Modern Electric and Electronic Egress Options

Harold Fink, Locksmith, CRL CPS
Fri, Feb 19, 2010

Modern Electric and Electronic Egress Options

Electric and electronic locks have been separately controlled by card readers, push buttons and other devices for years, but have been limited in their use until solenoid bolt locks, shear locks and surface mount electromagnetic locks became popular.

When much of the electric locking industry began to concentrate on the top of the door and frame, the electric or electronic egress mechanisms became distinctly separate from mechanical lock installations, resulting in two or three security components installed on the door instead of one.
In many cases, electric mortise locks, electric cylindrical locks and locksets with electric strikes are designed to be fail safe, or provide free egress when power is lost. Electrified panic hardware may also provide free egress or delayed egress. In rare cases, such as where asylum function locks are used, egress still must be provided by another means. Electromagnetic locks and solenoid bolts locks may also use a separate egress device, especially on designated exits.
In the past, many devices have been used or modified to allow proper egress on designated fire exits. Often, devices or modifications were never tested or listed, as these modifications may have been performed in the field. Some modifications have or can be used in limited situations, based on the authority having jurisdiction allowing them. A few are listed and comply with egress requirements of various codes, and even those are sometimes questioned, often by those that could stand to gain from new work to be performed at that door.
Acceptable egress is not always clearly defined with electronic egress devices, largely due to codes originally written around mechanical hardware. These codes have presented us with two major problems when specifying hardware for security and safety, and present the following conflicts. First, a safe haven from violence often represents a much greater need than safety from fire, especially when new building materials and sprinkler systems have been used. Current liability laws make strict interpretation of fire codes a necessity  for many jurisdictions, and safety from violence is almost never addressd by those jurisdictions, simply because protection from violence is not addressed by codes. Secondly, mechanical hardware is subject to mechanical failure, as moving parts wear from use and exposure. Mechanical hardware is also subject to abuse, vandalism and failure of lubricants left by those who attempt to repair locking hardware mechanisms. Mechanical electrical switches are equally subject to failure. Typically cycle tested for 10,000 to 100,000 cycles, they can fail much faster than electronic switches (tested in the millions of cycles). They often become loose in their mountings, resulting in damage to their cases or contacts. The electronic switch bars available now can be more reliable and last longer, but due to the codes being worded for the old, mechanical standards, some jurisdictions still interpret mechanical movement as being necessary to qualify as panic hardware.
When specifying egress hardware for a designated fire exit, be cautious of using retrofit mechanical switches to break power to the lock. Factory or UL facility installed, they can meet almost any egress code, but a homemade or field-installed switch may not meet life safety requirements, as interpreted by the local authority having jurisdiction. Many switches are not listed or rated for breaking power to an electric lock and therefore are not listed for that purpose.
Devices allowing  free egress with electromagnetic locks are available in several forms. Not all methods are accepted by every local authority, and this should be discussed with the authority having jurisdiction prior to installation.
1. A mechanical switch as a mechanical panic device, activated by movement of the crossbar or touchpad when an attempt is made to exit. In most cases, both the device and the purpose of the switch must be tested and listed by an acceptable testing laboratory such as UL.
2. An electronic switch bar, listed for free egress applications with an electromagnetic lock,
3. A combination of a push button and a motion detector. The button must be clearly labeled, located within five feet of the door and directly break power to the lock. The motion detectors become the primary method of egress, with the button acting as a redundant method of providing free egress. In order to use this combination, the locks must be wired to unlock upon activation of a fire or sprinkler system. The use of only a button is rarely acceptable, since it requires prior or special knowledge to properly exit using that door. The use of only a motion detector is also rarely acceptable, since both the electronics and timing are subject to failure.
Once again, what is acceptable to comply with codes may not always be acceptable to the quality conscious locksmith or a detail oriented customer. As security professionals, it becomes clear that minimum code requirements and special variances may fall short of our own acceptable standards. The following are two common examples:
1. In dark or smoked-filled rooms, only large, well lit buttons, clearly marked EXIT or PUSH TO EXIT can be seen and understood. Buttons without lights are allowed by code, but are worthless if they cannot be located in a panic situation.
2. In areas of high risk, such as late hour shifts or minimal staffing, motion detectors provide an unauthorized individual outside the door with a way to get through a normally locked door by either waiting for someone to pass by or by knocking and waiting for someone to enter the detection pattern of the motion detector in order to answer the door. This is acceptable by most fire codes, but foolish from a security stand point.
User demands on the industry are in constant change, and products are constantly introduced, modified or reinvented to meet those demands. These demands also represent the force behind testing and listing new products and creating new listing categories. Current codes barely consider protection from crime and violence, yet crime and violence represent a significant and increasing threat to those the codes protect.
Better coordination between those departments concerned with safety could lead to a wider choice of products for electric locking and egress, a higher level of safety for those affected, and more qualified training for those who enforce the safety codes.