Pallet Rack Clearances: Lateral, Vertical and Building Structures

The empty space inside and around a rack is critical for safety and performance

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Warehouse rack with worker placing a pallet into tight space on a pallet rack

One of the critical aspects of pallet rack system design, aside from the specs of the rack itself, are the various clearances between rack components, the loads and the surrounding environment. Flue space can be critical for fire safety compliance. Space between a rack row and the row behind it can contribute to a safer and more effective rack system. Narrow aisles can contribute to accidents. Too tall? You could cause damaged and falling inventory, as well as damage to fixtures or HVAC components.

At the end of the day, the space around the rack is nearly as important as the rack itself.

The clearances you need to maintain

Space inside and around the rack helps you work faster and safer because drivers are less prone to strike racks when they have proper operating space. They can pick or place pallets, drive near, drive into and drive around the rack easier–which is also faster. Too much clearance between these elements won’t necessarily slow you down, but it probably wastes space. It’s best to maintain recommended clearances in most cases.

Note: the clearances discussed here are calculated for selective racks. Recommended clearances for double-deep, pushback pallet flow, drive-in and other dynamic rack structures are different and will be discussed in a future article. Some rack accessories or other elements may also affect recommended clearances. 

Racks and structural building elements

Pallet racks are independent structures and aren’t designed to be tied to any building elements except the floor. You should never tie your racks to building columns, walls, ceiling struts or other architectural elements. In the event of seismic activity or an impact on the rack, that could transfer impact forces to those elements–with unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences. Weight shifts or other issues with a building could overburden and collapse your rack.

Only a qualified structural engineer can design ties between racking systems and building elements.

If your pallet rack system is correctly specified, it doesn’t require additional support tied to the building structure. Racks are completely standalone and can do their job without additional building support or ties.

Clearances between racks and other elements

Tolerances between pallet rack components and building elements.

Figure 1: plan view of a rack system. Minimum clearance spaces are illustrated in yellow.

Your racks shouldn’t be close enough to any building structure that contact is reasonably possible due to an impact by a powered industrial truck, or if an earthquake or other event causes vibration or movement.

  • Cross-aisle clearances: This is the space along your cross aisles, running perpendicular to the beams. This space should be no less than 2% of the height of the topmost beam. Multiply the height of the top of that beam by 0.02 to find that clearance. For instance, a rack with its topmost beam set at 20 feet would require 4.8″ of clearance between it and any structures in the cross-aisle direction.
  • Down-aisle clearances: This is the space along your aisles, parallel with the beams and should be a minimum of 5% of the height of the top beam. Multiply that height by 0.5 to find the safe clearance. In the case of the same rack above, with a beam set at 20 feet maximum height, the rack needs 12″ of down-aisle clearance.

Cross and down aisle directions

Above: cross aisles are perpendicular to rack, while down aisle is parallel to rack aisles. Each direction requires different clearances as listed above. 

Note that architectural elements such as building columns, which may be set between rack rows as illustrated above in figure 1, are subject to these rules. In this instance, you need 4.8″ of space between the column and either of the rack rows. Row spacers to help maintain both the minimum clearance space and adequate flue space are highly recommended for most rack installations.

Read more: Pallet Racks, Sprinkler Systems and Warehouse Fire Precautions

Clear ceiling height

illustration of clearances between loads and rack structures
When racks are specified, the clear ceiling height should be factored in. The clear ceiling height is the distance from the floor to the lowest point of the lowest-hanging ceiling obstruction, whether that’s a sprinkler system, duct, HVAC element or ceiling support. The tallest load on your topmost rack beam must sit beneath that obstruction with room for placement and picking factored in. The minimum recommended space between the top of your load and the bottom of the lowest hanging item is ten inches.

Adequate sprinkler clearances

While you need 10″ for most overhead elements, sprinkler systems have their own code requirements. OSHA requires 18″ clearance for overhead sprinkler heads, so your clear ceiling height for any rack beneath a sprinkler should take that into account. Consult local building codes and fire regulations for your type of warehouse and location, as these requirements can vary.

The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standard for sprinkler system installation requires minimum 6″ clearances for all loads and elements in the down-aisle direction.

Load and component clearances

illustration of clearances between loads and rack structures

Space between loads, beams and uprights are also critical to safe operation. These are the recommended minimum spaces, but you can add more if necessary.

  • Clearance between loads: The minimum recommended space is 6″. This allows drivers to pick and place pallets quickly and easily. The gap must be between the widest point of the pallet/load.
  • Clearance between loads and upright frames: This space requires no less than 3″ between the inside edge of the rack upright and the widest point of the pallet or load.
  • Vertical beam clearance: This is one of the most frequent places where beams can be bumped and dislodged or damaged. The minimum space you need between the top of the tallest load and the bottom of the next beam should be a minimum 6″ for safe pallet placement or removal. Loads can also break and fall during placement without adequate vertical spacing in this area.

illustration of clearance between beams and the top of the tallest load on the lower beam in a pallet rack

Other ways to help prevent load/forklift collisions with rack structures

Maintaining the proper clearances between the rack, the building, loads and components make your pallet storage and picking operations faster and safer. Other techniques and equipment can also contribute to safety and reduce accidents. Inexpensive technology like tilt indicators, blind spot cameras and laser tine guides help drivers pick and place loads faster and with a higher degree of confidence.

Quick reference: recommended selective pallet rack clearances

Gap or Space

Clearance

Space between two loads (at widest point) 6″ between loads.
Space between load and upright frame (at widest point) 3″ between load and frame.
Between top of load and next load beam (from top of tallest load on the beam) 6″ between load and beam. Additional clearance for taller beam levels is recommended.
Cross-aisle space between rack and building structures 2% of height of topmost beam (top of beam x 0.02 in inches).
Down-aisle space between rack and building structures 5% of height of topmost beam (top of beam x 0.05 in inches).
Clear ceiling height 10″ between top of load and lowest obstruction.
Clear ceiling height for sprinklers 18″ between top of load and lowest obstruction.
Space between back-to-back rack rows 12″ between rack uprights; 6″ between loads, including overhang space. May vary by local fire regulations.

Training, clearances and technology all contribute to a safer environment

While driver training will always factor into these operations, providing adequate tolerances means you’ll have fewer accidents and a smoother overall operation over time. The environment can either contribute to safer operations–or unsafe ones. Make sure yours gives you the best chance for safer, more productive work.

Note: The recommended clearances are based on industry standards and may not match standards for seismic or specialty racks. Local code compliance may also alter tolerances and clearances based on fire code, civil code or other standards. You should always consult with your rack provider and local code authorities to ensure compliance and safer operations.

More on pallet racks


Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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