Designing safe laboratories and research facilities: Electrical, power, and lighting

Engineers working on laboratory and research projects are tasked with balancing state-of-the-art systems, budgetary concerns, occupant safety, sustainable performance, and other factors including electrical, power, and lighting.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 17, 2018


Scott A. Bilan, PE, Principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Matt Edwards, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Mechanical Associate, ME Engineers, Golden, Colo.

Gordon Handziuk, PE, Peng, Vice President, WSP, Atlanta

Rick Hombsch, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Energy and Infrastructure Group, HGA Architects and Engineers, Milwaukee

Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Christian Matthews, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP, Associate; Client Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

John C. Palasz, PE, HFDP, Mechanical Engineer, Primera Engineers Ltd., Chicago

Aaron Saggars, PE, LEED AP, Core Team Leader, CRB USA, Kansas City, Mo.

Jim Sharpe, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., San Francisco

CSE: What are some key differences in electrical, lighting, and power systems you might incorporate in one of these laboratory or research facilities, as compared with other projects?

Matthews: The concentrated density and level of resiliency required for laboratory electrical systems can best be compared to the marriage of a hospital and a data center. We have designed many facilities that are fully protected with emergency generators, completely equipped with LED lighting, and with all equipment fed from the uninterruptible power system (UPS).

Hombsch: Greater overall flexibility is needed for these facilities. Electrical needs may require multiple voltages and/or frequencies available to users. Lighting technologies will differ depending on testing performed. The move toward computational labs requires more capacity than typical wet labs.

Handziuk: Within a high-containment lab we would consider emergency power distribution across the full building. Past studies have shown this layout to be more cost-effective relative to normal power/emergency power distribution when greater than 60% of the building load serves high-containment systems. The other element is to have the full BAS on a UPS. While we must prove fail-safe operations, the UPS is more operational in nature and lessens system reboot time; this allows for a quicker return to operations. Finally, we typically recommend a closed automatic transfer switch (ATS) where allowed; this allows for sustained operations during the transition from generator to normal power supply.

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

Handziuk: Within a high-containment lab, power and data conduit is typically embedded in concrete. We do oversize conduit to accommodate additional feeders. The penetrations are typically built with machined compression fittings or potted connectors to allow for removal and replacement such that the integrity of the seal is restored.

Hombsch: We review existing lab spaces to get a sense of the current state. Then we review future growth plans to make sure infrastructure is available either in the form of capacity or installed devices.

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

Hombsch: We’re seeing more smart grid than microgrid on recent projects. Smart grid is typically achieved through the utility with a demand-response relay.

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

Hombsch: Care must be taken to not interrupt important processes or research projects. Owner equipment comes in a variety of plug configurations, and steadfast attention is paid throughout the project to minimize change orders. Coordinating hazardous location boundaries, equipment, and connects is important.

Kerry’s new Global Technology & Innovation Centre consolidates product research and development operations from several Asia Pacific satellite locations for the company’s ingredients and flavors division. This centralization serves to improve recruitment and
increase resource sharing. Courtesy: CI&A Photography

CSE: What types of unusual standby, emergency, or backup power systems have you specified for such facilities? What were the project goals?

Handziuk: The most unusual standby power system we’ve designed from my perspective is diesel rotary uninterruptible power supply (DRUPS) to a high-containment facility in the UK. The requirement for a DRUPS was two-fold. One was to ensure stable voltage and the other to minimize power outages and preserve continuity of operations. While the lab must be proven fail-safe, power interruptions in this jurisdiction were frequent enough to warrant a series of DRUPS units in parallel to serve the full facility.

Hombsch: Generators and UPS systems are the most commonly used approaches.

CSE: What are some of the challenges when designing electrical, power, and lighting for such projects?

Hombsch: Proper ratings and future flexibility are the guiding principles. Important challenges include taking into account any hazardous ratings followed by environmental conditions, adequate capacity, specialty fixtures, and user interface.

CSE: 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.

Matthews: All our laboratory projects designed since 2016 have specified 100% LED lighting. This has required our electrical engineers to work closely with lighting manufacturers to best match their products with owners’ needs and requirements. The selection of LED lighting is also highly coordinated with our architectural partners to best fit the type and layout of benching casework to properly illuminate the benchtop work surface. We control the LED lighting with multilevel switching, automated scheduling, or occupancy sensors, depending on the lab operations.

Hombsch: LED is now the most commonly used fixture type. If daylight is available, one or two zones of dimming are used. Direct/indirect LEDs are more consistent in their performance. Special attention should still be paid to color-rendering capabilities.

CSE: When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are building owners asking for? Are there any particular technical advantages that need to be considered?

Hombsch: Maintainability is still a big consideration. Cleaning lenses, replacing drivers, relocating fixtures, etc. are all pertinent factors in project designs.

Matthews: Beyond the obvious energy savings from LED lighting, owners’ requests to minimize disruptions within lab spaces have led our team to only use LEDs due to the minimal amount of maintenance that is required over the lifetime of the light fixture. The combination of energy and maintenance savings have resulted in our typical lab-space lighting designs achieving a simple payback period of a few years or even less for 24/7 operations.