This Way Out

Today, there’s more to safety lighting and exit markings than first meets the eye. Although incandescent egress lighting and institutional “steel can” exit signs have been the norm in college and university residence halls for decades, a look inside current product catalogs reveals some bright new technology that can improve the appearance of student residence halls while reducing maintenance and energy costs.

New light source technology, improved design and built-in diagnostics are among the trends in exit signs - and among the biggest trends is replacement of incandescent light sources with light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

The reason: the high cost of energy and maintenance. “With incandescent lights, you are constantly changing lamps,” says Joseph Penta, vice president and general manager of Waterbury, Conn.-based High-Lites, Inc. “LEDs have a life of about 25 years. Plus, they draw one to three watts on an exit sign that used to draw 25 to 40 watts. Right there, you’re getting a payback.”

It’s also a safety issue. “Years ago exit signs were all incandescent, and the short lamp life resulted in a lot of dark exit signs,” notes Gedra Mereckis, director of architectural sales, Alcko Lighting in Franklin Park, Ill. Fluorescent exit signs, when they came along, were an improvement. LEDs were even better. Now the LEDs have been improved so that they’re brighter.

And, while exit signs using an LED light source once cost much more than incandescent units, their cost has dropped dramatically. “The prices of LED units have come down so far - especially red signs, which make up the majority of the market - that their cost is comparable to incandescent units,” Penta points out.

There are more design options in exit signs, as well. Mereckis says architects and interior designers increasingly are specifying edge-lighted acrylic signs whose electrical components are concealed in a box or above the ceiling, rather than the traditional box signs. Of course, the decision in colleges and universities often is driven by budget, and beauty costs more than simple functionality.

Up to Code

Basically, there are four parts to lighting units and lighted exit signs: the lighting heads themselves; the battery; the board that monitors the unit, keeps the battery charged, and transfers the load to battery power in the event of a building power failure; and the housing. Emergency lighting may or may not be incorporated into the exit sign itself. Exit signs themselves may be internally or externally illuminated. Under ADA, certain exits may also may require a visual indicator and an audible indicator in the event of a power failure. Optional fire alarm interfaces cause exit signs to flash when a fire alarm is set off. Generally, facilities use a combination of types of units to create an effective life safety lighting and signage system.

But let’s take a look at what is required by code. Life safety lighting and egress path marking are addressed in the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Life Safety Code 101, a nationally recognized performance standard for life and fire safety systems.

Adopted by most states as a basis for their mandatory life safety codes -which, of course, vary in their requirements - NFPA 101 spells out general requirements pertaining to illumination of means of egress; emergency lighting, including performance and periodic testing; and signage. It also provides requirements for various types of occupancies. Most college or university residence halls are in the same classification as a hotel.

Among the requirements of NFPA 101:

- lighting of means of egress under normal conditions must be maintained at a minimum of one footcandle along the entire path;

- emergency illumination must be provided for a period of 1.5 hours in the event of the interruption or failure of normal lighting;

- emergency lighting must provide at least an average of one footcandle and a minimum of 0.1 footcandle measured along the path of egress at floor level;

- a functional test must be done on every battery-powered emergency lighting system every 30 days for a minimum of 30 seconds, and once a year for 1.5 hours’ duration;

- means of egress must be clearly marked, with directional exit signs along the paths of egress and exit doors, doors into stairway enclosures, etc. clearly marked; and

- exit signs must be illuminated, either internally or externally.

Technology Reduces Maintenance

Like most building codes, NFPA provides certain exceptions for existing buildings and signage, as well as for advances in technology. For example, self-testing and self-diagnostic emergency lighting is exempt from the functional testing requirement. This can be a real boon to colleges and universities. “Manpower is always scarce,” Penta notes. “With built-in microprocessor diagnostics in each unit, which check the charge and discharge the unit periodically to ensure it will work properly in an emergency, all that must be done is for a maintenance person to walk around and look at the units. If a fault light is on, it needs attention. That takes the place of the actual testing and the written reports.”

Some facilities also take advantage of DC-to-AC inverters, which allow ordinary hall lights to serve as egress lighting. In the event of a power failure, inverters switch the lights from building power to battery.

Current Trends

Among the other trends in some areas is low-level egress marking - placement of egress path markings near floor level where they will be seen by anyone crawling down a smoke-filled hallway. Gregory Harrington, P.E., an NFPA fire protection engineer, says this is recognized by NFPA as a supplement to standard-level egress markings, but isn’t required. “Previously, there also were requirements for floor-level exit signs in hotel occupancies, which includes dormitories - in fact, you still see them quite a bit on the west coast,” he says. “However, when the code introduced a requirement for sprinklers in new hotels, they removed the requirement for floor level exit signs. This recognizes that sprinklers are going to suppress the fire, and there won’t be the generation of smoke you would otherwise expect.”

Penta says another possible adjunct to the life safety lighting and egress systems in residence halls, although he hasn’t seen it in place yet, is use of floor-level illumination: “to mark the path of egress using strip lights such as you would see in an airliner.” These strip lights are available in three versions: a series of six-volt incandescent lights or LEDs embedded in plastic or electroluminescent panels.

New technology, many new options, all with one goal: to make residence halls safe havens for students.

Editor’s note: For more information about the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code 101, visit their Website at or call 617-770-3000.