What Color Do Exit Signs Need to Be?

Exit signs in buildings have been mandatory for decades. Although most of them are considered acceptable when using green or red lettering, some states have adopted specific preferences in their building codes.


If you're unsure of what color your exit sign should be, it's best to speak with your local officials about the local emergency requirements in your area. The building inspector or fire marshal can offer the information you need in most places.


Who Regulates What Color Exit Signs Are Today?

Several regulatory agencies provide feedback on the emergency sign and lighting requirements in each jurisdiction. That includes the National Fire Protection Association, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organization, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


These regulators work in conjunction with the International Fire and Building Codes.


Local authorities have jurisdiction over specific exit sign requirements, including the colors and lighting used for them.


Although red and green are typically acceptable, you can find variations. The Building Code in Helena, Montana, requires orange.


Why Are Exit Signs Red or Green?

Exit signs are typically red or green because of how humans interact with these colors. Red is generally seen as a “warning," while green represents the desire to “go."


Red exit signs indicate that there is a direct path of escape available when an emergency exists. A green alternative encourages people to go toward a specific direction to get away from a building when unexpected circumstances exist.


Some jurisdictions are moving away from red exit signs because this color is also considered a “stop" indicator. Drivers are trained to recognize it on stop signs, stoplights, yield signs, and other warnings in public spaces.


Red is also less visible from a distance than green, which is why large buildings with open spaces opt for that exit sign color.


Is There a Standard Color to Use?

OSHA and the NFPA don't have a specific color recommendation for exit signs in their policies. Their requirements involve using a distinctive tone that contrasts with the background.


Most people recommend using red or green based on the building's setup. Since no one knows how reactions will occur until an emergency happens, the goal is to create the most effective user experience through an anticipatory lens.


What Are the Maintenance Requirements for Exit Signs?

Most building codes require a standalone battery-operated exit sign to be tested each year for at least 90 minutes.


If you have a hardwired exit sign with red or green emergency lights, it must receive a 30-second test at least once per month, even if it has a battery backup power source.


Since every emergency exit requires a sign, it can be challenging to maintain an entire system. That's why investing in products that self-test within the expected time is a worthwhile investment. This technology produces the reports needed to show that the maintenance complies with the regulations.


A photoluminescent exit sign doesn't require electricity when it's installed in a well-lit space. That fact reduces the maintenance requirements dramatically.


How to Choose Exit Light Colors

The first step is to review the rules of exit sign lighting in your area. In the United States, you'll find 50 different rules to follow at the state level, and that doesn't include the variations that other cities are permitted to use.


Only three states require red exit lights in the United States: South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Illinois.


That's more than the two states that require green exit lights: Maryland and Utah.


Most states allow red and green lights or let cities choose what they prefer. Some “recommend" a specific color, but that doesn't mean a complete requirement exists to use it.


No matter what the color is that you choose, it's important to use LED lights whenever possible. This energy-efficient technology lasts for up to 25 years in this application, using just 1.5 watts for a single-face sign. An incandescent bulb would use up to 40 watts and need replacement in 1,000 to 2,000 user hours.


Some buildings may qualify to use photoluminescent signs. The local code will let you know if a dedicated light source is necessary to charge it.


What to Expect from an Exit Sign?

Exit signs haven't changed much in the past century. In the United States, most of them say “EXIT" in large letters with red or green illumination.


Buildings that are 75 feet tall or higher must include pictograms to ensure an efficient exiting procedure is available.


If photoluminescence isn't practical for where an exit sign must be installed, consider LED lighting for this asset. It might require more maintenance, but the lighting will last for several years, even with 24/7 use. Whether you choose red or green depends on what your local rules say to do. 


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