Battling the complexity of designing government facilities: Electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety

The government can be a tough customer, and the projects that state, municipal, federal, and military entities approach engineers about are highly complex. Here, engineers with experience tackling such tall orders offer advice regarding electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 28, 2016


Mohamed Abdelmoneim, PE, Peng, LEED AP BD+C, Senior Electrical Engineer, EYP, Washington, D.C.

Raymond Krick III, PE, LEED AP, Project Manager, RMF Engineering, Baltimore

Allen Poppe, PE, MBA, Principal Mechanical Engineer, Mechanical & Chemical Group, Manager, Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa

Rick H. Troberman Jr., PE, LEED AP, CBCP, Mechanical Engineer, EEA Consulting Engineers, Austin, Texas Lindsay

Zanders, PE, PMP, Sr. Project Manager/Director of Projects, Primera Engineers Ltd., Chicago 

CSE: Describe a recent electrical/power system challenge you encountered when working on a government, state, municipal, federal, or military project.

Abdelmoneim: I am currently involved in a new overseas hospital project. The hospital is in a remote location with no nearby electrical utility service. The building has two major requirements: 1.) an entire floor for various hospital functions and 2.) staff residences. The biggest challenge is setting a reliable, electrical-power distribution system that abides by codes and standards. However, the codes and standards that are referenced have contradicting requirements for the power distribution system. Another challenge is clearly identifying and defining all of the equipment planned to be used in the facility. To avoid potential issues, different power distribution system requirements from the various codes-along with associated pros and cons-were presented in an early design charrette. Medical equipment needs were then further defined as the design progressed. This example of early and continuous engagement with the project’s various stakeholders is imperative for a project’s success.

Zanders: Government buildings tend to be older and, since the ownership doesn’t change over time but the use of the space does, have likely undergone several renovations. One common electrical challenge we have encountered is the organization of the distribution system. Due to past renovations or quick repairs, existing branch panelboards that were once dedicated now contain a variety of different areas and/or load types. In these cases, spare circuits are pulled wherever they are found regardless of panel intent, so long as the power characteristics match up. Assumptions cannot be made, and all unlabeled circuits need to be traced. Oftentimes, due to budget and project intent, wholesale reorganization of the distribution system is not possible. For a recent project, we determined a panel was overloaded due to the application of window air conditioning (AC) units. Individual branch circuits had been maxed out due to the combined loads and all of the spaces within the panel being used. A new branch panel helped divide out the AC units from the general receptacle and lighting load. To offset the cost of the new panel, feeder taps were used in lieu of modifying the distribution panelboard and installing new long-source feeder runs.

CSE: How do you work with the architect, owner, and other project team members to make the electrical/power system both flexible and sustainable at the same time?

Zanders: Communication with the key stakeholders is important when determining the appropriate electrical design solution. Government owners tend to have longevity in mind, so we look to implement systems that include growth opportunities. The long-term plan for the space will determine the level of flexibility needed. For example, will the owner revamp the space every election cycle to cater to the layout dynamic dictated by the new staff, or will the walls and general location of workstations remain the same? More costly solutions, such as in-floor cellular raceway systems, may not be needed if the layout will remain consistent. Planning at the circuit level will help with future operations since everything is becoming increasingly electronic-centric. Providing this growth opportunity within each circuit and with panelboards will allow for the increase of load at the outlet without the need for pulling a new homerun.

Abdelmoneim: First and foremost, the owner’s input is critical for establishing an understanding of future flexibility requirements and for strategizing how to meet sustainability goals. At EYP, we foster a "day one thinking" approach where all design team members (including architects, engineers, and people from other disciplines) sit together in the earliest design stage to define the project’s current and future needs. This includes, but is not limited to, ensuring that adequate real estate is allotted for the electrical equipment, incorporating enough spare capacity and ampacity into the electrical system, and making provisions for future generator pads, electrical infrastructure, and connections. Building spaces may get repurposed over time, and sometimes, horizontal expansions are planned for adding new buildings on the same campus. The electrical system should always be responsive and accommodate such future needs without oversizing the systems. One other challenge would be when dealing with open-office layouts and raised-floor systems. In addition, furniture-plan layouts are not usually finalized by the time the projects are out for bid, so related design can present a challenge. This requires careful thought and strategic collaboration between the interior designer and electrical engineer to determine the number of employees, ratios between supervisors and employees, and required electrical infrastructure to fit clients’ needs without impacting the overall budget. Also, where raised-floor systems are implemented, power distribution boxes are strategically placed in zones to accommodate possible furniture layouts and required circuit density.

CSE: What lighting/lighting controls are in high demand for government, state, municipal, federal, and military facilities? Describe a recent lighting design project.

Krick: Unless the objective is to earn LEED Silver certification or higher, only basic lighting controls, such as occupancy sensors, dimmers, and zone controls, are specified. Advanced controls are simply not within budget for most of our government, state, municipal, federal, and military facility projects.

Zanders: Lighting automation continues to grow in popularity. Since energy codes have very specific requirements for lighting and control, public-funding owners, along with all other types of project owners, have mandatory compliance. Lighting controls, in particular, add a layer of complexity. To capitalize on these energy savings, owners are turning to automation. In short, it eliminates the element of human error. Automation is frequently used to dim lights in daylighting zones and extinguish lights in rooms that are not in use. Vacancy-sensor design plays on natural tendencies to manually turn on the lights when entering a dark room and has the benefit of eliminating false-ons. Unfortunately, highly flexible and automated systems are typically the first things cut when value engineering a project.

CSE: Describe a recent standby, emergency, or backup power system you designed, and its challenges and solutions.

Zanders: Due to the increased reliability of electrical grids, buildings found in urban/city locations typically do not have emergency systems beyond a double-ended switchgear and second utility connection. For typical government agencies, excluding critical operation centers, emergency systems are primarily applied to detainment and correctional facilities.

Krick: RMF encountered several emergency-generator design challenges for a recent lab-renovation project at Fort Detrick in Maryland. The first challenge was finding a suitable location that was not objectionable due to noise. We did not face the typical challenge of avoiding local ordinance sound levels, but noise was a factor due to the research taking place at the facility. We were able to place the noisy generator outside of the building, near some less sensitive spaces, and provide a sound attenuator enclosure to minimize the noise transmission. The intake of exhaust fumes into the building ventilation system was also a concern, but the design team was able to coordinate the outdoor-air intake early in the design process to greatly exceed the owner’s project requirements for separation. Additionally, we held a value engineering session to help the owner understand the need to take nonessential equipment off of the generator to meet the project’s budget.

CSE: Are government, state, municipal, federal, and military clients requesting addressable lighting systems? If so, describe the project.

Zanders: In our experience, when evaluating project costs, addressable lighting systems are commonly eliminated. Although these systems provide great flexibility, they are typically propriety and carry a cost premium. Since publicly funded spaces have longevity in mind, the ability to reprogram the space without rewiring is a benefit. However, government buildings experience turnover so infrequently that these benefits are underused. Subsequently, the costs are viewed as unnecessary.

CSE: What are some of the challenges for fire and life safety system design for government, state, municipal, federal, and military facilities? How have you overcome these challenges?

Zanders: Overlapping jurisdictions add a layer of complexity to these projects. Oftentimes, one government agency operates within a separate authority. For example, a federal building located in Chicago is exempt from local and state code requirements; however, the Chicago Fire Department is the first responder for all buildings within the municipality. Therefore, city codes need to be considered in the design of the fire and life safety systems. Open communication between the different agencies is key to ensuring there are no gaps that could ultimately jeopardize life safety.

CSE: What are the recent changes or updates you are experiencing for mass notification systems in government, state, municipal, federal, and military facilities? Are clients requesting more "active shooter" notification systems, and if so, how is your team designing these?

Zanders: Mass notification is already a system present on military bases as part of their standard unified facility criteria. It makes sense because communicating a message to the entire base, such as emergency deployment for a natural disaster, is necessary. Mass notification systems in other government, state, municipal, and federal facilities are not yet mandatory; however, the request to modify other infrastructure to provide some level of mass notification is on the rise. A solution we have implemented is to use the building’s fire alarm speaker system to communicate messages to all building occupants. Note, however, that this solution does not work in campus situations with multiple buildings because the message will not be communicated to adjacent building occupants. The 2017 edition of NFPA 101 will require a risk assessment for mass notification application. NFPA 72’s Chapter 24 is a guideline on how to perform this risk assessment. Until then, mass notification systems remain a voluntary choice for the owner to increase safety and communication among buildings.