Best practices for designing electrical, power and lighting in government buildings

Learn how to specify electrical, power and lighting systems for government and military buildings

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer July 31, 2020


  • Chris Ankeny, PE, LC, LEED AP BD+C, Associate/Senior Electrical Engineer, Clark Nexsen, Virginia Beach, Va.
  • Mark Chrisman, PhD, PE, Health Care Practice Director/Vice President, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Randall Ehret, PE, Technical Director | Electrical, ESD, Chicago
  • Todd Garing, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Vice President, Mueller Associates Inc., Linthicum, Md.
  • Rob Jordan, PE, FPE, LEED AP, Mechanical Department Manager, Burns & McDonnell, Kansas City,
  • Julene May, PE, PMP, Chief, F-35 Beddown Program Management Office, Stanley Consultants Inc., Eielson AFB, Alaska
  • Jon Sajdak, PE, Associate Fire Protection Engineer, Page, Austin, Tex.
  • Troy Windom, Automation Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

Are there any issues unique to designing electrical systems for these types of facilities? Please describe.

Rob Jordan: For government and military facility projects, we often see requirements unique to electrical, power and lighting that involve how we source equipment specified in the design. To eliminate sole sourcing, we are required to take additional measures, such as specifying three acceptable manufacturers and models for products. This most commonly affects lighting fixtures. In addition, our clients often require special secure document handling procedures when procuring this equipment, which is typically unique to the federal industry.

Chris Ankeny: The government has design documents for most systems and certain building types. Being familiar with those as well as base or site specific requirements helps tremendously. For each project, the user group for the facility tends to know what they need, so listening to them describe their workflow is a huge help when trying to design their facility. We find project objectives can be adjusted, so it is important to provide flexibility in the design so it can adapt to changing conditions.

What types of unusual standby, emergency or backup power systems have you specified for such facilities? Describe the project.

Rob Jordan: In our combined heat and power (CHP) project for the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), we designed the CHP system so it can operate in “island” mode, allowing for the system to continue to power AOC assets in the event the utility grid is down. The system was also designed for future installation of a black-start generator to allow for starting the system should the grid be down and then continuing to run the CHP in island mode.

Chris Ankeny: One project we recently wrote the RFP for involved renovating a large 5-story warehouse into an office building for approximately 1500 people. In certain areas of the building an existing tenant was to remain (which already had full generator backup and large UPS system for their portion of the building). Reconnecting the existing tenant’s emergency systems while replacing the whole facility with an upgraded building service entrance switchboard and emergency system with two generators of our own for NEC 700, 701 and 702 systems, created quite a phasing challenge and Life Safety Code Analysis for new and existing occupant egress.

What are some of the challenges when designing electrical, power and lighting for government, state, federal, correctional and military projects?

Chris Ankeny: The individual user groups in the building and the mission requirements they need to meet often intersect with the system design of the facility. Certain rooms or areas needing to be isolated from other spaces is a prime example. On some higher security sites or regional locations, RF shielding or building power filters are project requirements.

Rob Jordan: One challenge we face when designing power and lighting for federal projects includes coordinating the standard building code documents with additional client codes and standards, like the UFCs for Federal/Military clients. These documents often have versions unique to a specific government or military branch (Air Force, Navy, etc.). For Department of Energy clients, a common challenge centers around the design team’s ability to gain access to the site or facility due to security requirements. With limited or no access to these spaces, which are often highly specialized, one-of-a-kind facilities, it presents a unique challenge to the design process.

How are such projects designed to ensure that the infrastructure can handle new, high-density equipment now and in the future?

Chris Ankeny: Incorporating scalable UPS power systems in data centers is a frequent request. A current design has a dozen or so data center racks with the initial build-out and is scalable to over 100 racks at full capacity.

Providing the ability to modularize the UPS and battery system can save significant upfront cost, while providing the infrastructure and space allowances to fully build-out the data center in the future.

What are some key differences in electrical, lighting and power systems you might incorporate in this kind of facility, compared to other projects?

Chris Ankeny: Central inverter systems for emergency lighting are becoming more prominent as LED lighting becomes part of our regular lighting design process. We also get frequent requests for full building generator backup, but only requested as a NEC 702 system. Figuring out the best approach to life safety systems (if the client is open to NEC 700 electrical system using the generator) or providing the NEC 700 loads from other means is a design decision that affects space planning, equipment selections and cost.

How does your team work with the architect, owner’s rep and other project team members so the electrical/power systems are flexible and sustainable?

Randall Ehret: It can be challenging to get a Day One vision for projects, let alone a Day N vision. It is contingent upon the design team to lead conversations that speak to emerging technologies and provide insights into potential future opportunities. With careful planning, a flexible/adaptable system can be configured without necessarily burdening the project with unnecessary additional costs.

Todd Garing: Our approach begins with listening. Because most often these types of projects require a multitude of types under one roof, we understand the building will evolve. We create a Venn diagram of programmatic needs and identify the intersections and the outliers, seeking greater flexibility in the intersecting areas. From an engineering perspective, we make sure today’s design does not inhibit — but instead promotes — the future needs of the owner and tenants, whether they’re known or unknown.

Chris Ankeny: Our firm has the benefit of full A/E services, so we are able to work as an integrated design team with our architects during the Concept Design Phase to plan out room sizes and preferred location requirements. This helps identify distribution pathways and limit oversizing systems such as conduit or branch circuits due to voltage drop issues.

For an airport security training center, we worked with the client requirements and our structural engineer to provide an in-floor raceway system (the client did not want raised floor) to allow flexibility in the mock security training bays as the large security equipment was anticipated to be replaced every few years via forklifts. The in-floor distribution system enabled the client to place new floorboxes and refeed power and telecom services to new equipment as needed.

Describe a government project with a high power load, such as a data center or research facility. What did it include and what best practices did you include for these facilities?

Rob Jordan: There is very little commonality in the electrical infrastructure of federal facilities. This is especially true of high-power demand systems where the typical criteria give way to the unique requirements of these facilities and the optimization of their equipment. In one recent project where we worked to repower an entire Marine Corps Air Station, our team designed high voltage substations and overhead distribution to meet the client’s needs. In another project, powering a combatant command campus, our work included the design and construction of microgrids using diesel generators, renewable power and energy storage. A recent federal research campus project included combined heat and power systems to take advantage of the waste heat from electricity generation to yield significant cost and environmental savings. Each of these projects and clients are unique and require a specialized solution. The commonality to these diverse projects is that the solutions provide the necessary resiliency required by the mission, are built to last for decades and serve the needs of the government.

Chris Ankeny: For the design a facility that tests the LiftFan for F-35B aircraft, coordination with the local power company and original equipment manufacturer to support test equipment and supporting infrastructure was critical. The primary equipment supporting the fan operation was integrated into the facility design and includes a 40,000 HP prime mover which is controlled by a Load Commutating Inductor (LCI) system, gearbox to step up the speed of the fan, mounting platform, hydraulic supply systems and other ancillary support systems.

Are you seeing more smart- or microgrid aspects on such projects? If so, how have you served these needs?

Rob Jordan: Our team has seen an increase in demand for microgrids and other smart projects. This is due in part to the paradigm shift we have seen in the automation and data aggregation in energy systems. Whether it is the collection of power consumption via AMI meters, the automation of electrical distribution for safely operating equipment at a distance or the complete automation of on-site energy generation for a military base, there is an exponentially growing demand for greater and greater intelligence to be built into our energy infrastructure. Building occupants can no longer work without high-quality power and the information collected by these systems can enable not only faster responses to outages but also identify issues before they become outages. In most cases, we find the best solution for these needs is to augment the existing infrastructure to support the new requirements. This approach leverages the existing investment of infrastructure and, more importantly, the comfort level of the equipment operators. In some cases, the new requirements are different enough from those currently in place, it makes sense to introduce a completely new technology into the existing site. In this scenario, it is best to involve the operational staff in the commissioning process as part of the overall training program.

Julene May: All the current construction projects on the Eielson AFB F-35 beddown program have incorporated LED lighting and motion sensing switches. Projects are also incorporating approximately half the electrical outlets also be tied to the motion sensing switches for energy conservation. More broadly we have seen increased interest in energy resilience features for critical missions, which has included redundant power generation and distribution, renewable energy, battery energy storage, fast load shed and microgrid controls. We have served these needs through power coordination studies and interaction with servicing utilities.

Chris Ankeny: Over the last few years, we have seen the focus shift from energy efficiency moving toward energy resilience and security — which smart- and microgrids, by their very nature, lend themselves to support well. A recent project was an electrical utility study for the entire medium voltage system of a base. It was a coordination study with an underlying purpose to identify weaknesses of the system and set them up for future buildout of smart- and/or microgrid systems, with the intent of improving their energy resilience.

Another type of smart- project for a municipality provided the installation of 15 off-grid smart poles that use lithium batteries and LED lights to store energy for up to eight days with no sunlight. This new technology reduces energy costs, while providing Wi-Fi access, charging ports and enhanced security features. They can even monitor sea-level rise and traffic patterns.

Most projects that have facility related control systems can be assimilated into either an already existing or a future smart- or microgrid. This is partly due to current and growing technology where control systems and utility equipment have “smart” connection capability already integrated into them. So by default, the design efforts on our projects directly support the ability to work with smart- and microgrids. In case where they already exist, our designers need to consider and coordinate with the existing smart- and microgrids accordingly.

What kind of lighting designs have you incorporated into such a project, either for energy efficiency or to increase the occupant’s experience? Discuss the use of LEDs or other updated light sources.

Chris Ankeny: The majority of our projects use LED lighting exclusively, with the energy savings, dimmability and unique form factors, LED lighting has transformed the way we design lighting systems. We haven’t seen many requests for color changing or circadian rhythm lighting, but we anticipate this will become a more requested design element as the trend toward wellness in buildings continues.

Todd Garing: The key is reducing the building load. Efficient lighting design includes the use of LEDs, which reduces energy costs but also saves lifetime maintenance costs. Layering in control strategies will further reduce the building load.

As engineers, we have a responsibility to set an example and promote energy efficiency and design sustainable solutions, for these are taxpayer-funded facilities. Depending on the project type, lighting design can also be used to instill a sense of civic pride (such as color-changing, façade/architectural element highlights) and celebrate the building’s contributions for the greater good of our communities.

Randall Ehret: LED lighting has been both good and bad for the industry. There are so many benefits to LEDs from power consumption, life span and physical size that there have been a great many new manufacturers and products introduced into the market. If you are not careful with your product selection, you can get inferior product. Even the major manufacturers in their zeal to take advantage of the smaller lamp size have pushed aside some of the cornerstones of good light-fixture design. I see poor or no reflectors, inadequate lens and other issues that can result in performance problems such as glare. With all the emphasis on providing a good work environment for users, we are losing sight of one the most important — good light quality.

When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are being requested? Are there any particular technical advantages that are or need to be considered?

Todd Garing: Lighting systems should be robust and as maintenance-free as possible. From an engineering perspective, the balance is promoting cutting edge technology (which saves energy) alongside proven methods that promote reliability and durability. From the same philosophy, lighting systems should be intuitive to use. You don’t want to usurp maintenance budgets just for system upkeep. All the while, we remain sensitive to how lighting systems integrate with architecture, especially when a project entails a restoration of an older or perhaps historic building.

Chris Ankeny: Clients more times than not ask for the lighting control system to be simple as possible. Trying to integrate simple controls and meet the energy code requirements presents a welcome challenge.