Stairway Lighting requirements (C) Carson Dunlop Associates Stair Lighting: Guide to Lighting Requirements & Codes for Stair, Landings & Building Exits or Egress Routes

  • LIGHTING OVER STAIRS & AT EXITS - CONTENTS: Lighting requirements for stairs & landings & egress or exits: specifications & codes. Stairway & Lighting & Light Switch Placement Requirements. Where are stair lights required, what level of stair illumination in footcandles or lux is required? List of Common Stair Lighting Defect.
  • POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about the requirement for lights & light switch placements at and over stairways
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Stair & exit lighting requirements:

This document provides building code specifications for lighting over stairs, in stairwells, and on landings. The location, switching, and illumination level for stairways are discussed and citations to pertinent codes and standards are included. Discussion includes both egress lighting and emergency egress lighting codes & standards.

We provide photographs, sketches, and examples of defects used in inspecting indoor or outdoor stairs, railings, landings, treads, and related conditions for safety and proper construction.

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Stairway & Egress Lighting & Emergency Egress LIghting

light not weather protected (C) Daniel Friedman

Here we describe the lighting and light switch requirements for stairs, landings, and similar structures. We also include REFERENCES to key documents on building codes and stair and railing safety.

Sketch at page top provided courtesy Carson Dunlop Associates.

Article Series Contents

Where is Stair Lighting Required? Stair Light & Switch Placement guide

Stairway Lighting is Required, with light switches at top and bottom of the stairway if the stairs encompass more than three stair treads (Canada) or six stair treads (U.S.).

Our photo shows an exterior light at an open stairwell to a second floor apartment. The light lost its weather protection, failed, leaving the occupant with a dark stairway. This defect combined with other slip and fall hazards to lead to an injury.

In a separate case, the loss of lighting at the usual front entrance to an apartment building led a tenant to attempt to enter from a different stairway that was not maintained, contributing to an injury there.

In a separate case a new home owner installed a bulb with watt rating higher than the light fixture permitted, resulting in a house fire when the overheated fixture melted, short-circuited, and set the plastic fixture and vinyl siding on fire.

Treads vs Risers when counting stair steps

FWIW, the reference for your "6-tread" requirement (top of the article) probably comes from NFPA 70 (2014): 210.70(A)(2)(c) as "Where one or more lighting outlet(s) are installed for interior stairways, there shall be a wall switch at each floor level, and landing level that includes an entryway, to control the lighting outlet(s) where the stairway between floor levels has six risers or more." Same as 2000 edition. That code ref is actually shown in full (omitting the exception) in the answer to the third FAQ in the article on "Stair & Exit Lighting Code FAQs", which asked about motion sensors in hotel stairwells.

Note that "six risers" is not the same as "6 treads" (which would only be 5 risers). The current figure, by Carson Dunlop, shows 6 risers. - NH Fire Bear by private email 2016/08/03

We agree, NHFB, that counting steps is confused by just the distinction you make. I prefer to counte "steps" which IMO means "steps-up" or "steps-down" between walking surfaces; that will always be synonymous with the number of risers, not the number of treads. In fact depending on how stairs ar connected, a six-riser stairway or six-step stairway might, if we count the top walking surface and the bottom landing surface, have eight walking surfaces.

Illumination Level Requirements for Stairways: Footcandles or Lux

The normal egress requirements for stairway lighting for new stairs is 10 footcandles per NFPA citations given at REFERENCES. FEMA notes that emergency lighting requirements may be different and in the ICC excerpt below we give an example of both normal and emergency lighting level requirements. OSHA specifies different lighting requirements that we also cite at the end of this section.

Egress Stairway Illumination Requirements per Building & Fire Codes

Walking Surface or Area Lighting Level in Footcandles
NFPA 1 & 101
Lighting Level in Footcandles
New stairways
10 (108) 1 (10.8)
Floors & other walking surfaces (not stairs) 1 (10.8) 1 (10.8)
Assembly areas during performances 0.2 (2.2) 0.2 (2.2)


Effective dates: NFPA as of 2003 in the U.S. but adoption by local jurisdictions may vary, typically beginning in 2005/2006 and extending forward to the current IBC 2015.

Illumination is measured at the walking surface.

Illumination is always-on, 24/7 but can be automatically dimmed.

Key NFPA Standards, Codes & Guidelines include

  • NFPA 1, Uniform Fire Code™, Chapter 14
  • NFPA 101, Life Safety Code®, Chapter 7

Note that jurisdictions may permit automatic dimming of stairways when the stair is not occupied and may permit automatic brightening of permanently-lit (dimmed at night) stairways by automatic sensor switches that detect occupancy or motion.

Adapted from FEMA, USA, "Means of Egress Illumination", FEMA U.S. Fire Administration / National Fire Academy, No. 2007-11 (2007), retrieved 2 April 2015, original source:

The most-current International Building Code Egress LIghting Code is the 2015 International Building Code (IBC) available from at this website:

In that document see 2015 IBC Section 1001, Chapter 10, Means of Egress whose discussion includes exit access stairways, exterior exit stairways, interior exit stairways, scissor stairways, stairs, stairways, spiral stairs, and winder stairs.

Quoting from FEMA who in turn excerpts from stairway lighting requirements described by the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy:

The means of egress walking paths through a building must be illuminated at all times the building space served by that means of egress is occupied. The lighting requirements are intended to provide the minimum illumination needed for a person to navigate through a building under all conditions, so that person doesn’t bump into objects or trip and fall over unseen obstructions.

Generally, the minimum required illumination in the means of egress is one foot-candle (or lux in SI units). Originally the “foot-candle” was the luminance at 1 foot from a standard candle, then at 1 foot from an international candle. It was then defined as the luminance produced by 1 lumen of “luminous flux” evenly distributed over a square foot. It is measured using a standard light meter employed for incident light measurement. The major model codes have one major difference in the requirements for illumination of new stairs.

The NFPA codes require new stairs to have not less than 10 foot-candles of illumination on the walking surface when the stairs are in use.
- FEMA, USA, ";Means of Egress Illumination";, FEMA U.S. Fire Administration / National Fire Academy, No. 2007-11 (2007), retrieved 2 April 2015, original source:

Reader Comment: Illumination may be natural or artificial

2016/07/26 NHFireBear said:

In this excellent article about required illumination of egress via stairs (or other required egress), it may be worth mentioning that "illumination" may be natural (during the day) or artificial.

If you have, say, 5,000 ft-cd of indirect sunlight coming in through the windows, you might not need to energize (or even install) any artificial lights 24/7 to meet the code requirements in facilities only occupied during the day.

Similarly, if you have natural light on an EXIT sign, it might not need to be artificially illuminated unless the building is occupied after dark.

Some codes, however, may require ACCESS and ESCAPE lighting for the safety of emergency responders entering certain types of "unoccupied" buildings after dark.

Question: Illumination level requirements different for outdoor vs. indoor egress stairs?

(Aug 24, 2016) Brennan said:
Has anyone seen a delineation between the required lighting for an exterior egress stair versus interior stair? I realize the NFPA is requiring 10fc for stairs, but does not state if applicable to both interior and exterior. 10fc at exterior environment is very high.

Reply: no.

(Aug 24, 2016) NHFireBear said:

In my personal opinion, subject to local differences, no, there is generally no NFPA 101 distinction for required intensity of illumination of egress stairs by whether they are interior or exterior.

However, the required illumination level is typically only 1 ft-cd, other than "new stairs during conditions of use", which is 10 fc, and only where "continuous illumination" at 1 fc is otherwise required under NFPA 101 (2009, 2015): 7.8. IBC (2009): 1006.2 only requires 1 fc for egress lighting (interior or exterior).

It is not generally a 10 ft-cd requirement as suggested by Brennan.

With few exceptions,

The means of egress illumination level shall not be less than 1 foot-candle (11 lux) at the walking surface. - IBC (2009) 1006.2 (depending upon type of occupancy). Interior or exterior. No difference.

In NFPA 101 (e.g., 2009 and 2015), only "new stairways" in exits require 10 ft-cd (at walking surface) when actually in use, and otherwise 1 ft-cd (i.e., for requirements of "continuous lighting"). Not all occupancies (chapters 11-42) have the same requirements for continuous illumination (or emergency illumination) of all means of egress components. Thus, the minimum would be 1 ft-cd unless otherwise required by national, state or local code.

This is not engineering advice and not official code advice -- simply an illustration of the overlapping codes. Your local code inspectors can assist you with any particular requirements they may have in ADDITION to the nationally published standards, if any.

OSHA Foot-Candle Illumination Requirements Citation

OSHA 1926.56(a) Table D-3 Standards for Workplace Illumination - Minimum Illumination Intensities in Foot-Candles

Area of Operation Illumination Required in Foot-Candles
General construction area lighting 5
General construction areas, concrete placement, excavation and waste areas, access ways, active storage areas, loading platforms, refueling, and field maintenance areas. 3
Indoors: warehouses, corridors, hallways, and exitways 5
Tunnels, shafts, and general underground work areas: (Exception: minimum of 10 foot-candles is required at tunnel and shaft heading during drilling, mucking, and scaling. Bureau of Mines approved cap lights shall be acceptable for use in the tunnel heading) 5
General construction plant and shops (e.g., batch plants, screening plants, mechanical and electrical equipment rooms, carpenter shops, rigging lofts and active store rooms, mess halls, and indoor toilets and workrooms.) 10
First aid stations, infirmaries, and offices. 30
Other areas. For areas or operations not covered above, refer to the American National Standard A11.1-1965, R1970, Practice for Industrial Lighting, for recommended values of illumination.


This OSHA standard pertains to

General. Construction areas, ramps, runways, corridors, offices, shops, and storage areas shall be lighted to not less than the minimum illumination intensities listed in Table D-3 while any work is in progress

OSHA, "Illumination", PN 1926, Safety and Health Regulations for Constructions, Subpart D: Occupational Health and Environmental Controls, Standard No. 1926.56: Illumination, GPO Source e-cfr.

Automatic Dimming of Stairway & Egress Lighting is Permitted

Hart (2004) discussed automatic dimming of lighting fixtures and outlined various dimming strategies to save on energy costs while meeting stairway and egress lighting requirements. The percentage of dimming and type of dimming fixtures varied. Hart discussed both 95% dimming and 60% dimming for unoccupied stairways depending on the types of occupant exiting, inter-floor traffic, and other stair use considerations.

Automatic, motion sensor-type lighting switches shall be permitted within the means of egress, provided that the switch controllers are equipped for fail-safe operation, the illumination timers are set for a minimum of 15-minute duration, and the motion sensor is activated by any occupant movement in the area served by the lighting units. - Life Safety Code©

ICC code citation on Means of Egress Illumination

The following model code excerpt specifies the illumination required for stairways based on the International Code Council (ICC) Section 1006 "Means of Egress Illumination"

1006.1 Illumination required.
The means of egress, including the exit discharge, shall be illuminated at all times the building space served by the means of egress is occupied.


1. Occupancies in Group U.
2. Aisle accessways in Group A.
3. Dwelling units and sleeping units in Groups R-1, R-2 and R-3.
4. Sleeping units of Group I occupancies.

1006.2 Illumination level.
The means of egress illumination level shall not be less than 1 footcandle (11 lux) at the walking surface.

Exception: For auditoriums, theaters, concert or opera halls and similar assembly occupancies, the illumination at the walking surface is permitted to be reduced during performances to not less than 0.2 footcandle (2.15 lux), provided that the required illumination is automatically restored upon activation of a premises’ fire alarm system where such system is provided.

1006.3 Emergency power for illumination.

The power supply for means of egress illumination shall normally be provided by the premises’ electrical supply.

In the event of power supply failure, an emergency electrical system shall automatically illuminate all of the following areas:

1. Aisles and unenclosed egress stairways in rooms and spaces that require two or more means of egress.
2. Corridors, interior exit stairways and ramps and exit passageways in buildings required to have two or more exits.
3. Exterior egress components at other than their levels of exit discharge until exit discharge is accomplished for buildings required to have two or more exits.
4. Interior exit discharge elements, as permitted in Section 1027.1, in buildings required to have two or more exits.
5. Exterior landings as required by Section 1008.1.6 for exit discharge doorways in buildings required to have two or more exits.

The emergency power system shall provide power for a duration of not less than 90 minutes and shall consist of storage batteries, unit equipment or an on-site generator. The installation of the emergency power system shall be in accordance with Section 2702.

1006.3.1 Illumination level under emergency power.

Emergency lighting facilities shall be arranged to provide initial illumination that is at least an average of 1 footcandle (11 lux) and a minimum at any point of 0.1 footcandle (1 lux) measured along the path of egress at floor level. Illumination levels shall be permitted to decline to 0.6 footcandle (6 lux) average and a minimum at any point of 0.06 footcandle (0.6 lux) at the end of the emergency lighting time duration. A maximum-to-minimum illumination uniformity ratio of 40 to 1 shall not be exceeded.

Reader comment: Use of automatic lighting controls at stairways

For the past several editions, the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code (LSC) has permitted "automatic lighting control devices" (including motion-sensing) in required egress lighting.

This allows some energy savings for unoccupied areas not needing to be constantly lit. Since at least the 2000 code they were required to be "fail-safe", i.e., failure of a single unit won't plunge the stairwell (or other pathway) into total darkness. Under the latest (2015) LSC, such "automatic" switching must meet additional requirements not generally available in your hardware-store motion-sensor light controls.

For example, they must energize the lights when the building fire alarm is activated (if there is one) and upon loss of normal power, and be "evaluated" for this function.

Previously, this was only required for installations and egress paths that also required "emergency lighting". In new installations, if energy-saving switches are installed for required lighting, they may come under close scrutiny of local code enforcement. As the new code is enacted and implemented there may be new and creative ways to deal with it economically. Ref NFPA 101 (2015):

There is an exception stating that "remote, central, or automatic control" of stairway lighting shall be permitted, in lieu of the required switches. Of course, such permission in the exception is subject to further restrictions by other codes (e.g., building code or life safety code). - NH Fire Bear by private email 2016/07/26


Comment: Exit Signs Illuminated at All Times (IBC) vs When the Building is Occupied (NFPA 101)

... soon after posting ..., I discovered an article in IBC 2009 that requires EXIT signs to be illuminated "at all times", where NFPA 101 generally only requires it when "building is occupied". We [building code compliance inspecdtors] would obviously prefer that owners and builders follow the "safer" standard.

IBC 1011.2 Exit signs shall be internally or externally illuminated. [except tactile signs]

IBC 1022.4 ... [internally illuminated, listed] Exit signs shall be illuminated at all times.

IBC 1011.5.3 [externally illuminated] Exit signs shall be illuminated at all times. [with 90-minute emergency power backup - NH FireBear by private email 2016/08/01

What's the Difference Between Egress Lighting & Emergency Egress Lighting?

Notes, courtesy of fire inspector NH Fire Bear, - private email, 2016/08/01

"Egress lighting" is not (yet) the same as an "emergency lighting" requirement. Emergency lighting is triggered by an event such as a power outage or a fire alarm. Egress lighting is not an "emergency", although many (if not all) of the same places required to be illuminated for "exit" are also required to be illuminated under "emergency" conditions. The amount and duration of lighting is, however, different. For instance, egress lighting must work ALL THE TIME. Emergency lighting need only work in case of emergency and then only for a minimum of 90 minutes. Egress lighting cannot be provided by battery power -- emergency lighting may be.

IBC (2015) has (yet again) re-numbered the sections so that Egress Lighting is now 1008.1 and Emergency Lighting is 1008.3. This is why you see references to codes with their dates, such as "NFPA 101 (2009) section x.y.z", because the sections numbers might change from one edition to another.

This distinction can become important where, as mentioned elsewhere, the fire prevention officers can enforce "life safety code" for the current use of previously existing structures, whereas a "building inspector" can (typically) only enforce code that was in force the last time the building had a change of use or occupancy, or substantial renovation or rehabilitation.

For instance, the building inspector can't necessarily force an existing and approved school to add constant or automatic egress lights for a previously compliant school classroom, but the fire prevention officer may require them when the school has later decided to post "EXIT" signs for paths that traverse such classrooms. You give the school the choice: take down the signs (because they're not actually "exits") or add the required lighting, or pay the fines when the AHJ decides to impose an official violation.

Question: who is responsible for maintaining egress stairway lighting: tenant or landlord? Is emergency backup lighting required?

(Aug 27, 2015) ernest said:

Stair case lighting from 2nd floor unit to 1st floor exit (2 lts.) and exterior light 1st floor (1 lt.) both egress and common area lighting in a apartment complex.

Who is responsible for cost to maintain this lighting, owner or tennent.

Should there be emergency back up?

Reply: it depends ...


The legal answer to your question rests with a local attorney who can see your lease agreement, knows local codes, and knows local rental laws.

Generally in an apartment building we expect the building management to maintain "commons" areas such as main stairwells, including interior and exterior lighting.

If you think there are unsafe conditions of any sort, including lighting, notify the building owner immediately both orally and in writing.

Emergency Lighting (Backup Lighting) at Stairways

Whether or not emergency lighting is required for your specific building depends on the building type, size, occupancy, and of course local building codes. Here is a modle answer from NFPA 101 Life Safety Code chapter 7.9 Emergency Lighting Emergency lighting facilities for means of egress shall be provided in accordance with Section 7.9 for the
(1) Buildings or structures where required in Chapters 11 through 43
(2) Underground and limited access structures as addressed in Section 11.7
(3) High rise buildings as required by other sections of this Code
(4) Doors equipped with delayed egress locks
(5) Stair shafts and vestibules of smokeproof enclosures, for which the following also apply:
(a) The stair shaft and vestibule shall be permitted to include a standby generator that is installed for the smokeproof enclosure mechanical ventilation equipment.
(b) The standby generator shall be permitted to be used for the stair shaft and vestibule emergency lighting power supply.
(6) New accesscontrolled egress doors in accordance with

Building code & standards requirements for stairs, egress lighting and/or emergency lighting are specified by the following codes and standards

Watch out: Some sections n the earlier IBC, such as (2009 edition) section 1006 Means of Egress Illumination, are now in IBC (2015 edition) section 1008. The IBC (2015) section 1006 now refers to Number of Exits and Exit Doorways. - NH FireBear by private email 2016/08/04

Full Text of IRC Building Codes 2006, 2012

The ICC has free, limited, live, online access to some of the latest codes, but I couldn't find the free link for IRC immediately.

Watch out: you will need to check with your local building department both to find out which national or model codes or standards have been adopted where you live as well as to determine if there are additional locally-enacted requirements in your building code jurisdiction.

List of Common Stair Lighting Defects

Carson Dunlop Associates' sketch at page top makes clear that a controlling switch must be located at the top and bottom of stairways. Here are some mistakes in stair lighting that can contribute to a stair fall or injury.

Indoor light fixture used outside (C) Daniel Friedman


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