Mandated by building codes such as the National Fire Protection Association's Life Safety Code and the National Electrical Code (NEC), emergency lighting systems and exit signs are used in every commercial and industrial setting throughout the country. Estimates for the emergency lighting market-including exit signs, ballasts, and single- and three-phase emergency systems for UPS and inverter backup platforms-range from $300 to $500 million dollars.

“During 2003 and the first quarter of 2004, the emergency lighting and exit-sign market was predominantly flat,” observed Doug Andrews, general manager of Chloride Systems Inc., a Genlyte Thomas Group company in Burgaw, N.C. Causes for the market slump include price erosion from the influx of imported products as well as reduced industrial and capital investment spending in a soft new-construction environment.

“Emergency lighting typically represents 2 to 3 percent of lighting purchases in a commercial or industrial construction project, but since new construction has been flat or declining, so has the emergency lighting segment,” said Russ Hall, product manager for Lightolier Inc. of Fall River, Mass., another Genlyte Thomas Group company.

However, the latest economic indicators look positive, which should translate into modest growth over the next three to five years at rates of about 2 percent by the end of 2004.

“It should be noted, though, that the lighting market does lag behind the building construction cycle by a few months, since the lighting tends to be installed toward the latter stages of the construction process,” cautioned Victor Sandhage, director, Emergency Systems Group of Lithonia Lighting, Conyers, Ga.

Technological Advancements

Paving the way for more economical, energy-efficient exit signs has been the longer-lived, lower-wattage light emitting diode (LED).

“LEDs have been popular in exit signs since the mid -1990s, but the technology has not been easily applied to emergency lights because of the higher cost and the weak performance of white LEDs in general illumination,” said Andrews.

White LEDs have also not proven themselves as a viable technology for exit signs from either an economic or a light-output standpoint, according to Rich Dillon, general manager and vice president for Dual-Lite, a brand of Hubbell Electrical Products, Cheshire, Conn. “White LEDs are beginning to become more prevalent in general illumination applications, but for pathway and egress lighting white LEDs, although long-lived, are currently too expensive to be cost-effective in emergency lighting,” he said. In addition, the white LED's light output still has too much color shift to be considered consistent enough for exit sign and emergency lighting applications.

However, because LED light sources are smaller in size, they enable manufacturers to redesign emergency lighting systems and fixtures with smaller footprints and with more architecturally aesthetic features. “LEDs are effectively used in edge lighting, where light is cast downward along acrylic panels to illuminate the letters within the exit or other emergency sign,” added Mike King, product manager, industrial lighting for Cooper Crouse-Hinds, Syracuse, N.Y.

Engineering-grade thermoplastics have also reduced the cost, improved the aesthetics, and increased the ruggedness and durability of exit signs and emergency lighting system products, according to Sandhage.

“And new battery technologies, such as nickel metal hydride are finding their way into the emergency lighting market,” he said. Nickel metal hydride batteries are a higher-capacity alternative to nickel cadmium. The same size nickel metal hydride battery powers a greater load and is more environmentally friendly with fewer toxic materials used in production. The downside, however, is that nickel metal hydride batteries are more sensitive to a deep discharge and need a more sophisticated charging algorithm.

“Nickel metal hydride batteries are slightly more expensive today than nickel cadmium, but this should change over the next new years,” Sandhage said.

Finally, diagnostic features are being increasingly incorporated into emergency lighting systems, providing facility and building operators with data on battery status, fault indication, volts, amps and power status, according to King.

“Diagnostic capabilities provide the end-user with the ability to locally access information concerning the condition of the emergency lighting system and provides remote access to data over the Ethernet or Internet communication protocols,” King said.

Market Trends

For years, emergency lighting manufacturers have tried to balance functionality and form by searching for new and innovative ways to conceal or reduce the footprint of their designs to have minimal impact on the space. Older housing designs, made of rectangular steel boxes, were utilitarian looking and obtrusive. Today's designs incorporate the latest in injection-molding techniques and are intended to blend into the immediate surroundings. “Compared to 20 years ago, today's emergency lighting units have a much lower profile and are more aesthetically pleasing,” said Sandhage.

According to King, today's exit sign market is shifting toward the increased use of multilingual signs to satisfy global and U.S. market demands, the replacement of incandescent light sources in exit signs with either LEDs or compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), and the development of vandal-proof signs.

“In response to increased security concerns, vandalproof exit signs now come with nonremovable screws and have higher impact resistance,” he said.

What may be the most important trend of all, however, is the increased shift toward emergency lighting systems in outdoor applications to extend the path of egress beyond the building itself.

“Codes are notoriously ambiguous about outdoor emergency lighting, causing the design community to be extremely creative in applying products to comply with those codes,” said Hall.

Electrical Contractors Can Light the Way

What then, do electrical contractors need to know or do to succeed in the emergency lighting market? “Electrical contractors must realize that emergency lighting systems and exit signs are designed to save lives and that not all products are built to the same quality and performance standards,” said Sandhage. As more and more building inspectors become emergency-lighting savvy, it will pay for the electrical contractor to use the products that will do the job right the first time.

To get it right, electrical contractors need to partner with manufacturers and distributors that can provide the necessary technical support and that are invested in the U.S. emergency lighting market.

“There has been an explosion in the number of companies that do not produce, service or invest in the industry, but that market emergency lighting products. The net effect is that the end-user may be purchasing a product that is from overseas, that may be counterfeit or from a source with no or limited technological expertise or ability to provide technical support,” said Andrews. Dillon agrees and cautions electrical contractors who want to enhance their reputations to avoid low-cost imports and provide their customers with systems that maintain their operational effectiveness.

Electrical contractors also need to be aware of the existing and emerging codes for outdoor emergency lighting, particularly when involved with a design-build project, according to Andrews. “That's the best way to ensure against any non-compliance issues as new codes for outdoor emergency lighting are developed.”

Other ways to help guarantee success in the emergency lighting market is for electrical contractors to understand the various NEC Divisions and International Electrotechnical Commission Zones for hazardous locations as well as understanding mounting considerations, the available power supply, and the light output required for emergency conditions and egress routes. Electrical contractors can also provide a value-added service to their customers by being aware of the more architecturally designed products that are available on the market and offer them as part of a completely integrated and aesthetic lighting system.

Future Outlook

According to King, the outlook for the emergency lighting market is good as residential, commercial and industrial construction remains strong. “In addition, people are more aware of safety issues and are willing to make the investments to comply with increasingly rigorous codes and enforcement,” he said.

Hall also sees a favorable future for the market as more attention is focused on security, and building owners and electrical contractors become more educated about existing and emerging codes and their increased enforcement.

“These factors can't help but have a positive impact on the market and its growth, which we expect should expand at a rate of 3 to 8 percent over the next two years,” Hall said.

Also, since companies are always looking for ways to cut energy costs and improve efficiency, the market should continue to grow as it services the needs of end-users as they replace older, less efficient systems with newer technology. EC

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.