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Pancake Box | What Is It Used For?

There are so many different types of electrical boxes out there, so it’s easy to get confused and get your wires crossed. Although quite small, these boxes are crucial to any home, and you cannot install any lighting fixture or switch without one.

We take a closer look into pancake boxes (also known as pan boxes) and how they benefit ceiling- or wall-mounted fixtures.

Pancake boxes are electrical boxes that can be used with wall- and ceiling-mounted light fittings. Their shallow design makes them more affordable and means that they take up less space. Pancake boxes can be used for ceiling fans, but only if they are correctly rated.

What Is a Pancake Box?

A pancake box is a type of junction box that can be used when installing ceiling- and wall-mounted light fixtures as well as ceiling fans.

The reason why it is called a pancake box is because it is round and shallow—1/2 or 2/3″ deep with a diameter of 3″ or 4″.

These junction boxes can be made out of PVC or fiberglass material. They can also be made from metals, such as steel or aluminum, which are quite durable.

The weight that the pancake box can support will be evident on the box itself through markings that are found within the housing.

Typically, pancake boxes support no more than 50 lbs. However, there are some that are designed to bear more weight, expanding the use of these boxes.

Illustration of a Pancake Electrical Box

Purpose of a Pancake Box

Pancake boxes house electrical wiring, protecting it from being compressed or otherwise damaged, as well as keeping the wires neat and easily accessible.

Fittings, like lights and ceiling fans, need these junction boxes as a connection point between the mounting bracket and joist. In the case of heavier fittings, the boxes can be secured to the joists and studs to provide a more secure support structure.

In addition to protecting the wires, pancake boxes can protect you. They have a grounding screw allowing the system to be grounded, preventing the system from short-circuiting and posing a high shock risk to anyone who comes into contact with the appliance.

Pancake boxes can be used for both new and old work. If it is new work (new construction with an open frame and no drywall installed yet), you can screw your pancake box directly onto your frame through the holes provided.

Should it be old work (have an existing wall and are replacing an existing box and going back into the hole), the box has a bracket that secures it to the stud wall.

Ceiling- and Wall-Mounted Light Fixtures

The most common type of electrical box that is best suited for ceiling- and wall-mounted light fixtures is the pancake box type as these types of fixtures are light enough to be supported by such. However, there are still some drawbacks.

Let’s look at why they are commonly used and what the downsides of this use may be.

Benefits of Pancake Boxes

Due to the shallowness of pancake boxes, they are the ultimate contender when having to be fitted in tight spaces.

While you may think that there is plenty of room in your ceilings, and even enough space in the smaller wall cavities, you have to remember that the junction box will be contending with wiring, plumbing pipes, exhaust and HVAC ducts, insulation, etc.

The fact that pancake boxes are thin makes them ideal in these crowded locations, and, although they are small, they can still support the weights of most ceiling and wall-mounted fixtures.

The size also tends to make them more affordable than common electrical boxes as less material is used to make them. Standard electrical boxes can be about $3- $4 more than standard pan boxes.

Drawbacks of Pancake Boxes

Pancake boxes have got a considerably smaller volume than other electrical boxes. Their shallow depth doesn’t allow for too much room for your wiring.

This factor also limits the light fixture’s mounting device as it might take up quite a bit of space in the box, not leaving enough room for your wiring.

Other electrical boxes, such as octagon and round electrical boxes, are much deeper (up to 3″ deep), allowing more room for multiple wire connections to be made.

Octagon Electrical Box Illustration

Not many pancake boxes are strong enough to hold heavier light fixtures.

Ceiling Fans

Ceiling fans are less likely to be installed with pancake boxes. The reasons for this can be found in the drawbacks of such practices. However, pancake boxes do have some benefits for ceiling fan installation.

Benefits of Pancake Boxes

An off-center ceiling fan is extremely annoying—at least, it is to me. Asymmetry really bugs me and I know I’m not alone.

So, if your ideal ceiling fan placement is directly below a ceiling joist and the distance between the ceiling board and the joist is small, then a pancake box is going to be your hero.

The shallow design will allow it to sit flush with the ceiling (as it should) but still connect to the joist (as it should).

The smaller size of a pancake box means that less material is required in their production, which means that they are sold at lower prices than normal junction boxes.

Apart from this, there may not be many more benefits to using a pancake box for ceiling fans.

Drawbacks of Pancake Boxes

Ceiling fans are, for the most part, heavier fixtures than lights. In fact, most have light fixtures in addition to the fan assembly and blades.

In addition, the rotation of ceiling fan blades adds extra forces to the gravitational pull.

Thus, the electrical boxes used for installation need to be able to withstand greater force. This is achieved in design and composition. The material must be strong and the box must be able to attach securely to a joist.

You do get some pancake boxes that can be used for ceiling fans, but these are not as common as regular boxes with the correct weight-rating.

Westinghouse Lighting 0103611 Saf-T-Pan, 1/2-Inch Deep, Red

One final drawback to using pancake boxes for ceiling fans is the lack of space in the box. You have ground wires, wires for the fan motor, and wires for the fan’s light. In addition, remote-controlled fans need space for a receiver.


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