Exit Sign Codes and Requirements

What are the requirements around illuminated exit signs? Who wrote the safety codes we follow in the United States, and what are they?

Before 1994, most building codes in the United States were determined by geographic region. One group, the Building Officials Code Administrators International, made the codes which were followed by architects, builders, and building owners on the East Coast and some of the Midwest; another, the Southern Building Code Congress International, was used in the Southeast; and yet another, the International Conference of Building Officials, was responsible for the West Coast and the rest of the Midwest. However, these groups merged in 1994 to create the International Code Council, or ICC, to develop codes and regulations that would go into effect across the country.

Despite being called the “International Code Council,” the ICC is a United States-based organization, whose policies are mostly adopted only in the US. One of the many documents which the ICC publishes is called the “International Building Code,” or IBC. Section 1011 of the IBC is where all of the regulations and codes surrounding illuminated exit signs are. IBC Section 1011 Exit Signs are those which are compliant with all of the rules laid out in the IBC.

What are the rules that IBC Compliant Exit Signs are required to follow? It is important to note that the specific policies change depending on which state or territory your building is in. However, some general guidelines apply across all states and territories which have adopted the IBC.

Our page explaining our photoluminescent illuminated exit sign technology also goes into some detail about what IBC Section 1011 requires, and the entire regulation is available at the International Code Council’s website. In short, illuminated exit signs are required when the way out of a building or room is not immediately clear to those within the space. As IBC Section 1011.1 says, “The path of egress travel to exits and within exits shall be marked by readily visible exit signs to clearly indicate the direction of egress travel in cases where the exit or the path of egress travel is not immediately visible to the occupants. Intervening means of egress doors within exits shall be marked by exit signs.”

While, as Slate magazine reports, the red-letter EXIT sign which is so ubiquitous in the United States is controversial internationally, large red letters reading “EXIT” are required on every illuminated exit sign in the United States. IBC Section 1011 Exit Signs must follow explicit guidelines around the size and style of the lettering. In addition to the fact that the word must “have plainly legible letters not less than 6 inches (152 mm) high with the principal strokes of the letters not less than ¾ inch (19.1 mm) wide,” IBC Section 1011 mandates that “the word ‘EXIT’ shall be in high contrast with the background and shall be clearly discernible when the means of exit sign illumination is or is not energized.”

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