Defining system integrity: Applying resilience to plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems

The events of the last 18 months make clear that clients need design leaders who consider challenges beyond code requirements and evaluate risks against budget.

By Carol Johnson January 27, 2022
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

If life has taught us anything, it’s that we are guaranteed change. As design professionals, however, we value facts, codes, science, and consistency. This dichotomy pushes us to develop out-of-the-box solutions that not only meet the needs of our clients, but surpass basic code and regulatory requirements to achieve optimal building performance. The resilience of plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems is key to providing these solutions, leading to adaptable systems that have the ability to overcome extreme circumstances, such as a natural disaster or a health pandemic.

Protecting Building Systems from the Impacts of Severe Weather Events

Infrastructure failure is a key consideration when designing resilient buildings. Keeping buildings safe and operable during a disaster may require adjusting existing systems or including resilient measures in new construction. For example, selecting equipment with dual fuel sources will help mitigate the risks of system failure during a disaster or unexpected interruption. When evaluating the risks associated with natural disaster and weather events through the lens of plumbing systems—such as when a storm cuts power to the building—there are important questions to address, including:

  • Does the building require multiple water entries from multiple sources, or does it need an emergency water fill connection?
  • Does the hot water equipment need to be dual fuel, allowing for multiple fuel sources and minimal downtime when a system fails?
  • Does the building need an emergency domestic storage tank to allow for maintained occupancy when the domestic water source has failed? It isn’t just disaster and weather events we should be considering. While these can create serious impacts, we’ve learned from COVID-19 that building systems can have their own associated risks related to virus transmission.

How Plumbing Fixtures and Designs Can Help Reduce Virus Transmission

It’s important to consider the impacts of existing fixtures, including plumbing fixtures, on occupants. Reducing the need to touch fixtures or mitigating potential risks associated with splash are now at the forefront of design, resulting in increased demand for sensor-operated fixtures and automated bottle fillers at water coolers. These measures require specialized plumbing designs.

Improving Air Quality Through HVAC Design

The baseline for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) design may change in favor of more resilient measures as professionals continue to assess the pandemic. Airborne pathogens have opened the door for air handling changes, inline filtration, isolation areas, and equipment selection. Filtration and ventilation are the foundation for healthy building air flow, which means turning over the air to keep the viral load down, which reduces the risk of airborne-pathogen transmission. As mechanical engineers consider the impacts of the pandemic on design, more protective measures may come from systems with enhanced mechanization, including higher air changes and disinfection technology. COVID-19 has also brought about new challenges related to building controls, such as the unintended implications when a facility goes from occupied to unoccupied in a matter of days without preparation.

Mitigating Risks of the Critical Electrical System

The electrical system is arguably the most critical to bring back online during a disruption. Electrical engineers can define the integrity of the electrical system by identifying the interdependencies of the systems and mitigating failure risks. These systems include security, power, fire alarm, and lighting and are critical for the comfort and safety of occupants. Electrical systems have many components to consider for resilience, including diesel or natural gas generators, efficient lighting systems, and multiple power supplies from a stable mini-grid. Electrical systems also have design considerations for airborne pathogens, including light fixtures and lamps with germicidal ultraviolet light; antimicrobial devices, such as light switches, receptables, and faceplates; and touchless operation or motion detectors for lighting controls, hand dryers, and faucets. Overall, resilience-focused design considerations for plumbing, mechanical, and electrical systems will provide healthier environments for building occupants. While design professionals meet the codes, science, and needs of the client, going the extra mile in considering resilient design techniques will continue to improve adaptable systems.


This article originally appeared on Dewberry’s website. Dewberry is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Carol Johnson, CPD, LEED AP, CFI, senior associate, Dewberry