Building efficient colleges and universities: electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety

Colleges and universities face a long list of challenges, as do the engineers tasked to help construct and modify the facilities at these institutions. Here, experienced professionals share their knowledge regarding electrical/power/lighting and fire/life safety.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 31, 2017


  • Don Harrisberger, PE, LEED AP, Principal Engineer, Southland Engineering, Los Angeles
  • Timothy J. LaRose, PE, Vice President Development, Education & JENSEN HUGHES Academy, JENSEN HUGHES, Warwick, R.I.
  • Julianne Laue, PE, LEED AP, BEAP, BEMP, Senior Energy Engineer, Mortenson Construction, Minneapolis
  • Robin Mosley, PE, LEED AP, Associate Partner, Syska Hennessy Group Inc., Newport Beach, Calif.
  • Liza Sandman, PE, Project Manager, RMF Engineering, Charleston, S.C.
  • John Teeter, PE, Mechanical Department Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

CSE: What types of smart grid or microgrid capabilities are owners demanding, and how have you served these needs? Are there any issues unique to these projects?

Mosley: We have investigated the use of fuel cells for universities to help provide combined heat and power or backup power to their facilities. The lifecycle costs for these solutions show significant payback time periods, therefore power-purchase agreements are usually the only feasible options to economically install fuel cells on campuses.

Laue: I haven’t seen owners demanding microgrids or smart grids. However, we are seeing an increase in requests for the team to study the feasibility of smart grids and microgrids and how they can be added to a current campus system. Owners are looking to reduce costs and ensure reliability while proving research and educational opportunities for students. There is increased interest in understanding options, costs, and how these can impact the campus in the future.

CSE: Describe a lighting control or addressable lighting project you’ve completed in one of your college or university projects. What were the challenges and solutions?

Sandman: Our company designed a lighting system throughout the Clemson Watt Family Innovation Center with energy-efficient LED light fixtures. With the exception of the egress and exterior, the light fixtures are power over Ethernet (PoE). Each fixture is connected to power and data over one Ethernet cable to a PoE switch. The PoE switch, located above the ceiling and local to the lights, has eight 30 W ports to serve eight light fixtures. One line-voltage connection is required at each switch. Since each light fixture is connected to a data switch, each has an IP address and is individually addressable and controllable. The lighting control system consists of a computer in lieu of a dimming/relay panel. When the programming for a classroom is changed, the lighting controls can just as easily be changed. The light fixtures also can be easily programmed for daylight harvesting, since they are inherently dimmable and have integral occupancy/light sensors. The smart PoE system has eliminated the need for a licensed electrician to rework the conduit, wiring, and connections. The Category-5 cable connection can be unplugged, moved to a different location, and plugged back in. The data connection also will allow monitoring of power consumption.

Due to this being a new technology, there were a few challenges to overcome. The first is that the PoE switch is located above the ceiling, local to the light fixtures. The original switch had a cord and plug and was intended to be plugged into a receptacle. This is not permitted by NFPA 70: National Electrical Code (NEC), 400.7, as flexible cords must not be concealed by walls, floors, or ceilings, or located above suspended or dropped ceilings. Philips had to redesign the switch by removing the cord and plug and replacing it with a junction box for a hard-wired connection. Newer system designs have the PoE switches installed in a data rack in the building’s information technology closet. Additionally, the power rating per port has increased from 30 to 60 W. The second challenge we came across was that the switch was not UL-listed for use under NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. It was uncertain if the lights would energize within the required 10 seconds upon a utility power loss. Line-voltage light fixtures were used for egress lighting to remedy this issue, and now there are PoE switches that have an integral UPS to prevent the system from shutting down at all.

Fire/Life Safety

CSE: What are some of the challenges for fire and life safety system design for college and university facilities? How have you overcome these challenges?

LaRose: The increasing threat of fire related to the excess quantities of hazardous materials in collaborative research spaces is a challenge. This is a constant battle in the higher education space. Communication on how spaces are used and what type of hazards will be in each area of the building is essential between university planners, researchers, and the environment, health, and safety departments. JENSEN HUGHES always tries to be as involved in the design process as the owner and design team allow us based on our contracted scope. Generally, the university does not have the answers to how each space will be used so it is always an education process for the end user on the limitations of the building design. The only way to overcome these challenges is to get the university and, ultimately, the end user of the building on board very early in the process, because if not, they will likely not understand the limitations and end up violating the code requirements and intent of the building design. We also must keep in mind that researchers have a high turnover rate and re-educating new occupants is essential. Every higher education facility handles this differently, and many do not handle it well.

CSE: What types of systems have you put in place to handle other types of incidents, such as active shooters, bombings/explosions, and natural disasters? What have you done to meet the increase in these types of life safety systems for college and university facilities?

Sandman: Our company has made it a practice to specify fire alarm systems with speaker systems in all student-occupied buildings. The purpose behind this is for the system to also be capable of notifying occupants of more issues than just fires. Where allowed, the word “fire” is eliminated on notification appliances to avoid unnecessarily triggering the alarm.

LaRose: Our company has provided modeling and evaluation services using traditional occupant-egress modeling overlaid with research and data from past events for “active shooters” or “armed aggressors” and bomb threats for some high-profile higher education facilities. The modeling results are eye-opening to the higher education facilities and allow them to run unlimited scenarios without having to conduct live drills, which are costly and difficult to repeat. We focus on large assembly venues and special events that may be overlooked when considering the normal use of the spaces. Our firm has also conducted full-campus evaluations to determine the best-available refuge areas (BARA) using our specialty structural engineering services from our nuclear fire protection group, which has extensive experience conducting these evaluations for Nuclear Regulatory Commission compliance. With our suite of specialty engineering services, we are able to provide the structural-integrity evaluations while also providing the traditional life safety-evaluation aspects necessary to determine adequate space allocation for BARA locations. We have provided this service for a prominent university, along with an adjacent affiliate hospital, located in an area of the country subject to tornadoes. We are able to provide the same service for other natural disasters that result in high wind, flooding, or seismic activity.

CSE: Do you see any future changes/requests to building design in regard to fire/life safety systems?

LaRose: The 2018 editions of the IFC and NFPA 101 will have new requirements for mass notification risk assessments for all new buildings built on higher education campuses. I foresee an increase for in-building and exterior mass notification systems in the next 5 to 10 years based on these requirements. I would advise higher education facilities to stay ahead of these requirements now so any investments in these systems are well thought out prior to the regulations changing.

CSE: Describe the cost and complexity of fire protection systems involved with such structures. Have they changed over the years?

LaRose: The systems that have really changed have been the protection of hazardous materials due to ever-changing chemicals. Proper selection of active fire suppression systems and design of passive-building features to accommodate high quantities of hazardous materials are complex problems that sometimes result in complex solutions. Often, we are able to simplify the fire protection approach to minimize initial construction cost and long-term maintenance costs. Usually, the solution is derived based on a misunderstanding of the use and hazards of the space. A generic example is the use of clean agents for high-hazard storage areas. When manufacturers of clean agents are told that there will be “unknown” chemicals in a storage area, many will not provide warranties for their system because they haven’t tested their agent with all possible stored chemicals. Most of the time, the best solution is just a wet-pipe sprinkler system. There are some very important exceptions, such as water reactives.

CSE: What unique egress or emergency communication systems have you specified in college and university facilities?

LaRose: The mass notification system equipment on the market is rapidly evolving right now, and we have specified the integration of different types of systems, such as new big-voice speakers that are capable of incredibly intelligible messages with a single speaker over long distances and varying terrain, advanced distributed-recipient technology, digital signage, and text-to-speech.

CSE: In extremely large complexes, what unique smoke control or fire suppression systems have you specified? Please describe.

LaRose: Smoke control is not necessarily by specification, but rather by approach. In extremely large complexes, if smoke control is required at all, we would take a performance-based approach using Fire Dynamics Simulator modeling and occupant-egress modeling to determine the best application of active and passive smoke control. In very high-ceiling spaces, we would use that same approach to determine if fire suppression or automatic fire sprinklers would be affective at all, and if not, propose eliminating them. There are some really nice new fire-detection products on the market that are able to cover large areas for smoke detection using traditional beam-type smoke integrated with video detection. One particular product is very reliable and can minimize the number of detection devices required by a significant margin.