12th Jan 2024 -

Access panels are an important component in construction and remodelling projects. They allow easy access to electrical wiring, plumbing, HVAC systems and other areas that need maintenance or repair. There are several types of access panels to choose from, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

This article provides an overview of the most common access panel types and discusses the pros and cons of each. Factors such as cost, durability, ease of installation, fire resistance and aesthetics are considered. From building a new home to renovating an existing structure, understanding all access panel varieties is key to selecting the right option for your needs. 

What are the different types of access panels?

Whether for a wall, ceiling or floor, we have outlined the range of access panel types available to help you select the right one based on aesthetics, budget and application.

Plastic access panel

Plastic access panels are lightweight and affordable options from polymers such as polyethylene. They consist of a plastic frame and door that is most often opaque white. Generally, they are best suited for residential settings in rooms such as closets, backrooms and other low-traffic areas. 

Metal access panel

Metal access panels are one of the most durable and secure options. They are constructed from stainless steel, aluminium, or steel and consist of a metal frame and door. The panel door typically has a flush appearance for a smooth look. Metal access panels are ideal for commercial and industrial settings that require heavy-duty access.

Plasterboard access panel

Also known as drywall access panels, they are a popular choice for residential settings. Plasterboard access panels consist of a steel or aluminium frame that supports plasterboard, the same material used for interior walls. They come as hinged or removable panels that fit seamlessly into the plasterboard.

Tile access panel

Tile access panels are designed to blend into tiles, such as shower surrounds. The panels consist of a metal or plastic frame with tiles that match the surrounding area. Suitable for residential and commercial settings, they are often installed in bathrooms and kitchens. They can also be installed in restaurants and other spaces where tiles are prevalent.

What is the right access panel for you?

When selecting an access hatch, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each type. This will ensure you choose the right solution based on your specific access needs. Carefully weighing the benefits against the drawbacks will provide the knowledge you need to make an informed decision. 

Plastic access panel

Budget-friendly: On average, a plastic access hatch can cost approximately £10 - £20. This makes them one of the least expensive varieties and will save significantly on costs.Durability issues: Plastic panels are prone to cracking over repeated use and may require frequent replacement. Because of this, they are not suitable for high-traffic areas.
Quick installation: Lightweight plastic panels can be installed rapidly using basic tools and hardware. Minimal expertise is required.Weak material: The thin plastic can easily buckle under impact and offers little structural strength or security.
Withstands moisture: Plastic resists moisture from bathroom and basement environments. Therefore, they are suitable for humid areas prone to condensation.Low fire resistance: Plastic panels present a fire hazard themselves and do little to protect contents. These panels should be avoided where fire rating is needed.

Metal access panel

Extremely durable: Metal construction withstands repeated opening and closing, impact and forced entry. They are ideal for busy, high-traffic environments.Expensive to buy: For each access panel, prices range from £20 - £100, depending on the metal type. This represents a significant upfront investment.
Fire-rated options: Many metal access panels achieve 1-3 hour fire ratings, protecting contents from fire damage. These fire rated access panels are especially useful where safety is a concern, such as in commercial environments.Prone to rusting: Steel and iron panels can develop rust over time when exposed to moisture. This is because these metals readily oxidise. However, stainless steel offers rust and corrosion resistance.
Withstand elements: Metal panels resist corrosion, moisture, and natural elements. Because of this, they are suitable for both indoor and outdoor installation.Challenging installation: Proper installation of heavy-duty metal panels often requires professional expertise and special tools.

Plasterboard access panel

Cost-effective: Plasterboard access panels are one of the most budget-friendly options, with prices typically ranging from £25 - £40. This makes them a cost-effective choice for all projects.Less durable: The plasterboard construction means these panels are prone to dents, cracks and other damage, especially in high-traffic areas. They cannot withstand repeated heavy access or impact.
Quick and easy installation: These panels can be installed directly into drywall using basic tools and materials like screws or adhesives. Minimal carpentry skills are needed for DIY installation.Frequent replacement: Due to their weaker plasterboard material, drywall panels often need replacing every 1-2 years in busy access areas. This can lead to recurring costs long term.
Smooth finish: Drywall panels feature a flush appearance that seamlessly blends into drywall. Bevelled edges provide a relatively invisible look once painted.Low fire rating: Most drywall access panels achieve only a 30-minute fire rate at best. This makes them a poor choice anywhere fire resistance is a major concern.

Tile access panel

Match surrounding tiles: Tile panels allow for matching or complementing the shape, colour, pattern and grout of surrounding tiles. This results in discreet blending.Difficult installation: Extra care must be taken to precisely match inset tiles to the tile pattern, colour and grout lines. As a result, this can require specific and advanced skills.
Withstand moisture: The tiled construction resists moisture from spills, showers and high-humidity areas like bathrooms and kitchens. Particularly useful in wet areas.Limited size options: Because tiles only come in set sizes, the size options for tile panels are more limited compared to other panels.
Durable and secure: A metal or plastic frame combined with the shatter-resistant tile exterior allows these panels to endure repeated heavy access and forced entry attempts.High cost: For a single tile access panel, prices generally range from £40 up to £150. The material costs make tile panels one of the pricier access panel options like plastic.

Where to install small and large access panels

Access panels come in a range of sizes to suit different installation settings and needs. There are some key factors to consider that will dictate the ideal panel size for a given application. 

Small access panel

  • Typically range from 200mm x 200mm up to 400mm x 400mm in size.
  • Often weigh much less than large counterparts, allowing easy removal by hand.
  • Thinner metal or plastic construction is cheaper to buy than large access panels. 
  • It can be installed as a ceiling access panel or wall access panel. Also, they are suitable for tightly enclosed spaces like a loft or closet.
  • Provide convenient access to electrical wiring, cable hookups and ductwork.
  • Suitable for residential settings for accessing above-ceiling lights and plumbing. 
  • Also useful in office buildings to access and control electrical and phone cables. 
  • Entry is only required periodically for inspections or limited repairs.
  • Can damage easily and is not suitable for heavy tool storage or equipment access.

Large access panel

  • Generally range from 600mm x 600mm up to 900mm x 900mm for broad access.
  • Sturdy steel or aluminium provides durable construction. 
  • They are heavier in weight, and some may require multiple people or lifts. 
  • Can be installed as a floor access panel, as well as within a vaulted ceiling or an access panel door which requires a large entry. 
  • Allows removal and installation of large HVAC equipment and boilers. 
  • Accommodates multiple maintenance workers needing simultaneous access.
  • Withstands heavy foot traffic and having heavy tools/equipment passed through.
  • Often used in industrial facilities, hospitals and commercial kitchens.
  • Provides lift-out access instead of just reach-in with smaller panels. 

Can you install one access panel type for all settings?

While it may seem appealing to rely on just one type of inspection hatch for every application, this is generally not the best approach. Various settings and access needs call for panels with different strengths. What works well as a residential bathroom access panel may not hold up to the demands of an industrial environment.

For example, inexpensive plastic or drywall panels would likely not stand up to repeated heavy use in commercial settings. Their durability issues would require frequent replacement. However, high-grade metal panels would not necessarily be suitable for a home media room that only needs occasional access.

Ideally, the access panel type should be matched to the specific demands of the space and application. Drywall panels suffice for most in-home uses while durable, fire-rated metal panels are better for industrial settings. Tile panels have a singular purpose for blending into tiled surfaces. Taking the time to analyse access needs will ensure the right panel is used for each situation.

How to buy top-notch access panels for your project

We offer a diverse range of access panels. Our tile access panels are highly resistant to moisture, whereas metal access panels boast unparalleled durability and fire resistance. For those prioritising ease of handling, our plastic access panels stand out, providing lightweight solutions without compromising on quality. Also, our plasterboard panels seamlessly integrate aesthetics with functionality, offering a sleek finish.

For trade professionals, we welcome you to open a trade account with us. Our trade accounts make shopping for tools and materials easy, offering speedy UK delivery, credit options and dedicated one-on-one support. Partner with Building Materials Nationwide to access a comprehensive range of high-quality construction materials at competitive trade prices. Sign up now for instant access or contact us to learn more.

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