The risk of blackouts is rising. Will your emergency lights work when they're needed?

Fire safety legislation in the UK requires non-domestic buildings to be safe at all times. In most cases this means they need an emergency lighting scheme that’s fit for purpose.

If an emergency arises, people in a building must be able to make their way out quickly through designated escape routes without panic. This is critical in a fire, as anyone unfamiliar with the building will probably try to leave the same way they came in, ignoring shorter routes out. Emergency lighting and escape route illumination must make it as easy as possible for those evacuating buildings to see clearly how to quickly make their way to safety.

The increased risks of brownouts and power cuts makes it even more important to be certain that emergency lighting complies with the law"

If anyone is hurt or killed in a building emergency, those responsible can be brought before a court of law, so it is essential to ensure that all installed emergency lighting systems are in full working order at all times.

This is becoming even more crucial because of the state of the UK’s power supply. Many of our nuclear power stations are nearing (or are already past) the ends of their lives, while coal-fired plants are being phased out. For example, RWE NPower is to close seven fossil fuel plants by 2023 in compliance with EU regulations. The proposed new Hinkley Point nuclear reactor is not due to come online until the early 2020s, and several major offshore wind projects have been shelved.

Experts warn that we could face supply difficulties, and the increased risks of brownouts and power cuts makes it even more important that the responsible person (as defined under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order) is certain that the emergency lighting complies with the law. Not only should the emergency lighting system be fit for purpose if the lights go out, it must also be reliable, easy to test and simple to maintain.


Types of emergency lighting

Before starting an emergency lighting scheme, designers should be given a copy of a risk assessment carried out by a competent person. This will help in finding the most effective system.

Building Regulations require that systems comply with BS 5266-1, the Code of Practice for emergency lighting. The Industry Committee for Emergency Lighting (ICEL) publishes a design guide for emergency lighting (document 1006), which should also be consulted to establish and assess the risks that you may encounter.

There are essentially two main choices for emergency lighting systems – self-contained systems with on-board batteries in the luminaires, and systems where batteries are located in a central emergency power system (CPS). A CPS system is often more expensive to buy than self-contained emergency lighting. However, greater emphasis should be placed on energy conservation, system longevity, safety, futureproofing and running costs over time.


Automated testing

Emergency lighting testing should be carried out monthly and annually according to BS EN 50172. Every part should be examined and functionally tested, typically for 5-10 minutes at least every month, and for full-rated duration, typically three hours, at least once a year (see BS 5266). The test results must be recorded and reported to the responsible person. Any remedial work identified must be carried out within a reasonable time.

Issues associated with this include trying to keep the building safe while testing, as well as manual testing often being very time consuming, especially with large buildings. Moreover, people make errors.

Bernard Pratley is technical manager at ICEL, the UK's Industry Committee for Emergency Lighting

Automatic testing can solve these problems reliably by regularly checking that the emergency lights work correctly, without human intervention. It also advises whether there are any faults needing attention. ICEL emphasises that such automated testing can bring significant safety, maintenance and cost benefits, as well as peace of mind. ICEL and its member companies can advise on the types to choose.

Automated testing helps ensure that emergency escape lighting testing is carried out in a timely way, without disrupting other electrical services. It helps responsible persons manage risk, and even complex systems are clearly cost-effective as well as being safer. This will only become more important if the reliability of the nation’s future power supplies is at risk.

ICEL is the UK's Industry Committee for Emergency Lighting. Head to for more information, or contact

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