Lighted exit signs are an important and required safety feature in commercial buildings, workplaces, schools, and other public spaces. Exit signs help guide occupants to the nearest exit in the event of an emergency like a fire or other evacuation. Building and fire codes mandate that exit signs must be illuminated at all times to ensure visibility. This article will provide an overview of the codes and regulations related to exit signs, the different types of signs, proper placement, testing and maintenance requirements, emergency lighting features, and compliance and enforcement.
Having well-marked and visible exits is a key element of fire safety and allows for the quick and efficient evacuation of a building. Exit signs are designed to clearly identify paths of egress so occupants can easily find escape routes. They provide critical wayfinding information when visibility may be impaired by smoke or when occupants are unfamiliar with the building layout. Properly installed and maintained lighted exit signs save lives.
Types of Lighted Exit Signs
There are a few main types of illuminated exit signs available to meet code requirements:
LED Exit Signs
LED (light emitting diode) exit signs are currently the most energy efficient and have become the most common option. The LEDs provide bright illumination while using very little power. They can last up to 10 years before any maintenance is required. LED exit signs may come with battery backup features.
Incandescent Exit Signs
Older types of lighted exit signs contain incandescent light bulbs. These are becoming obsolete because they use more energy and the bulbs have to be replaced frequently. The average lifespan is about 4,000 hours. Fluorescent bulbs were also previously used but are no longer recommended.
Photoluminescent Exit Signs
Photoluminescent or self-luminous exit signs contain a phosphorescent material that “charges” by exposure to normal lighting. They will then illuminate for a period of time during an emergency situation when the regular lights go out. Photoluminescent signs must also have a backup battery. These types of signs have higher upfront costs but lower operating expenses.
Requirements for Placement
In order for exit signs to serve their vital purpose, they must be properly located throughout a facility. Building codes define specific requirements for placement:
Height and Mounting Location
Exit signs must be mounted at an adequate height to be visible. Typical mounting height is 6-8 feet above the floor. They should be located high enough to not be obstructed by furnishings or displays. Signs are often placed on the ceiling or above doorways.
Visibility and Sign Spacing
A clear line of sight must be maintained to exit signs. They need to be visible at all times when occupants are within the path of egress. Signs must be spaced appropriately based on the layout so that the next sign is always visible from any point in the exit route.
Direction of Egress
Arrows on exit signs must clearly point the direction to the nearest exit door. Signs are strategically located within corridors and at any changes in direction of the exit path. Confusing signs impair evacuation.
Testing and Maintenance
To keep exit signs in proper operational order, regular inspections and testing are required. Preventative maintenance is key to longevity and reliability.
A daily visual check of all exit signs should be done to make sure bulbs are illuminated and not burned out, and no vandalism or physical damage has occurred. Any issues spotted should be fixed immediately.
Exit signs with battery backup require monthly testing to ensure the batteries will function as intended during an emergency. Testing procedures involve turning off the main power source and verifying that the sign illuminates from the backup battery for a minimum duration of 90 minutes.
An annual inspection of each exit sign’s mounting, visibility, illumination, and electrical connections should be completed. Signs that are damaged or fail any functional tests should be repaired or replaced.
Light bulbs and backup batteries in exit signs will eventually need replacement. Most LEDs last up to 10 years. Nickel-cadmium batteries typically last 3-5 years. Proactively changing these at regular intervals per manufacturer guidelines ensures optimal sign performance.
In addition to illuminated exit signs, emergency lighting is often required by codes. This provides adequate illumination in the event of power failure. Exit and emergency lighting may be incorporated together into singular fixtures that serve both purposes. Or, separate supplemental emergency lights may be installed along paths of egress to reach exit doors marked by standard signs.
Emergency lighting ensures safe evacuation when normal lighting fails. The system must provide initial illumination within 10 seconds and maintain a minimum level of light for 90 minutes. Having backup generators helps avoid outages but code-compliant emergency lighting is still mandated as a redundant system for maximum safety.
Compliance and Enforcement
Because exit signs are so critical for safe evacuation during emergencies, jurisdictions strictly enforce code requirements. Failing to comply puts occupants at risk and exposes building owners and managers to significant liability issues.
Local Codes and Inspections
Most states and local jurisdictions have adopted versions of model building codes like those published by the International Code Council and NFPA. These establish legal standards for exit signage and emergency lighting that must be followed. Routine inspections will verify compliance.
Fines for Non-Compliance
Building owners can face hefty fines if any violations of exit sign or emergency lighting requirements are found during inspections. Other penalties may include official warnings, orders to install corrections within a certain timeframe, or prohibiting occupancy until deficiencies are fixed.
Beyond fines from code officials, failure to provide adequate exit signage and emergency lighting could make a building owner liable in the event that occupants suffer harm. Lawsuits could allege negligence and seek damages related to injuries or deaths occurring due to the lack of a properly marked and illuminated egress path.
Lighted exit signs are an essential safety requirement in public buildings, workplaces, and businesses. When installed and maintained according to code, they provide critical wayfinding information to allow quick evacuation in emergencies. Illuminated exit signs help guide occupants to the nearest exit and could mean the difference between life and death in a crisis. Compliance with regulations ensures optimal visibility, performance, and backup redundancy. Proper emergency lighting paired with well-marked exits allows safe escape from dangerous situations. Exit signs are a prime example of a relatively simple safety feature that saves lives every day.