ADA, Older Buildings and the Locksmith

With extra effort and training, locksmiths can become accessibility and security experts.


Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, then put the legislation in action with a set of accessibility guidelines in 1992. ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government services, public...


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However, older “drop bar” exit devices may not comply with local codes. Surface exit device bottom rods and latches on pairs of doors with surface vertical rod exit devices can catch on wheelchair footrests or wheels. They must either be removed (reducing security) or be covered with a latch guard to provide an unobstructed surface to prevent wheelchairs or carts from striking the latches or rods. The push side of the door must have a 10-inch high clear surface across the entire door bottom.

A three-foot wide door on butt hinges meets the 32-inch clear opening requirement. However, a three-foot wide door on 1-1/2 offset pivots on a pair of doors with a fixed mullion falls just below the limit. One solution (other than tearing out the opening and starting over) is to hang the door on surface applied swing clear continuous hinges. If the door rests on an existing floor closer, it will likely be necessary to remove or disable it and install a surface door closer overhead.

Many older buildings have exterior and interior five-foot pairs of doors that do not meet opening clearance requirements. One solution is the replace the pair with an “uneven” pair of doors, three-foot and two-foot leaves. If the door is in the path of exit, building codes may require an exit device on both leaves of the pair. Before tearing out an opening, be sure to check local historical building laws. Automating five-foot pairs of doors may be the only solution.

Accessibility codes require unobstructed side clearance on both the push and pull side for wheelchair maneuverability. This can be a major problem on many buildings where the doors are set back into a marble or concrete reveal. The solution may be to move the doors, or automate them.

ADA accessibility standards limit the opening force of interior doors to 5 lbs., measured at the pull or lock spindle. A maximum opening force of 8-1/2 lbs. is considered the standard in many local codes. ADA is not specific about exterior door force and leaves the opening force for fire-rated doors to local code officials. Typically, the prevailing code opening force limit for fire rated doors is 15 lbs.

The Uniform Building Code and California Building Code opening force limit for exterior doors is 5 lbs., reduced from 8-1/2 lbs. in 1997. Advocates for the disabled would like to have the 5 lb. (or less) limit in all code jurisdictions. However, since the attacks of 9/11, many building owners secure their buildings with locking hardware. The 5 lb. opening force limit results in a closing force of about 3 lbs. under the best of conditions. Most buildings rarely have “the best of conditions,” leaving accessibility and security at odds. The installation of an automatic door operator waives the opening force requirements for the door on which it is installed, and allows a higher opening and closing force on adjacent doors. There is no code mandate for automatic doors, but they are often the only solution to accessibility and security issues.

Automatic door operators solve many code problems. ADA’s accessibility guide states that if an automatic door operator is to be installed, it must meet American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for automatic pedestrian doors. Specialty contractors with affiliations with door operator manufacturers typically install these operators. However, at least three companies offer low-energy (ANSI A-156.19 standard) door operators through distribution channels that are available to contractors and lock shops. The independent locksmith can install these products with conventional tools and a basic knowledge of electrical hardware.

An automatic door operator system consists of at least two components, the door operator and the actuator switch. If a door is fire labeled or if it is a security door, the door must have a third component, an electric strike, magnetic lock, or latch retraction exit device. If the door is fire labeled, it must close and latch upon activation of the fire alarm or smoke detection system. A latch retraction exit device or electric strike should release upon actuation of the door operator switch and there should be a brief delay before the door begins to open. This prevents jamming of the strike or latch. Some manufacturers include the time delay and strike relay in their controls. Others offer the strike time delay relay as an option. Manufacturers of electric latch retraction exit devices also offer a synchronizing relay or controller with their power supplies.

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