Fire-Rated Openings with Electronic Access Control and Low-Energy Power Operators

This article appears in this month’s issue of the DHI Door Security + Safety Magazine and was reprinted here with their permission.

Balancing the need to protect property and keep lives safe while still meeting code requirements.

The mission of the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) is “[being] devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards,” and NFPA does this, in part, with its 300 codes and standards.

As door and hardware industry professionals, it’s our duty to understand the NFPA code requirements to help architects, owners, and general contractors make smart choices about the types of hardware used throughout their buildings to not only meet codes, but also to keep property and lives safe from harm.

Fire-rated doors are required in numerous locations throughout a commercial building, and they are used as part of a passive fire protection system to reduce the spread of fire and smoke between different wings (or compartments) of the structure. It is a critical aspect for allowing people time to safely exit a building.

Electronic access control devices have become a sought-out request of customers looking for convenience and security, yet the openings have become more multifaceted to specify, as the products have become more complex. In addition, the NFPA codes change every three years meaning requirements may change.

The steps to properly specifying a building for your customer are first, understand whether the opening needs to be fail-safe or fail-secure and second, to know which hardware meets the fail-safe/fail-secure fire code requirements.

Fail-safe: This is a term used to describe an electric lock that has a mechanical state of being locked and requires power to unlock it. This type of device unlocks when power is removed. In this scenario, when power is interrupted, fails, or the fire signal is activated, the doors automatically unlock allowing people to safely transfer from one side of the compartment to the other (i.e., exit the building).

Fail-secure: This is a term used to describe an electric lock that has a mechanical state of being unlocked and requires power to lock it. This type of device locks when power is removed. When the fire signal is activated and/or the power is removed, the door stays in a secured position from the key side while still allowing free egress.

UL as It Applies to Fire Rating

The second key element to properly specifying fire-rated openings is to understand which hardware meets the fail-safe/fail-secure fire code requirements. This begins with the testing facility ratings, which are commonly referred to as “UL Ratings” in our industry as defined by Underwriters Laboratories, LLC (UL), one of the most recognized testing facilities. Any accredited Third Party Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) can perform the UL10C test – the test pertaining to functionality and fire safety.

NFPA80 is the code that pertains to fire-rated openings. NFPA80 (2015 Edition) states in part, “Power operated fire doors shall be equipped with a releasing device that shall automatically disconnect the power operator at the time of fire, allowing a self-closing or automatic device to close and latch the door regardless of power failure or manual operation.”

This means that any fire-door that is equipped with an auto-operator must be connected to a fire alarm, but keep in mind, not all auto-operators are UL-rated for fire. Some are only UL-rated for electrical. When specifying a building, it is important to know which door hardware is specifically rated for fire and which is not.

Building Walk-Through with Applications

Ideally, the process of specifying the building involves meeting with the architect to understand how the building will function. Sheryl Simon, CSI, CDT, senior architectural specifications consultant with Hager Companies, notes that “walking around the project on paper” with the architect is the best way to understand the project – what the owners want. “Otherwise, we are just making assumptions.”

Let’s look at a simple, 10-openings-or-less commercial office space, where the owner wants electronic access control on all openings. One way to accomplish this request is below.

Entry Door

The front doors will be fitted with electric latch retraction devices, which electro-mechanically control your door. There are two types: solenoid driven and motorized.

  • The solenoid latch retraction devices retract the latch but do not retract the push-pad. They also consume more power and often require a manufacturer-specific power supply.
  • The motorized latch retraction devices retract the latch and the push-pad. They consume less power and do not require a manufacturer-specific power supply. They are often the ideal choice for buildings where noise is a consideration, such as schools, hospitals and assisted living facilities.

In the case of fitting this office building with the right type of electronic access control device, the locks on the entry door will be fail-secure and non-fire-rated. As noted earlier in this article, when power is lost to fail-secure locking devices, the doors remain in a locked position but permits free egress and allow people to safely exit the building.  A Knox Box holding a master key to the building is mounted on the exterior of the building, so emergency services such as the fire department can gain access through the entry doors.

Computer Room

For security reasons, the owner has expressed that he wants this door locked at all times. The space also requires a fire-rated door to protect the equipment. In this situation, electronic access control can provide access to only a few individuals and the lock will be fail-secure in the form of either an electric strike with a storeroom lock set or an electrified lock set. That way, in the event of fire, the door will stay in the locked position – protecting the equipment in the room.

Office Door

The electronic access control can be either battery-operated or hardwired, depending on the owner’s preference. Most will choose battery-powered for the lower installation costs. In this scenario, the lockset will be fail-secure allowing people to safely exit the room in the event of a fire but leaving the door in a secured position. The door’s fire rating will help dictate which electronic access control is installed, as some are rated for 45 minutes while others are rated for 90 minutes.

Low-Energy ADA-Compliant Operators

Another consideration is compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires any public or private building to provide accessibility to everyone. Some examples include hotels, restaurants, mixed-use buildings, private schools and sports stadiums.

Installed above the door, a low-energy power operator behaves similar to a door closer as it controls the opening and closing of a door. Referring to the speed at which the door opens and closes, a “low-energy” power operator requires a “knowing act”.

Low-energy power operators allow access in and out of buildings, but they can also be installed on the interior of buildings in conjunction with fire doors. A good example is a hospital or school where a pair of doors connect to another wing of the building.

“Whether or not it’s a fire door, the low-energy operator is going to act the same way. It’s going to open when the actuator is pushed under normal conditions, but in the event of a fire alarm, the door needs to close and latch, preventing the door from opening and containing the spread of fire and smoke,” says Gordon Holmes, product manager for Hager Companies.

These two actions with the same opening contradict each other, and those who don’t understand the door and hardware industry can easily be confused by this.

“Most buildings are going to have a fire door located in them, and the distributor or installer(s) have to know how that works,” says Gordon. “The easiest way to explain it is by separating the two actions. In everyday use, there has to be a knowing act, so you push that plate and the door opens. When the fire alarm goes off, those openings have to be secured and shut.”

The door and hardware industry is on the forefront of making our buildings more secure environments to live, work, and play. The rapid development and lower cost threshold of technology is driving the implementation of electronic access control in our schools, hospitals, hotels, high-rise apartment buildings, nursing care facilities, and more.

As professionals in this ever-advancing industry, it’s our responsibility to provide customers with the best product choices while matching their security needs and meeting codes requirements.



Brian Clarke, DHT, AHC, DHC, CFDAI, CTD, CSI
is director of the Architectural Specifications Department and Technical Support at Hager Companies. Email: [email protected]