Automatic Door Operators are an ADA Bonus

Nov. 1, 2007
Doors openers should - and can - accommodate people of all ages and abilities

By M. Christopher Smith

Automatic door operators are often used to make door openings accessible and meet the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they also provide added convenience for a wider range of users. By concentrating only on ADA accessibility, building owners, facility managers, and others responsible for providing accessibility sometimes overlook the broader benefits of installing automatic operators.

ADA compliance and convenience can be complementary issues. For example, mechanical door closers that are adjusted to higher closing powers for difficult-to-close doors are often not ADA accessible and can be difficult for non-disabled persons to open as well. On the other hand, it may be possible under some conditions to accommodate ADA compliance by adjusting the mechanical door-closer force to Size 1, although this may not provide enough power to close the door completely due to weather conditions and building pressures. In most cases, automatic door operators are the best option to provide ADA accessibility and ensure that a door closes. Typically, it may only be necessary to equip one door in a bank of doors.

ADA accessibility should not only be looked at as simply a design for disability, but also a function to serve everyone that uses the facility. In addition to meeting the needs of the 54 million Americans with disabilities, an accessible building is more convenient for the elderly, children, and people carrying heavy loads, pulling laptop bags, or pushing strollers. It is a business advantage to create an environment that accommodates all ages and people.

Although the latest guidelines aren't official yet, they differ from the previous version primarily in format or organization. It makes sense to become familiar with the changes and work to implement them before they become mandatory. Being proactive can help a building owner or facilities manager avoid issues on current and planned projects, and ensures they remain compliant and contemporary further into the future.

Many Types of Automatic Operators Available
Manufacturers provide a wide variety of automatic door operators to meet the many different combinations of door openings, traffic patterns, and conditions found in the field. Some of the types available include:

  • Electro-hydraulic low-energy automatic operators.
  • Concealed pneumatic low-energy automatic operators.
  • Pneumatic low-energy automatic operators.
  • Electro-mechanical low-energy swing-door automatic operators.
  • Electro-mechanical low-energy with reduced manual opening force swing-door automatic operators.
  • Electro-mechanical low-energy automatic operator for light- to medium-traffic applications.
  • Electro-mechanical high-energy automatic operator for high-traffic applications.

Such a variety of choices gives rise to some confusion about which one to use in a given application. The following brief review of the main characteristics of each type may help when selecting an automatic operator.

Electro-hydraulic low-energy automatic operators are designed primarily for manual opening applications where there is occasional need for automating the door to meet ADA requirements. They combine a conventional heavy-duty door closer with a low-energy automatic operator. One manufacturer incorporates a highly reliable 10-million cycle, cast iron door closer, and a digital control suite with onboard diagnostics that makes installation a simple plug-and-play process. Typical installations might include a door in a school building that operates manually most of the time, but can be activated in automatic-operator mode with a touch plate close to the door, either on a wall or bollard post. Some facilities are using wireless remote devices issued only to those who need them to avoid abuse or misuse of the operators.

Concealed pneumatic low-energy automatic operators are ideal for applications where aesthetics are important while still meeting ADA guidelines for manual openings that require occasional automatic opening. They are built around a heavy-duty door closer for manual operation, combined with a pneumatic low-energy operator to power the door when required. Power for the operator can come from the building's in-house air supply, if available, or from a small remote compressor available from the manufacturer of the door operator. In an application such as a library, pneumatic operators provide accessibility without visibility, and their quiet pneumatic operation is an added advantage. The compressor can be used to power more than one door, providing a significant cost advantage where multiple powered doors are required.

Pneumatic low-energy automatic operators are also available for surface-mount applications. Pneumatic operators are a great solution for use in hazardous areas where electrically operated devices are not permitted. They are ideal for multiple doors because the cost per door leaf decreases significantly as the number of door leaves increases. Also quiet in operation, they can be combined with pneumatic exit devices for safety and silence in applications such as libraries, churches, hospitals, or laboratories.

Electro-mechanical low-energy swing-door automatic operators are designed to open automatically when activated, yet allow manual operation for normal traffic. Unlike the previous operators, they are not built around a door closer; rather, they are gear-driven for applications where automatic operation is the primary mode. They typically are activated by an actuator mounted on a wall or bollard post. One system provides automatic power assistance for those who need it once the door is pushed. Other available features include power boost-assisted closing to ensure secure latching when dealing with winds or pressure changes, as well as auto-reverse on the open and close cycle, which reverses operation if the door comes into contact with a person or object. Typical applications include cross-corridor doors or other frequently used openings in hospitals or student housing.

Electro-mechanical low-energy, low-manual opening force swing-door automatic operators offer a low opening force (8.5 pounds) in the manual mode and low-energy automatic swing-door operation. Designed primarily for automatic applications, it also allows for manual operation with "push-and-go" operation. The low-manual opening force makes it ideal for assisted-living facilities, elementary schools, and other applications where users may not have the strength or stature to apply the 15-pound force required to initiate motion with most automatic operators.

Electro-mechanical low-energy automatic operators for light- to medium-traffic applications are designed to provide cost-effective and reliable access for people with disabilities and the elderly where there is light to medium traffic. They can be retrofitted to existing manual doors and also include push-and-go operation to achieve automatic operation without the added expense of optional activation accessories. These units are ideal for interior doors (bathrooms and utility closets).

Electro-mechanical high-energy automatic operators for high-traffic applications are designed to manage heavy traffic flow in areas such as retail stores or airports. They provide a flexible solution, with control over opening speed, backcheck speed and position, latch position, and hold-open duration. Unlike the previously mentioned low-energy operators, these high-energy products require added safety devices (such as safety mats or other sensors) to control the flow of users through the door and guard rails to keep non-users in the area away from the door's swing path. The sweep of a high-energy door operator typically is about 1.5 seconds, compared to the 3- to 5-second sweep of a low-energy operator.

While the final choice of automatic door operator will depend on the needs of the specific application, following the ADA guidelines will ensure that people with disabilities will have the accessibility they need and will also provide convenience to many others.

M. Christopher Smith is product manager, automatic operators, at Carmel, IN-based Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies (

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