The Importance of Elevator Fire Enclosures

Elevators are crucial to modern high-rise buildings, allowing occupants to travel swiftly between floors. However, elevators also present a significant fire safety risk if not adequately protected.

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Elevators are crucial to modern high-rise buildings, allowing occupants to travel swiftly between floors. However, elevators also present a significant fire safety risk if not adequately protected.

Elevator fire enclosures are critical to meeting fire resistance requirements and ensuring you have a safety system in place for building occupants should anything go wrong. Let's dive into the importance of elevator fire enclosures and why they are an essential life safety element in any multi-story building.

What Are Elevator Fire Enclosures?

An elevator fire enclosure is a shaft constructed with fire-resistant walls and doors that completely surround an elevator. It is designed to contain fire and smoke within the enclosure for a specified period, usually one to two hours. The fire-rated enclosure protects the elevator shaft and equipment from the spread of flames, heat and smoke during a fire.

Properly installed fire-rated walls and doors isolate the elevator from the remainder of the building. Even if a fire occurs in the elevator lobby or other parts of the building, the fire enclosure helps prevent it from entering the hoistway and traveling uncontrolled throughout the building. The fire enclosure allows the elevators to remain operational for firefighting and evacuation efforts longer into a fire event.

How Do Elevator Fire Enclosures Provide Protection?

Two elevators in the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center showing the M400 Elevator Smoke Curtains. The smoke curtains drape from the top of the elevator to the floor and  are a transparent yellow color.

Elevator fire enclosures provide multi-layered fire protection through the use of passive and active fire protection systems:

  • Fire-Rated Walls and Doors: The walls enclosing the elevator shaft must be constructed of materials that meet a fire-resistance rating, typically 1 to 2 hours. This is achieved through multiple layers of fire-resistant materials like concrete, gypsum board and specialty insulation. Doors providing access to the elevator lobby and shaft wall must also meet fire rating requirements.

  • Smoke Detectors: Smoke detectors are installed within the elevator lobby and shaft to provide early warning of smoke and fire. The detectors trigger the elevator control systems to enact fire emergency protocols.

  • Sprinkler Protection: Automatic fire sprinklers are required in the lobby and shaft to suppress any possible fires. This helps control and extinguish fires before they can spread.

  • Ventilation: Vents at the top of shaft enclosures provide ventilation to prevent the buildup of smoke and hot gasses. Some systems use mechanically pressurized vents.

When these elements are properly installed and maintained, they work together to maximize the effectiveness of the fire enclosure. The fire-rated barriers contain smoke and fire, while active systems detect threats and facilitate suppression.

Benefits of Elevator Fire Enclosures

Elevator fire enclosures provide crucial advantages that enhance life safety in a high-rise fire:

1. Prevent Vertical Fire Spread

Uncontrolled vertical fire spread via the elevator shaft is hazardous in a high-rise building. Fire enclosures dramatically reduce this risk by containing fires in the initial area through fire-rated compartmentalization. This delays or prevents vertical fire from spreading to upper floors.

2. Allow Safe Elevator Use in a Fire

Elevators often continue operating in “fire service” mode during a fire emergency to assist in firefighting and evacuation. The fire enclosure helps maintain a tenable elevator shaft so firefighters can safely use the elevators to access the upper floors. Occupants can also use protected elevators to evacuate out of the danger zone.

3. Protect Vulnerable Occupants

Enclosed elevator shafts can also provide temporary refuge for mobility-impaired occupants who cannot use stairs to evacuate. Firefighters can then rescue them directly from the protected elevator.

4. Safeguard Equipment

The fire-rated enclosure shields critical elevator equipment like cables, controls and motors from exposure to smoke and fire. This allows elevators to operate for longer, even if a fire occurs in the building.

5. Reduce Economic Impact

Preventing fire spread via the elevator shaft greatly reduces building damage and business interruption in the event of a fire. Fire-rated enclosures limit damage to a contained area, allowing quicker cleanup and reoccupation.

Building Code Requirements for Elevator Fire Enclosures

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Given their importance for fire safety, building codes require elevator fire enclosures based on building characteristics. These requirements can be found in the International Building Code guidelines. Let's take a look at the code requirements:

  • All high-rise buildings over 75 feet in height must have elevator shafts fully enclosed by fire-rated barriers per IBC Section 713.14.

  • Enclosure walls must be constructed to meet a fire-resistance rating of at least 2 hours in non-sprinklered buildings and 1 hour in sprinklered buildings.

  • Doors providing shaft access must be fire-rated for 1 hour typically. They must be self-closing to ensure the opening is always protected.

  • The code permits some limited unprotected openings for elevator equipment, but they must be kept to the minimum size possible.

  • Any penetrations through the enclosure, like cables or ductwork, must be adequately sealed to maintain fire resistance.

  • Specific requirements also exist for the size and construction of the elevator lobby and associated doors.

  • Local jurisdictions may have additional or amended requirements for the model IBC code. Building owners should check local fire and building codes for specifics.

Proper code compliance ensures elevator fire enclosures meet minimum standards for life safety in a fire event.

Proper Installation is Paramount

While requirements are rigorous on paper, the real-world performance of any fire enclosure depends on proper installation and maintenance. Some key factors include:

  • Qualified Installers: Fire-rated enclosure assemblies have carefully tested designs that must be followed exactly. Using qualified technicians certified in fire-stopping and fire-rated construction helps avoid flaws in workmanship.

  • Following Specifications: Substitute materials or incorrect assembly can compromise the fire resistance. Construction should adhere closely to the specifications of the certified fire enclosure design.

  • Firestop Penetrations: Openings made for cables, pipes or other penetrations must be properly firestopped with the right materials and methods to seal openings.

  • Door Function: Doors must close and latch completely to provide the rated fire separation. Door hardware must function properly through routine inspection and maintenance.

  • No Unauthorized Openings: Any unprotected openings made after construction for convenience reasons can negate the fire resistance. Enclosure integrity should be maintained.

With attention to detail during installation and throughout the building’s life, the rated fire barriers will function as intended.

Elevator Fire Enclosures: A Critical Safety Component

Based on the dangers posed, it is evident elevator fire enclosures are one of the most vital life safety components in any high-rise building. Properly installed and maintained fire-rated enclosures significantly reduce the risk of loss of life and property destruction in a fire.

While other fire protections like sprinklers and alarms are crucial, they are most effective when integrated with properly enclosed elevator systems to maximize occupant safety. Studies show that elevator fire enclosures ensure that smoke migration throughout a building is minimal. Enclosures contain vertical fire spread and maintain tenable conditions far longer than unprotected shafts. Enclosed elevators can also continue operating to help evacuate vulnerable occupants in a fire emergency.

In new construction, proper fire-rated elevator enclosures should always be incorporated into the fundamental life safety design. In existing buildings, upgraded elevator enclosures are a cost-effective retrofit that pays dividends in significantly enhanced fire safety. Property managers and building owners should consult fire safety experts to ensure adequate elevator fire protections are provided.

Adhering to current fire and building code requirements for complete fire-rated elevator enclosures and associated fire-stopping provides the best guarantee of optimal safety. However, ongoing inspection and maintenance of these fire barriers is also essential to ensure they function properly when needed most. The minimal costs of routine maintenance are small compared to the catastrophic potential costs if a fire breaches a deficient elevator enclosure.

Elevator safety in building fires has come a long way since early unprotected shafts acted as literal chimneys for fire spread. Continued advancement in elevator fire enclosure designs, construction and code requirements promises even greater life safety in the future.

Education on the proven dangers posed by unenclosed or compromised elevators remains vital. Understanding these risks allows building owners, fire safety professionals and the public to advocate for proper elevator fire protections and prioritize resources where they can save the most lives.

Look to SG Architectural Specialties for Your Fire Protection Needs

At SG Specialties, our team specializes in high-quality fire and smoke protection systems. From installation to maintenance of these systems, our experts are here to help ensure your building is safe and equipped for emergencies. In addition to our systems, we can also provide a professional consultation about how to increase fire safety in your building and what system you should choose.

A fire protection system is vital to a building that can save people and assets and protect against safety hazards. Using a combination of active and passive systems, you can better equip your building for emergencies.

If you need fire and smoke protection, we are the team for the job. Explore our fire and smoke protection products today, or contact us to discuss which system is best for your building.