Designing flexible, safe labs: Electrical, power and lighting

Safety, budget, flexibility and flexibility are key factors when designing laboratory and research space

By CFE Media December 28, 2020


  • Jennifer DiMambro, CEng, MIMechE, MCIBSE, Principal/Americas Science, Industry & Technology Business Leader, Ove Arup & Partners, PC, New York City
  • Adam Fry, PE, Project Manager, Associate, Mueller Associates Inc., Linthicum, Md.
  • Paul Harry, PE, LEED AP, Senior Project Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.
  • Jared Machala, PE, LEED AP, Vice President, WSP, Houston

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

Adam Fry: Electrical systems for these types of projects need to be robust with extra layers of reliability. Whether addressing redundant utility feeds or a robust emergency system, minimizing downtime is typically an important design aspect. Power quality, depending on the types of labs, may also be a critical consideration and may require “clean power” subsystems within the building.

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?

Adam Fry: Electrical design must begin at the early stages to clearly understand all program requirements. Often these facilities have an array of different electrical requirements under one roof. There also has to be an understanding that as technology and industries evolve, so will the needs of the building over time, so provision for spare capacity at all levels of the system is important.

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

Adam Fry: There needs to be an understanding that over the life of the building, the use of various spaces will change. Not only is spare capacity important on all levels of the system, but the system needs to be easily modified and adjusted without disruption.

What are some of the challenges when designing high-voltage power systems in laboratory and research facility projects?

Adam Fry: From Mueller’s perspective, much of our engineering work for these types of projects is in a campus environment, so we are connecting into a campus’ medium-voltage distribution system. The first step is to analyze how the projected load for the new building fits into the campus infrastructure and in some cases determine what modifications or upgrades need to occur to that infrastructure.

What kind of lighting designs have you incorporated into a laboratory or research facility project, either for energy efficiency or to increase the occupant’s experience?

Adam Fry: Direct current lighting systems, whether power over Ethernet or direct DC grids, are gaining popularity. These systems allow for more individualized control on a per occupant basis. We have also designed lighting for areas with animal holding spaces, which require color-changing lighting and circadian lighting systems. In laboratory environments, higher lighting levels with reduced shadowing (while minimizing glare) is a typical criterion, to a mixture of direct and indirect systems is often used.

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

Jared Machala: In our recently designed laboratory projects, it has been more common to provide emergency generator power to the entire building instead of just certain outlets and pieces of equipment. This type of design simplifies the overall electrical distribution for the facility and can in certain cases be a low-cost addition to the design even though the generator will likely be upsized. A fully backed up building will also respond better to failure scenarios as the HVAC systems can continue to operate even in the absence of normal power.

Adam Fry: Sometimes these projects require uninterruptible power. Even with generator backup, owners want a uninterruptible power supply system with an unusually high run time (in case of generator failure), which increases UPS size, thereby increasing electrical room size, cooling requirements, etc.

Author Bio: Since its founding in 2010, CFE Media and Technology has provided engineers in manufacturing, commercial and industrial buildings, and manufacturing control systems with the knowledge they need to improve their operational efficiency. CFE delivers the right information at the right time around the world through a variety of platforms.