening directly in front of the pipe or wire. Make sure you have the location right.
- Hold the door frame up to the opening, and use a pencil to fill in each of its pre-punched holes or to outline the perimeter.
- Use a saw to remove the drywall between the holes, then slowly expand the size while comparing it to the frame.
- Apply construction adhesive to the back of the frame, or use screws to secure it in place.
- Follow the manufacturer's instructions for installing the door panel itself.
Tips and Challenges
- Don't forget to seal the perimeter of the frame in order to prevent energy loss and moisture buildup. Weather stripping, insulation, and even foam boards can be wedged between the two, and if the wall or door slightly expand or contract over time, these seals should be inspected again and replaced if necessary.
- Start with a hole that's slightly smaller than the frame.
Ceiling Access Doors
Unlike attic doors that resemble hatches or traditional doors, ceiling access doors are actually panels that fit into recessed frames or tiles within the ceiling itself. Your installation process will depend on the function of your ceiling access door.
If it grants access to ductwork in the ceiling, you'll need to pay special attention to its moisture-resistant materials and make sure its vents are clean and open. If it leads to a roofing system or deck, you'll need to prepare the opening beforehand and closely inspect the seal and insulation afterwards.
Tools and Materials
- Tape measurer
- Local building codes
- Joist hangers
- Safety goggles
- Access door and all materials that came with it
- Refer to local building codes, which should dictate the exact location and material requirements for ceiling access doors. They may also tell you how large the opening must be.
- Pick a location that meets code requirements and allows convenient access to ceiling fixtures. It should be close to your air conditioning unit, speaker system wires, fire safety sprinklers, and any other ceiling installation that will require occasional maintenance. However, the opening must never interrupt or compromise the wires or support system that keeps these installations functional.
- Make sure the location is easily accessible from the floor. If you have more than one location option, choose one that isn't directly above a space with high foot traffic.
- Locate the joists in your ceiling, and measure the distance between them and the edges of the hole you plan to cut for the panel.
- Put on your safety goggles.
- Use your pencil and a flat surface to mark the perimeter of the panel opening. Match the dimensions of the frame, rather than the door itself.
- If you cannot simply remove a panel, saw through the ceiling plaster along the lines you've drawn.
- Place the frame into position and drill the screws into place through each available hole.
- If your door requires a metal lath, rather than a visible frame, there should still be a recessed space in the plaster. After securing the lath in place, add the rest of the plaster to conceal it and keep it in place.
- Install the door itself by screwing the hinges in place, then double-check the latching mechanism and range of motion.
Tips and Challenges
If your ceiling is already fire-rated, you'll need to make sure the screws and insulation you use don't violate the standards necessary to maintain its original rating. Because you're cutting a hole into a surface that was designed to remain intact, make sure there are no gaps between the frame and ceiling, and use screws that are non-combustible.
Access Doors for Safety and Protection
When you choose the right access door for your needs and install it properly, it will be an asset of safety and protection for your building for many years to come. If you have any questions about how to install an access door, the experts at Williams Brothers are happy to help.