Top-Jamb Closer Installation and Service Tips

June 1, 2017
If you’re not installing closers, then you’re leaving a bunch of money sitting on the table for someone else to take.

Locksmiths and door closers go together like mechanics and automobiles. Why are locksmiths the main installer of door closers? Perhaps it’s because most of us do a superb job of it. Or, maybe it’s a matter of association. Closers, like locksets and deadbolt locks, are add-ons to ordinary doors -- and most important ones at that. The fact is, there’s good money in door closers. Besides the profit on equipment, there’s also labor charges.

For a moment, consider the ordinary, common top-jamb closer. Day in and day out, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do:

  1. Maintain backpressure thereby resisting a rapid, uncontrolled opening.
  2. Once open, sweep the door toward full closure.
  3. Close the door.
  4. Apply enough force for it to latch.

The fourth setting is probably one of the most important from a fire code perspective. This is because when a fire occurs, in some instances when stair towers and other areas are pressurized, the inside and/or outer doors can blow open if they are not already securely latched.

Nine-hundred-ninety times out or a thousand, they do their job well. Many of them do their job without a hitch for the lifetime of the door while others fail somewhere along the way.

When Door Closers Fail

Unfortunately there are times when these old die-hards fail because of installation issues and abuse. Sometimes they actually have fallen from atop a door, usually without causing an injury. There have been times, however, when someone has gotten hurt. This is a locksmith’s worst nightmare, one that could potentially wipe out his life savings while pulling the plug on his business.

“Manual door closers are ubiquitous. We take advantage of their service on a daily basis without usually noticing that they are in a place or that they are doing their job correctly. It is when something is seriously wrong with these closers that they become blatantly noticeable and potentially dangerous,” says Expert Witness Michael Panish, Nationwide Inspection and Testimony of Woodland Hills, CA.

According to ‘Manual Door Closers, Do You Have an Open and Shut Case?’ Panish says the top three reasons for door closer failure are: 1. misuse,  2. lack of knowledge on the part of those who use them every day, and 3. improper installation. All three can cause a door closer to not only fail, but to fall from the top of a door .

Installation Issues

One of the problems associated with top-jamb door closers that fail involves the loosening of through bolts and sex-nuts which can cause dysfunction. In some cases it’s clearly a lack of enough torque on the nuts and bolts. Where self-tapping screws are used, it’s often about the holes stripping out, most likely because of over tightening during installation.

Many locksmiths use all-purpose, self-tapping screws. One locksmith (who prefers to remain anonymous) says that not all closer manufacturers include self-tapping screws. He says that because of self-tappers, his men can put a door closer up in record time. He finished by saying that “time is money,” which is absolutely true.

Not everyone agrees, however. Rob Kowal, owner of Liberty Locksmiths & Security Products of Apopka, FL. says, “I’m not a big fan of self-tapping screws in this application because they can get stripped out. Everyone is using cordless screw guns or battery-operated drills. If you’re not careful, you can strip out these holes and not even know it. If you get a good quality closer it might be okay, but these imported ones, they keep getting cheaper and cheaper.”

Kowal says that the bottom line is this, if you can get a good bite, he’s okay with it. But, he still drills and taps these holes for 1/4-20 through bolts when possible. And where it’s not, he drills 3/8-in. holes and installs sex-nuts for shorter 1/4-20 machine screws.

Adjustments and Angles of Operation

Another issue is how locksmiths set up their top-jamb closers. For example, most if not all closers provide two settings that determine the angle to which a door will open. The two settings include 110- and 180 degrees. Kowal says that the 110-degree setting, which is usually factory default, can cause undo stress on the closer, the closer arm, and the door, all of which adds up to the possibility of premature failure.

 “You can always set a closer for 180 degrees and it will never place too much pressure on the door frame,” says Kowal. “You can open the door to its fullest and it will never cause a problem. These manufacturers shouldn’t even offer a 110-degree setting because 180 degrees will work every time.”

Up to four additional settings need to be balanced before calling it a day. Here are the main three with a brief description of each one. They are:

  1. Swing Speed: Controls the speed of closure from the point of full open to 5 degrees of closed.
  2. Latching Speed: Controls speed of closure for the final few inches to full closure.
  3. Backcheck: Implements a degree of push back when someone opens the door.
  4. Spring Tension: The fourth adjustment controls tension on the spring inside the closer.

The third setting is probably one of the most critical because it must be set just right so the door in question not only closes, but latches as well. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, fire code requires that these doors positively latch so when air pressure is applied in the building — be it caused by normal HVAC or stair tower pressurization — these doors remain latched because the doors in the building are working as designed.

Some say that adjusting a door closer is itself an art form. The best advice anyone can offer in this regard is to get the installation instructions for the closers your shop uses and refer to them when doing the adjustments. As they say, “practice makes perfect.”

The other aspect of top-jamb closers involves observance of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements. ADA is a federal law intended to assure accessibility and safety of those who are classified as disabled. For example, interior doors must not require more than 5 lb. of force to open them. This requirement is important for two reasons. First, handicapped individuals are often limited to the force they can expend in opening a door, especially when the door closer is adjusted wrong. The “back check” adjustment is the one that regulates pushback.

The second reason involves exterior doors which can vary by state. Where some allow 5 lb., others allow 6 lb., and still others allow up to 8.5 lb. Check with your state fire marshal to get this information before proceeding. You will need to purchase a pressure tool to check how much pressure it takes to open the doors you work on.