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What Is Light Industrial Work?

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Industrial work comes in two flavors, light and heavy. Manufacturing work which uses heavy, bulky raw materials and turns out heavy, bulky products falls into the heavy category. Clothes, shoes and consumer electronics are all examples of light manufacturing. This isn't just a bit of business speak; whether a company meets the light industry definition affects where it can operate.

Light Industry Definition

Zoning codes exist in most American cities and counties. A given plot of land may have dozens of potential uses. The code assigns each plot a broad category of uses such as residential, multi-family residential, retail, industrial and light industrial. That allows local governments to prevent potential conflicts, such as someone opening a slaughterhouse or an auto-manufacturing plant on a residential street.

Light industrial zones invoke the light industry definition to explain what's allowed, and forbidden there. The definition typically includes industrial uses such as manufacturing, assembling and processing materials "that are in refined form" rather than crude oil or iron ore. Light industrial work does not create smoke, gas, odor, dust, vibrations or bright light that would be offensive when measured at the property line. Light industry has minimal effect on the neighbors.

Light Industrial Jobs

Saying a business shouldn't disturb its neighbors much and shouldn't put out offensive amounts of smoke is a subjective standard. To avoid disputes with property owners over how to interpret the light industry definition, local governments usually include a list of light industrial jobs and other uses in the zoning code. Uses that don't meet the light industry definition are allowed so long as the government thinks they're compatible with that kind of industry. In Durham, NC, for example, acceptable uses include:

  • Art galleries and studies.
  • Banks.
  • Boat sales.
  • Car washes.
  • Cemeteries.
  • Clubs and lodges.
  • Commercial laundries.
  • Contractor's offices without storage yards.
  • Convenience stores.
  • Exterminators.
  • Feed and grain stores.
  • Food processing, provided it takes place in an enclosed building.
  • Golf courses.
  • Government facilities, excluding jails.
  • Health clubs.
  • Heavy equipment storage.
  • Hospitals. 
  • Janitorial services.
  • Veterinary clinics.
  • Warehousing. The light industrial warehouse definition includes mini-warehouses and personal storage areas.

Durham's definition of light industrial manufacturing includes tobacco products, textiles, clothes, wood products, furniture, paper, plastics, leather products and electronic equipment.

Light industrial zoning also comes with rules on the property itself. In Holtville, CA, for instance, a light industrial property must be at least 10,000 square feet in area, with a minimum 100 feet wide and 120 feet deep. The light industrial use can't take up more than 80 percent of the lot footage. Maximum building height is 35 feet and there has to be at least 10 feet of front-yard landscaping going back from the edge of the property.

While there's a general agreement on how to define light industrial zoning, local governments can set their own rules. The only way to define "light industrial" for a given property is to look up the zoning code.

Light Industrial Buildings

Light industrial companies need an appropriate building to operate in. The light industrial zoning will set some rules, but efficiency and practicality will set others. Typically, light industrial jobs need a structured work environment designed for lots of machinery and technology. The space should be laid out so the employees can circulate freely. Buildings must be strong enough to support the weight of supplies and stored products, with ventilation to remove any toxic fumes. If there are any hazardous materials, the space has to be set up to handle and store them safely.

Beyond the general principles, building design has to consider the needs of a specific business. The electrical layout, for instance, will depend on how much equipment the company uses and where it's distributed in the building.