Why Do I need an Egress Window in My Basement?

Adding square footage to your home can be done without expanding the main house. If you are lucky enough to have a basement, you can use it for various purposes. By adding a bit of drywall and flooring, you may quickly get a guest bedroom or an office, but not before adding an egress window or other acceptable emergency escape.

Most communities in the United States require that your basement has an operable emergency scape if your basement has one or more sleeping rooms. To meet this requirement, most builders construct basements with either an egress window or a door. But egress windows not only improve safety but also add value to your home. Basements with egress windows have more natural light, which is essential if they are converted into living spaces.

I first heard of the term egress window a couple of weeks ago. The contractor who just built my deck asked me to keep the egress window open so that one of his guys could access the basement from the outside.

I looked at my wife and asked her: what is an egress window? I knew it was time for me to research why I need an egress window in my basement. The following paragraphs show what I have learned about egress windows.

Overall Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings Requirement

Local code

Most communities in the United States have adopted the emergency escape and rescue openings of the International Residential Code of the International Code Council (ICC).

The code (R310.1) says in part that “Basements, habitable attics and every sleeping room shall have not less no fewer than one operable emergency escape and rescue opening […]

If you buy a new house with a basement as we did, it will likely come with either an egress window or the builder may give you an option to have a door. We had the option to have a door, but we decided not to do it because it was expensive.

The house we are currently renting has a door, so it doesn’t need an egress window.

Although local codes vary, if your current basement doesn’t have either an egress window or a door, you will likely be required to have one of the two if you convert your basement into a living space.

Egress Window Requirements and Dimensions

Local codes may vary, but most communities in the United States follow these minimum standards of the International Residential Code of the ICC.

These requirements will look logical if you think that the goal is for an average person to escape in an emergency.

  • The bottom of the egress window has to be no more than 44 inches above the floor. That hight enables an average person to get out easily, without climbing high. Make sure that no furniture is in the way of safe escape. If you have children, you may want to add a step in front, to make it easier for them to use it.
  • The minimum opening height must be 24 inches. The width of the window can not be under 20 inches. The window glass area has to be at least 8% of the square footage of the basement. The opening area has to be at least 4% of the basement’s square footage to enable ventilation.
  • Windows must be easily opened from inside, without any key. The opening system must be simple enough to be used by children.

Egress Well

An egress well is required if the window level is below the ground. Wells have to be large enough not to block the window when fully opened. Distance from the window has to be at least 36 inches, and the egress well area has to be at least 9 square feet.

Installing ladders is advisable, especially for children. They become mandatory if the well is deeper than 44 inches. An attached permanent ladder has to be built so that they are between 3 and 6 inches away from the well wall. Rungs must be at least 12 inches wide, and the distance between steps must be less than 18 inches.

Well Cover

Why Do I Need Egress Windows in My Basement? - Well Cover

Well covers are not required but are essential for safety if people can walk or children can play around it. They are also useful for protecting the window. If you install one, make sure it is easy to open from inside, and light enough for children and elderly to open. And the opening procedure can not include tools.

Be careful while landscaping around egress windows. Always make sure you did not accidentally block the cover by leaving something on top.

Egress Window Types

While the egress window size is determined by law, the window type is up to you. Maybe you want it to blend in with the rest of the house decore, or perhaps you want to save space. There are a few options to consider:

  • Two side slider
  • Double-hung
  • Casement
  • Double casement

Any type will serve the primary purpose. Depending on a window type, make sure there is no furniture preventing the full opening. If you have children, and egress window type is different from the rest of the windows, show them how to use it.

Egress Window Maintenance

Egress windows are almost maintenance-free. Open it regularly to make sure it works well. If your egress window has a well, clean it from grass, rocks, branches, and any other possible obstacles.

Ensure your family members and other tenants understand that the egress window needs to be obstacle-free and that they are not allowed to put any furniture nearby.

Regularly check the well cover to make sure it is not rusty and that the opening mechanism works fine. If you notice any irregularities, make sure it is fixed.

Benefits of Having an Egress Window

You may think of the egress window as just a safety requirement without any other advantages. But that is not true; there are benefits of having an egress window other than safety. These are some of them:

Natural light – basements without natural light can be a little depressing. An egress window will let sunlight in. Of course, it is not the same as having a regular window, but it is much better than not having any.

Ventilation – By opening the egress window, you will always have a source of fresh air, which will prevent humidity.

Increase in Retail Value – If you plan to sell your house, a finished basement adds value. And to be able to sell it for the right price, everything has to be done according to code. An egress window will help with that.

Egress Basement Window Installation Video

Let’s illustrate this post with a DIY video. It’s a good thing that I already have it because I don’t have the skills to install an egress window in my basement. If you are thinking of doing it yourself, this may help.

Final Thoughts

This is one of those topics that is beyond your control. If you want to have a finished basement, you have to have an acceptable emergency escape. Make sure you meet your local code so that you can fully enjoy your house without headaches.

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