When Are Emergency & Exit Lights Required?

October 16 2020

When Are Emergency & Exit Lights Required?

When an emergency or power outage affects your business, it is important 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.

Emergency Lights Required in Commercial Buildings

According to NFPA Life Safety Code 101, all commercial buildings are required to have emergency and exit path lighting. The code is updated every three years to ensure new and existing buildings 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 compliance.

Importance of Emergency Exit Lighting

When there is a fire or other emergency in a commercial building, emergency and exit lights help guide people out as safely and quickly as possible. Emergency lights, exit signs, and panic doors are safety devices that are just as important as fire alarm systems. While the latter communicates an emergency and fire sprinklers extinguish flames, emergency pathway lights and exits work together to ensure everyone is evacuated to safety.

Where Should Emergency Lighting Be Installed?

Buildings that have occupants during any part of the day are required to have emergency pathway lighting and exit lights. However, there are three exempt structures where emergency lighting is not needed, including:

  • Buildings only occupied in the daylight hours if there is enough natural light to provide the required level of illumination to leave. Natural light must illuminate all pathways leading to the exit. This situation must be approved by the AHJ 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 important to ensure the system is functioning properly by testing it periodically. In fact, without following necessary testing guidelines, you are not only risking building occupants but also violating life safety codes intended to prevent emergency lighting failure. The NFPA 101 permits three options for conducting emergency light testing, including:

  1. Manually test and keep written records
  2. Automatically test with self-testing/self-diagnostic battery-operated lighting equipment
  3. 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.

It’s important that a trained fire and life safety technician follows the below monthly and yearly maintenance schedule to ensure emergency and exit lights will work when needed.


  • Ensure emergency lighting is installed according to code
  • Inspect equipment for physical damage
  • Conduct the required 30-second push test switch
  • Check for illuminated lamps and ensure they are properly aimed
  • Maintain monthly log for inspection by the AHJ


  • Do a complete examination of the unit
  • Complete the required 90-minute test of the battery and lighting system
  • Check the condition, voltage, and the manufacturer date of the battery
  • Check AC/DC lamps or bulbs for damage and proper operation
  • Ensure charging circuit is operational and functioning properly
  • Once the yearly test is complete, apply an emergency lighting test label to each light

Benefits of Professional 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 light up in the event of a power outage, which often requires the need for a reliable battery backup. Proper installation, inspection and maintenance is a must to avoid code violations and costly fines, and should be left to trained fire and life safety technicians.

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