Super Heavy-Duty Door Hardware

“School doors probably receive the highest levels of abuse of any kind of door,” says Paul Kosakowski, A.H.C., president and CEO of DORMA Group North America, a Lancaster, Pa.,-based manufacturer of architectural hardware and automatic doors. “Think of football players bursting through the doors from the locker room to the field. They aren’t out to destroy the door, but the door is there and the way to open it is to run through it.”

Don’t forget all those carts slamming through school corridors and doors. In the cafeteria, people run food and dish-carts in and out of doors by ramming the carts into the doors. Down in the gym, trainers smash through doors with equipment carts day in and day out. Book carts from the library collide with doors no less often.

And then there is the age-old nemesis of school doors: teenage students practicing karate kicks on the panic hardware assembly of a door.

If school-door abusers were few and far between, they wouldn’t create so much of a problem. People probably abuse the doors in office buildings and factories across the country. But none of these buildings must accommodate so many people moving constantly back and forth so often through the doors of a facility as a school.

The problem with door abuse isn’t really the door. Today’s sturdy hollow-metal doors will scratch and dent but won’t often give way. On the other hand, the door hardware that allows people to enter and exit through a door can break. The lever and panic hardware assembly of most exterior and corridor doors in a school, one of the most expensive door hardware sets, stands out as one of the greatest areas of concern.

Everyday abuse combined with heightened concerns about school security has led door hardware manufacturers to beef up their product lines in recent years. The industry aims to design hardware that will open and close doors reliably, despite the continuing abuse of vandals, faculty, administrators and students.

Setting Standards

Don’t codes help? Not when it comes to withstanding abuse. Federal, regional and local codes most often focus on safety performance. For example, a working door must allow fast and easy exit and then re-close in the event of a fire. The problem is to keep the doors working. “In that regard, I would say that while you must always know the codes and comply with them, it’s often best to exceed the codes, today,” Kosakowski says. “You will probably find that a fire marshal rarely goes beyond the codes when it comes to how doors operate.”

Even so, manufacturers have taken up the challenge of making hardware that will continue to operate despite repeated abuse.

Recently, for example, the Builders Hardware Manufacturer Association (BHMA) has begun to develop a package of hardware standards in conjunction with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). While ANSI focuses on engineering standards, the BHMA effort aims to go beyond to standards based on performance.

“This gets down to individual products that make up door hardware sets,” says Kosakowski. “Door hardware includes hinges, closers, exit devices, levers, push plates, cabinet locks, key cylinders and so on. BHMA subcommittees are studying each of these products. In some cases, the BHMA standards match what ANSI asks for; in other cases they go farther.”

The point is that BHMA-certified door hardware may in some cases insure a level of performance that goes beyond the capabilities of products designed to traditional ANSI engineering standards.


Individual manufacturers have also taken another look at developing hardware capable of resisting abuse.

DETEX Corporation of New Braunfels, Tex., a relatively new entrant in the school-door hardware field, has introduced a super heavy-duty line of door hardware over the last several years. According to Greg Drake, A.H.C., national sales manager with DETEX, many of the products in this line carry patents for features that aim to boost resistance to abuse. For example, DETEX hardware for exterior and interior doors with lever access from the outside and panic bar egress from the inside improves vandal resistance in several ways. To resist attempts to break in, door hardware often includes exterior lever handles with built-in clutches. Twisting the lever on a locked door too hard causes the clutch to disengage and allows the lever to swing to the six-o’clock or normal open position without opening the door. The lever-handle will remain disengaged until the assembly is physically reset by maintenance.

Clutching levers have been around for a while, but DETEX has developed a new heavy-duty version. “Our philosophy is that every lever on a school door should have a clutching feature,” Drake says. “Our new clutching levers go beyond the normal scope of operation. After a clutch disengages, a vandal might then begin to pound on the assembly and may break the lever by wrenching it beyond the clutching point. If this happens, our levers will shear a keyway in the latching mechanism and the door will remain locked.”

Other DETEX innovations involve the panic hardware on the inside of these kinds of doors. “We’ve designed a panic hardware system to withstand extremely harsh abuse,” Drake says. “For example, the push pad on this system is designed to bottom out and still allow several thousandths of an inch of over-travel in the linkage. So when it’s struck by a cart, the energy is distributed throughout the push pad and none is transmitted to the linkage. This helps the assembly last longer.”

DETEX has also addressed another panic hardware issue related to the end cap or the part of the assembly closest to the hinges of the door. Repeated banging can cause end caps to break off. Protruding pieces can snag book bags and clothing, which can cause further damage to the hardware. DETEX has developed an end cap mounted at a ramped angle. If a cart smashes into it, the angle deflects the cart back to the more sturdy push pad.

Drake says that only a few schools have begun to use these heavier-duty devices. Perhaps administrators don’t know about them; perhaps they are concerned about cost.

According to Drake, cost is not a likely issue. The DETEX lever and panic hardware assemblies with lever clutched and extra play to the panic bar list for just under $1,000, about 10 percent more than a conventional lever and panic hardware system.

Over the years, security concerns have also led to the replacement of narrow stile and rail aluminum framed doors at main entrances to schools. “Many schools went to hollow-metal doors with large glass panes,” Drake says. “Today, however, some schools are going back to the stile and rail doors, but are specifying wider aluminum stiles and rails, which can stand up to heavy abuse.”

More Choices

Inside a school, another doorway issue involves cross-corridor doors. These doors are often paired to allow a wide passage for large carts, furniture and other oversized items that must be moved about a school. Many designs place floor-to-ceiling mullions between these pairs of doors. The mullion provides a surface for the door latch. Then again, mullions divide the passageway and restrict the movement of large items. Removing the mullion requires unscrewing the assembly at the top and bottom.

“In recent years, manufacturers have developed designs that allow you to use a key to remove the mullion,” Drake says. “You unlock the assembly at the top and snap it out of a fixture at the bottom. Later, you simply snap it back into place.” Another way to deal with cross-corridor door pairs is hardware with surface-mounted vertical rods that secure the doors by latching into the floor and ceiling.

Several issues arise with the use of surface-mounted vertical locking systems. First, students like to pull the vertical rods off the doors. Second, the bottom of the assembly can snag wheelchairs and walkers and so creates concerns related to the Americans With Disabilities Act. To deal with these concerns, DETEX has developed rod covers that prevent vandalism and a bottom bolt cover that allows wheelchairs to slide across the assembly on the lower surface of the door without snagging.

Classroom doors have stimulated much discussion in recent years. A traditional classroom door uses a key-locking knob outside and a smooth-faced knob on the inside that always allows exiting. Because the keyed lock is on the outside knob only, a conventional classroom door cannot be locked from the inside. Recent security concerns have led to a re-evaluation of this generally used system.

Observers suggest finding a system that will allow locking the door from the inside in case of an emergency. The problem is that this must be done with a key or it will allow students to do what they have always wanted to do: lock out a late-arriving teacher.

Several solutions to this problem are under discussion. One involves moving the clutch-lever and panic hardware classroom doors that allow the door to be locked with a key from the inside. Another suggestion has been simply to add a key lock to the inside knob, one that locks the outside knob only and continues to allow exiting by simply turning the inside knob.

While manufacturers and architects continue to ponder the issue of classroom doors, school facility directors can look into what has already been settled: super-duty clutch lever and panic hardware for exterior and cross-corridor doors.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.