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Everything You Need to Know About Facility Emergency and Exit Lighting


Emergency lighting is designed to illuminate and identify hallways, stairwells and exits to facilitate a safe and orderly evacuation from a facility during a fire, power outage or other emergency. Emergency and exit lighting is required in many facilities, including schools, hospitals and workplaces, to ensure that people can safely evacuate. Code requirements differ between regions and states and are frequently updated, so facility managers must ensure technicians stay updated on code changes and maintenance requirements. Get to know the different types of emergency lighting solutions to ensure your facility complies with critical building safety standards.

How Do Emergency Lights Work?

Emergency lights consist of a fixture connected to the main power supply to charge a small battery. When power to the fixture is lost, the internal circuits switch over to the backup battery to provide lighting during an outage.

There are two types of emergency lighting systems:

  • Maintained: Emergency lights are connected to the main electrical supply and are used in daily operations and power outages. During power failures, connected batteries keep the lights on.
  • Non-Maintained: Emergency lights are only activated during emergencies. These lights use backup batteries as a source of power.

Facilities can install either maintained or non-maintained emergency lighting to remain compliant. However, facilities often install both types of lights to ensure there is adequate light in the facility when the power goes off.

Emergency lighting code requirements state that egress lighting must be hardwired to your primary electrical supply. Emergency lighting systems must also be connected to a reliable power source such as an on-site generator, battery-operated system or internal battery backups for individual emergency lights and exit signs to ensure they remain operational during power failure. However, OSHA considers self-illuminated exit signs using photoluminescence an acceptable alternative to battery-powered signs.

Types of Emergency Lights and Exit Signs

Emergency lighting can be separated into two categories — emergency lights and exit signs. Emergency lights provide illumination during power failure emergencies, while exit signs indicate ways to safely evacuate a facility.

Emergency light fixtures turn on automatically when the power goes out to illuminate pathways to help guide occupants toward exits. The light fixtures typically have two lamps made of several ultra-bright LEDs. Emergency lights are built for efficiency and durability and include a long-lasting battery that must remain lit for at least 90 minutes. Mounting emergency lights with the recommended spacing provides the required coverage to meet code-specific illumination levels and help eliminate dark spots. This aids in evacuations and allows first responders and maintenance staff to navigate buildings during a power outage.  

Common types of emergency lights include:

  • Egress lighting: Also known as bug-eye lights, these lights can operate independently with battery back ups to help guide evacuations in case of emergencies and power outages.  
  • Remote headlights: These provide additional lighting from primary emergency lighting in the event of a power outage providing coverage around corners, exits and other areas main emergency lights can’t reach.  

Exit signs all are mounted near exit routes and doorways to guide people out of an area. Some versions may be best for wet areas, and others are made to resist vandalism. They differ in how they are powered and how they look:

  • Combination exit signs and emergency lights: These all-in-one fixtures are hardwired into the electrical system and automatically switch to a battery back up during power loss.
  • Lighted exit signs: These are similar to the combination signs, but without emergency lights.   
  • Self-luminous exit signs: These emit a constant glow without electricity or batteries, making them a good fit in areas where hardwired signs can’t be used.
  • Edge-lit exit signs: With a slim, upscale design, these are often found in public-facing areas like hotels and conference rooms.

Emergency Lighting Codes and Standards

Emergency lighting is required at any location that’s necessary to help guide people to safety as quickly as possible during a power outage. A common misconception is that emergency lighting is required in all commercial or residential facility rooms. According to FacilitiesNet, emergency lighting isn’t required in single occupancy rooms like offices or storage rooms. In general, emergency lighting should be provided in all areas where employees could be exposed to hazards in the event of a power failure, including:  

  • Exits
  • Stairways
  • Common areas
  • Hazardous areas
  • Restrooms
  • Elevator lobbies
  • Security areas

Several regulatory agencies and codes govern emergency lighting and exit sign requirements. These codes and standards ensure that emergency lighting systems are effective and reliable. Failure to remain compliant can result in hefty fines and serious injuries or fatalities if the lighting system fails to function during an emergency. 

Regulating authorities and codes include:

  • OSHA 
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
  • The Joint Commission 
  • International Building Code 
  • International Fire Code

OSHA and the NFPA codes are the two major regulators in the U.S. In addition to federal regulations, local safety codes may require lighted emergency exit signs made of a specific material with lettering and graphics of a specific color, size and style. Contact your authority having jurisdiction to confirm local emergency lighting standards. 

OSHA Requirements 

OSHA requires that all workplaces have emergency lighting to help safely evacuate buildings in the event of a power outage or other emergency. The primary regulations addressing exits signs are:

  • 1910.37: Maintenance, Safeguards, and Operational Features for Exit Routes
  • 1910.36: Design and Construction Requirements for Exit Routes
  • 1910.34: Coverage and Definitions

An “exit route” is defined as “a continuous and unobstructed path of exit travel from any point within a workspace to a place of safety (including refuge areas).”

Exit routes include all vertical and horizontal areas along a path and have three parts:

  • Exit access: the portion of an exit route leading to an exit
  • Exit: the part of an exit route often separated from other areas to provide a safe way to travel to an exit discharge
  • Exit discharge: the portion of the exit route leading directly outside or to a street, walkway, refuge area, public way, or open space with access to the outside

The specific requirements vary depending on the type of workplace and the number of employees. In general, emergency lighting must provide adequate lighting, at least one foot-candle of light at floor level, so that an employee with normal vision can see along the exit route.

NFPA Codes

Two important NFPA codes for emergency lighting systems are NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code (NEC) and NFPA 101, the Life Safety Code (LSC). The NEC and the LSC require emergency lighting systems for certain facilities depending on the type and occupancy. These codes require that all emergency lighting systems be designed and installed to provide enough light to allow people to evacuate a building safely.

According to the NFPA, emergency lights must operate for at least 90 minutes if the power goes out. The lighting system must be powered by a reliable source of electricity, like a battery or generator, to provide power within 10 seconds of the loss of normal power. Emergency lighting systems must also be tested regularly to ensure they work properly. The NFPA Life Safety Code is updated every three years, so regular reviews are essential to ensure your facility remains compliant.

OSHA 1910.35 notes that complying with NFPA 70 and NFPA 101 puts a facility within OSHA compliance as well.

Other Regulating Agencies

The Joint Commission regulates healthcare facilities, and emergency lighting must be tested regularly to meet code and life safety requirements. The International Building Code provides public health and safety requirements for new and existing buildings and structures. The International Fire Code regulates the minimum fire safety requirements for new and existing buildings, facilities, processes and storage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why are some exit signs green or red?

A: The color of an exit sign can impact the clarity with which it’s seen. Green and red are the main colors in the United States, however in Europe, the United Kingdom, India, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, emergency exit signs are green according to Directive 92/58 / EECBS EN 1838 and BS 5266. While there is no OSHA requirement for specific sign color, OSHA states an exit sign must be distinctive in color from the background. NFPA 101 states, “signs must be of a distinctive color and design that is readily visible and shall contrast with decorations, interior finish and other signs.” Some states or jurisdictions may require a certain color, so it’s always best to check with your local authorities.

Q: Does emergency lighting need to be hardwired?

A: Emergency lighting code requirements state that egress lighting must be hardwired to your primary electrical supply. Emergency lighting systems must also be connected to a reliable power source such as an on-site generator, battery-operated system or internal battery backups for individual emergency lights and exit signs to ensure they remain operational during power failure. However, OSHA considers self-illuminated exit signs using photoluminescence an acceptable alternative to battery-powered signs.

Q: How often are emergency lighting testing and inspections required?

A: Emergency light units must be regularly tested according to local and national safety codes, including NFPA 101, which states emergency lights and exit signs must be tested monthly for 30 seconds. Emergency system batteries must also be tested yearly to ensure they generate power for at least 90 minutes. The Joint Commission standard EC.02.05.07 EP 1 for health care facilities requires functional testing to be performed monthly on battery-powered emergency lighting systems used for exit signs, egress and task lighting for at least 30 seconds. Monthly visual inspections of other exit signs are also required.

Testing options include:  

  • Manual testing and written records
  • Testing with self-diagnostic battery-operated lighting equipment
  • Automatic testing with a computer-based lighting system

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.