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Emergency lighting: buy smart not cheap

Aug 05, 2005

Buying cheap emergency lighting can actually end up costing you more and, even worse, it can also put lives at risk. Peter Cook sounds a cautionary note for contractors.

Emergency lighting is first and foremost a life-safety system, designed to assist occupants to evacuate a building without injury in the event of a mains power failure. If the emergency lighting fails to function properly, then organisations and responsible individuals can be prosecuted. That being said, nobody wants to spend more than they need to on any product, and these days contractors can easily be tempted by the ready availability of some cheap emergency luminaires. However, these should be treated with great caution, and contractors should bear in mind that there are other ways to reduce the cost of an emergency lighting system without compromising quality, performance or safety.

Legal obligations

Before buying any products or embarking on the design of an emergency lighting scheme, it is important to understand the legal obligations involved. The law says that emergency lighting has to be ‘adequate’, which means that it must comply with current standards. BS-EN1838, the design standard for emergency lighting, defines the minimum illumination levels for various areas during emergency conditions. It is not enough simply to fit a number of emergency luminaires without ensuring that their combined performance produces adequate illumination.

If building owners fail to achieve the required levels of emergency lighting, they face prosecution and potential litigation resulting from workplace accidents. Although the legislation places the responsibility on building owners and users, they in turn may take action against contractors who supply or install sub-standard equipment that fails to operate correctly when required.

Since minimum illumination levels must be achieved in order to satisfy the legal requirements, emergency lighting schemes cannot be correctly planned or assessed without accurate performance data for the specific luminaires to be used.

Cheap luminaires

Many cheap emergency luminaires are supplied from distant sources and will pass through various intermediaries on their route to market. The original manufacturer may be unaware of where products will finally be installed and cannot be expected to know or adhere to the technical and legislative requirements applicable to the final marketplace. At any point in the supply chain, performance claims made by suppliers are open to embellishment and may be subject to human error or misinterpretation, and so they cannot be relied upon as accurate unless verified by an independent third party.

In addition, cheaper luminaires present a number of other potential problems: as they often utilise lower-quality components, failures are likely to be more common, battery and lamp lives likely to be shorter, and maintenance costs are likely to be higher – not to mention the difficulties involved in sourcing any necessary spare parts.

BSI Kitemarking

So, how can contractors be sure they are not buying an inferior product? There are stringent European product standards covering the design and manufacture of emergency luminaires, e.g. EN60598-1 and EN60598-2-22, and independent testing organisations such as the British Standards Institution (BSI) carry out thorough testing of products to ensure that they satisfy the requirements of these standards. When these tests have been successfully completed, the BSI allows the Kitemark symbol to be applied to the product as evidence that it is safe and fit for purpose. When buying life-safety systems such as emergency lighting, it is therefore wise to choose only products that carry the BSI Kitemark symbol.

The Kitemark shows that the product has been correctly designed and manufactured and can therefore be expected to provide reliable operation and the best possible life from the individual components. However, it does not verify the accuracy of performance claims made by the supplier.

ICEL approval

Independent confirmation of a luminaire’s performance can be provided by the product auditing and approval scheme run by ICEL (the manufacturers’ trade organisation). As well as verifying the performance, ICEL also carries out various checks on both the product and the supplier, and if these are successful, the luminaire is awarded ICEL approved status and given an ICEL registration number.

If ICEL approved luminaires are installed at the correct locations according to ICEL-verified spacing data and design guides, the resulting installation is considered to be adequate to ensure the safety of building users and to guard against possible legal action.

Luminaires that are not ICEL approved may still be fit for purpose, but building owners and their suppliers may have to find a way of demonstrating that they have complied with their duty of care, should tragedy or even a minor accident occur.

Cutting costs

So, using emergency luminaires that are BSI Kitemarked and ICEL registered will provide peace of mind that legal obligations have been met, but the inevitable assumption is that the emergency lighting scheme will cost more. This is not necessarily the case.

Although the unit price of a well designed, high-quality stand-alone emergency luminaire may be slightly higher, such products very often provide a significantly higher light output and better spacing performance than cheaper alternatives, which means that fewer luminaires are required in order to achieve the required illumination levels. As well as reducing the total capital outlay for the fittings, this also cuts installation costs.

The use of innovative ‘combination’ emergency luminaires can also help to minimise the total number of fittings required. The latest dual-function products are designed to combine a powerful downlight with an evenly illuminated exit sign, both served from the same light source. In this way, a single luminaire performs the functions that would otherwise have required two fittings, i.e. marking the emergency exit and providing illumination of the first part of the escape route.

Also, higher-quality luminaires often incorporate features specifically designed to reduce installation time, including first-fix bases, plug-in gear trays and self-locking snap-on lenses.

In short, using emergency luminaires with a higher price tag can actually result in a lower installed system cost.

Ongoing benefits

The use of higher-quality fittings will also pay dividends once the emergency lighting system is up and running. Higher-quality luminaires, batteries and lamps generally have a longer life and therefore need replacing less frequently, which saves money on spares and reduces maintenance costs.

All self-contained emergency luminaires (even non-maintained types) require a constant unswitched mains supply to maintain the rechargeable standby battery in a fully charged state. By using a smaller quantity of higher-performing emergency luminaires, significant savings in running costs can be achieved.


While it may be tempting to opt for the cheapest emergency lighting available, there are compelling reasons for choosing products that are both BSI Kitemarked and ICEL registered. As well as providing peace of mind regarding legal obligations, higher-quality luminaires can actually result in a lower installed cost.


Peter Cook is product marketing manager at Cooper Lighting and Security, with responsibility for product development and marketing of the company’s Menvier and JSB ranges of fire detection systems and emergency lighting. He has over 20 years’ experience with the company, having originally joined Menvier to work on its range of central battery systems for emergency lighting. Since the 1997 acquisition of Menvier by Cooper Industries Inc., his range of responsibilities has expanded to cover fire systems.