Cracking the Code: What You Need to Know About Panic Hardware

Navigating the codes surrounding the use of panic hardware can be a challenge for specifiers. This guide will let you know when it is required, as well as define the available options.

Cracking the Code: What You Need to Know About Panic Hardware

Panic hardware, marked by its durability and ease of use, is a popular exit device used to provide quick egress for building occupants in a state of emergency. However, some specifiers struggle with determining when panic hardware is actually required — adopted building codes and fire codes such as the Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and the International Building Code (IBC) dictate those requirements, and there are variations between codes.

What’s more, the frequent combination of panic hardware and electrified options adds to the struggle, as these options carry their own set of restrictions and requirements. Wading through the uncertainty can be daunting, but a deeper dive into the code requirements that drive the use of panic hardware — as well as some of the more common exceptions and restrictions — will make all the difference.

Where is panic hardware required by code? 

In order to determine whether panic hardware is required for a specific door, there are three questions to answer:

  1. Which code — including the edition — is applicable to the project?
  2. What is the use group or occupancy classification of the area served by the door?
  3. What is the calculated occupant load of the space?

According to all editions of the IBC beginning with the 2006 edition and continuing through the most recent edition published in 2018, panic hardware is required for doors serving three use groups:

  1. Assembly occupancies with an occupant load of 50 people or more
  2. Educational occupancies with an occupant load of 50 people or more
  3. High Hazard occupancies with any occupant load

For facilities that are required to follow NFPA 101 — Life Safety Code, there are four occupancy classifications where panic hardware is required:

  1. Assembly occupancies with an occupant load of 100 people or more
  2. Educational occupancies with an occupant load of 100 people or more
  3. Day care occupancies with an occupant load of 100 people or more
  4. High Hazard occupancies with an occupant load of more than five people

These requirements apply to doors which lock or latch; they do not apply if a door has push/pull hardware and no lock or latch.

Note: There are additional requirements in NFPA 70 — National Electrical Code, for panic hardware on rooms housing electrical equipment. 

Quick facts and figures

When considering the requirements of panic hardware for use in a particular building, these quick facts and figures can offer valuable guidance:

  • Where panic hardware is required, the actuating portion of the device (touchpad or crossbar) must measure at least half the width of the door leaf.
  • Current codes require panic hardware to be mounted between 34 inches and 48 inches above the floor (existing panic hardware may have been installed in accordance with previous code requirements).
  • Some codes and standards require panic hardware to operate with a maximum of 15 pounds of force, while other codes and standards limit the operable force for hardware to five pounds. A special UL listing indicates panic hardware that is certified to operate with five pounds of force or less.
  • No additional locking device (deadlock, chain, padlock & hasp, etc.) may be installed on a door required to have a panic device, and panic hardware may not be equipped with any device that prevents the release of the latch when the touchpad or crossbar is pressed.
    • The exceptions to this are
      • a) electromagnetic locks released by a sensor or by a switch in the panic hardware
      • b) delayed egress locks which release after 15 seconds to allow egress
      • c) controlled egress devices which are allowed in some types of healthcare units such as memory care and maternity
    • When panic hardware is used on fire doors, it must be fire exit hardware that has been tested per UL 10C — Positive Pressure Fire Tests of Door Assemblies, or another fire test standard, and the door must be equipped with a label stating, “Fire Door to be Equipped with Fire Exit Hardware.” The fire exit hardware will be labeled for both fire and panic.
    • If panic hardware is used on balanced doors a pushpad/touchpad device must be used and the actuating portion of the device must not extend more than half the width of the door. Crossbar style devices may not be used on balanced doors as the actuating portion could extend all the way over to the hinge edge of the door, and a building occupant could push on the wrong end of the panic device and the door would not open.
    • In some jurisdictions, doors and hardware must meet testing requirements for hurricane and tornado protection. Consult the applicable codes and manufacturers’ certifications for compliance information.

Common and confusing: electrified options

The addition of electrified options — and the code requirements that go along with them — can add to the confusion about panic hardware. Electrified trim, electric latch retraction, delayed egress and controlled egress are all popular options for today’s specifiers, so gaining a strong understanding of these options’ respective code requirements is a necessity.

Electrified trim

Panic hardware with electrified trim is often called an “E device,” and the primary purpose of this function is to interface the electrified lever trim with an access control reader. Presenting a valid credential to the reader unlocks the outside trim, so the lever can be turned to retract the latch(es) of the panic hardware. This application allows free egress by pushing the touchpad — the electrified trim only controls access and has no impact on building occupants’ ability to exit.

This function is also commonly used where stair doors are required to be remotely unlocked on the stair side. If a stairwell becomes compromised by smoke during a fire, fail safe electrified trim allows building occupants to leave the stairwell and find another exit.

Electric latch retraction

Often referred to as EL, QEL, ELR, or electric dogging, electric latch retraction is acceptable to use on fire exit hardware installed on fire doors; however, those doors must be “self-latching” if a fire occurs. A fire door must be positively latched in order to withstand the pressures and compartmentalize the building to deter the spread of smoke, flames and gases. This means that every fire door must be equipped with an active latchbolt, so that when the door comes to a close, it will latch.

In some cases, however, the positive latch will interfere with the desired function of the door. For example, a push/pull function is often preferred for a pair of doors leading to an operating room in a hospital, but these doors may be fire-rated. NFPA 80 — Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives, permits latching arrangements which do not provide positive latching in the normal mode if the door automatically becomes positively latched during a fire emergency by an automatic fire detector.

Mechanical dogging cannot be provided on fire exit hardware, but electric latch retraction fire exit hardware can be used to provide a push/pull function if it is wired so that the latch(es) will automatically project during a fire alarm. Panic hardware with electric latch retraction operates like normal panic hardware for egress — pushing the touchpad will always allow free egress. The QEL/EL feature retracts the latch using electricity, and when power is removed, the latch automatically projects and the door becomes latched.

Delayed egress

The use of delayed egress hardware prevents a door from being opened from the egress side, usually for a period of 15 seconds although an AHJ may approve a delay of up to 30 seconds. This type of device is often used to prevent theft or elopement, while maintaining life safety, and is commonly comprised of panic hardware incorporating the delayed egress feature, or an electromagnetic lock and power supply, one of which would contain delayed egress circuitry.

When the delayed egress lock is actuated, the door remains locked on the egress side for 15 seconds, and then releases to allow egress.

The IBC and NFPA 101 contain similar requirements for delayed egress locks, but there are some slight differences — particularly regarding the occupancy types where delayed egress locks are allowed.

In buildings protected throughout by an automatic sprinkler system or automatic fire detection system, approved, listed, delayed egress locks are allowed in the following occupancy types:

  • IBC: Delayed egress locks are allowed in any occupancy except Group A (Assembly), E (Educational), and H (High Hazard), but only one delayed egress lock is allowed per egress path. Prior to the 2015 edition of the IBC, one delay was allowed before entering an exit, rather than one delay per egress path. The 2015 and 2018 editions of the IBC allow two delays per egress path in Group I-2 or I-3 occupancies with a combined delay of 30 seconds, maximum. Two changes were made in the 2018 edition of the IBC, and delayed egress locks are now allowed on secondary egress doors serving courtrooms, and classroom doors in educational occupancies which serve an occupant load of less than 50 people.
  • NFPA 101: Delayed egress locks are allowed in buildings containing low or ordinary-hazard contents, with the following limitations:
    • Assembly Occupancies: Only doors other than main entrance/exit doors may be equipped with delayed egress locks. Exception: In airport loading walkways, doors in the egress path from the aircraft into the airport terminal are not permitted to have delayed egress locks.
    • Educational/Day Care, Health Care, Ambulatory Health Care, Lodging and Rooming Houses, Hotels and Dormitories, Apartment Buildings, Mercantile, Business, Industrial, Storage: There are no restrictions in the 2018 edition of NFPA 101 for these occupancies. Prior to the 2015 edition, NFPA 101 limits delayed egress devices to one delay per escape path for some occupancy types.

The model code requires that a 15-pound force applied to the egress side door hardware shall initiate an irreversible process that allows egress in not more than 15 seconds unless a 30-second delay is approved by the AHJ. While NFPA 101 (all recent editions) and 2015/2018 editions of the IBC allow not more than three seconds of applied force to begin the process, editions of the IBC prior to 2015 included a limit of one second to initiate the process. Initiation of the irreversible process must activate an audible alarm in the vicinity of the door.

Doors must allow immediate egress (no delay) upon actuation of the automatic sprinkler system or automatic fire detection system. The IBC also requires the capability of release from the fire command center and other approved locations.

NFPA 101 specifies that doors allow immediate egress (no delay) upon actuation of the sprinkler system, not more than one heat detector, or not more than two smoke detectors. Doors must also allow immediate egress (no delay) upon loss of power controlling the delayed egress lock.

Signage is required to be mounted on the door, adjacent to the release device (the IBC specifies that the sign must be mounted above and within 12 inches of the door exit hardware), stating: “PUSH [PULL] UNTIL ALARM SOUNDS. DOOR CAN BE OPENED IN 15 [30] SECONDS.” NFPA 101 further specifies a visible, durable sign with letters 1 high minimum with 1/8 minimum stroke width on contrasting background.

The 2015 IBC added a requirement for the signage to comply with the visual character requirements of ICC A117.1, and includes an exception for Group I occupancies. Where the care recipients require restraint or containment, installation of a sign is not required.

Lastly, emergency lighting is required on the egress side of the door and delayed egress devices must be rearmed manually after the device has been released by the timer sequence.

Controlled egress

Controlled egress is typically used in an I-2 occupancy, which the IBC describes as a health care facility with 24-hour medical supervision for patients, with some or all occupants incapable of self-preservation and requiring assistance to reach safety in an emergency. The 2015 and 2018 editions of the IBC also allow controlled egress locks in I-1 occupancies, which are facilities where more than 16 people reside on a 24-hour basis and receive custodial care. Examples of use group I-1 including assisted living facilities, group homes and similar residential occupancies.

These types of facilities often struggle with the balance between providing egress and protection from a fire, while also keeping their patients safe. “Elopement” is a term used to describe a nursing home or hospital patient leaving the unit or building on their own, which places them at risk of harm. Child and infant abduction is another concern when addressing the security of these facilities.

While psychiatric facilities have long been allowed some exceptions to the code requirements for free egress, many healthcare facilities have attempted to use a combination of code-compliant solutions, typically alarms and delayed egress locks, to prevent elopement and abduction. An alarm requires instantaneous response by staff, and a delayed egress lock only provides a 15-second egress delay (30 seconds with approval from the AHJ) to allow staff to investigate and respond. False alarms can exacerbate the problem.

For many hospitals and nursing homes these products made it difficult to keep patients safe, which prompted some to use a waiver or variance process to request permission to secure certain egress doors. Without a consistent set of code requirements addressing these applications, it was up to the facility and AHJ to agree on an acceptable solution.

Revised language was added to the 2009 edition of the IBC and has been clarified in subsequent editions. This section, now called “Controlled doors in Groups I-1 and I-2” describes the requirements for locking I-1 and I-2 occupancies when the clinical needs of the patients require such locking. According to the IBC Commentary, these patients may include those with dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. Along with other requirements for the facility, this section describes locks that:

  • unlock upon actuation of the sprinkler system/fire detection system, and
  • unlock upon loss of power to the lock, and
  • are capable of being unlocked remotely, and
  • must be able to be unlocked by clinical staff at all times

Fail-safe electromechanical locks or electromagnetic locks, or controlled egress panic hardware would meet the intent of this section of the IBC, as long as all of the stated criteria are met, and the clinical needs of the patients require such measures. Because the codes do not specifically state which types of patient areas this applies to, that would need to be determined by the AHJ.

If the door is fire-rated, it must have an active latch bolt to provide positive latching. For egress, it should take only one operation to unlatch the door after the lock has been released electronically.

Free egress is required by the IBC for these locations upon actuation of the fire alarm/sprinkler system, power failure, and remote release. The staff must be trained and ready to unlock the doors as needed, the building must be protected throughout with a sprinkler system/fire detection system, a building occupant must not pass through more than one door with a special egress lock before entering an exit, and emergency lighting must be provided at the door.

Where patients require restraint or containment as part of the function of a psychiatric treatment area, some of the requirements for automated release of the doors do not apply. NFPA 101 includes similar requirements to those of the IBC, in the health care chapters.

Do your homework

There is no doubt that navigating the codes surrounding the use of panic hardware can be a challenge for specifiers, and at times may even seem contradictory. However, success is on the horizon if codes and editions are properly verified, the occupancy of a project is accurately classified, and specification and/or installation is fully code compliant by applying the appropriate requirements.

Panic hardware by its design plays a significant role in ensuring the safety and security within a built environment, so regularly revisiting existing codes applicable to common projects and staying abreast of changes will help specifiers attain and maintain clarity, avoiding confusion.

This article was contributed by Lori Greene, DAHC/CDC, CCPR, FDAI, FDHI, Manager, Codes & Resources at Allegion.

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2 Responses to “Cracking the Code: What You Need to Know About Panic Hardware”

  1. […] recently had an article published in Security Sales & Integration, that addresses panic hardware from an access-control perspective.  It covers the various […]

  2. John Miller says:

    We have a pair of double doors exiting the boiler room of the county jail. Jail is asking us to change door hardware to require a key to physically unlock the door for exiting. Is this a code violation?

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