When an emergency or power outage affects your business, it is essential to have reliable emergency lights and clearly marked exits. Emergency lighting and exit signs are among the most important safety devices in commercial buildings. They are designed to help protect employees and customers by lighting the way toward a safe exit in the event of a fire or other emergency.
While it's easy to see the importance of emergency lighting systems, it's just as important to understand the installation, testing, and maintenance requirements set forth by national and local authorities to ensure all emergency and exit lights are continually in working order.
Why is Emergency Exit Lighting Important?
Emergency lighting systems help occupants navigate and safely exit the building in a fire or security-related emergency. Emergency lights, exit signs, and panic doors are safety devices that are just as important as fire alarm systems. While the latter communicates a crisis, emergency pathway lights and exits work together to ensure building occupants evacuate safely.
Beyond helping occupants exit safely, emergency exit lighting is required by law for all non-domestic buildings. Let’s briefly review the regulatory requirements for emergency lighting to help you avoid fire protection code violations.
What are the Regulatory Requirements for Emergency Lighting?
According to NFPA Life Safety Code 101, all commercial buildings must have emergency and exit path lighting. NFPA 101 is updated every three years to ensure new and existing facilities offer the best protection from fire and other related hazards for occupants. Since not all jurisdictions accept all the requirements established in each updated code, you should check the rules and regulations set by your local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to ensure regulatory compliance.
Where to Install Emergency Lighting
Buildings that have occupants during any part of the day must have emergency pathway lighting and exit lights. However, there are three exempt structures where emergency lighting is not needed, including:
- Buildings that are only occupied during the daylight hours and have enough natural light to provide the required level of illumination to leave. Natural light must illuminate all pathways leading to the exit. The AHJ must approve this situation to be exempt.
- Structures that are not routinely occupied by people.
- Towers that are designed for less than three people at a time and provide an escape ladder.
If your buildings do not fall into these exemptions, you must provide a safe way for people to leave using emergency lighting. Some common places emergency or exit lighting should be installed include:
- Windowless rooms that are larger than a broom closet
- Stairs designated as an emergency exit
- Aisles or corridors leading to an exit
- Ramps leading to an exit
- Escalators leading to an exit
- All exit points that lead to an area open to the public
- Doors equipped with delayed-egress locks
- Doors having new sensor-release electrical locking systems
When to Test an Emergency Lighting System
Since people rely on emergency and exit lights to safely guide them out of dangerous situations, it is essential to ensure the system is functioning correctly by testing it periodically. In fact, without following necessary testing guidelines, you are risking building occupants' safety and violating life safety codes intended to prevent emergency lighting failure. The NFPA 101 permits three options for conducting emergency light testing, including:
- Manually test and keep written records
- Automatically test with self-testing/self-diagnostic battery-operated lighting equipment
- Automatically test with a computer-based self-testing lighting system
Regardless of the option used for testing your emergency lighting system, it must include a 30-second test every month and a 90-minute test every year. An experienced fire protection company must follow the monthly and yearly maintenance schedule below to ensure emergency and exit lights will work when needed.
Maintain Regulatory Compliance with Professional Emergency Lighting Installation
Besides knowing where to install emergency and exit lights, proper installation requirements must also be adhered to. This includes ensuring the lights are appropriately aimed to light the walkway and correctly spaced to avoid overly bright or dark spots. Emergency lighting and exit signs must illuminate in a power outage, which often requires the need for a reliable battery backup. Proper installation, inspection, and maintenance are a must to avoid code violations and costly fines and should be left to trained fire and life safety technicians.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on October 16, 2020, and has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.