Examining higher education facilities: Electrical, power, and lighting

As technology advances in every field, the college and university students being prepped for future careers in those fields need the tech they’re learning with to keep up. That presents unique challenges for the engineers working on such structures—specifying advanced systems that satisfy the unique needs of each institution. Here, professionals with experience in the area offer advice on how to tackle such facilities and receive top marks in regard to electrical, power, and lighting.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 26, 2018


John Holbert, PE, LEED AP, Senior Principal/Client Executive, IMEG Corp., Rock Island, Ill.

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

Dennis P. Sczomak, PE, LEED AP, Senior Vice President, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Jason Sylvain, PE, Partner, National Higher Education Practice Leader, AKF Group LLC, New York City

Matthew Wiechart, PE, CxA, LEED AP, CEM, Principal/Senior Mechanical Engineer, TLC Engineering for Architecture Inc., Orlando, Fla.

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

Locke: Most colleges and universities have standards that have been developed over years of experience that have led them to an understanding of what systems and products work-which products operate correctly, are maintainable, and have a long life. Those decisions have been made for you already. The work is in applying those developed systems into the current project. Lighting control for function as well as safety, due to the varying hours of operation, requires more coordination with the people involved in these functions on campus.

Wiechart: Measure and verification of subpanels and major equipment and integrating that information back to the BMS. Lighting systems that are integrated with sophisticated lighting controllers for multiple scenes in classrooms are different as compared with other designs.

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

Wiechart: Electrical designers work with the owner to discuss emergency power distribution and requirements of these systems. Lighting systems need the flexibility to have occupancy control and dimming on the perimeter while having the sophistication in classrooms. The electrical system will evaluate the service requirement for the building to allow for some expansion, but understand that as buildings become more efficient, the service size can also be optimized.

CSE: Describe a facility metering or submetering project. What did it include, and what best practices did you include for these facilities?

Wiechart: Building energy typically is measured at the building’s energy meter. Major equipment, site lighting, and subpanels for floor lighting, mechanical systems are submetered to understand, adjust, and verify operations.

CSE: Are you receiving more requests to design renewable energy systems? If so, how have you served these needs? Are there any issues unique to educational facilities?

Holbert: We have seen continued requests to explore solar PV options. Follow-through has still been low relative to the number of requests. It seems that the cost is becoming attractive, but it is still widely viewed as a separate, optional feature that can always be added later thus it is often deferred once project-budget issues arise. When we do proceed, we have an in-house PV design group that can provide a full design that can be bid out with the project. More often, we work with the owner to release a turnkey design-build RFP to contractors. The contractor designs and installs the system and our engineers accept the power and roof loading considerations for integration into the building design. Some unique aspects of education facilities:

  • Campuses often have land and/or open, unused roof area on existing buildings-it is more common for a building’s energy use to be offset by renewable energy systems that are not located on the building itself.
  • Campuses often have cooling and heating from district plants; this complicates accounting for net zero or other energy efficiency goals for an individual building.
  • Small renewable energy systems for a single building project look very small when trying to reduce total campus carbon use, which is often the driving campus goal. This can make it a low priority. For stand-alone buildings (non-university), the building-level renewable system can be a much higher percentage of the energy use, thus it receives a higher priority.

Wiechart: On the Trevor Colbourn Hall project, we suggested (and the owner accepted) that the infrastructure for renewable energy (PV) be provided in the future. The PV technology is increasing its efficiency and the costs are becoming more reasonable, so having the building ready to accept the system in the future makes great sense. Designing and implementing renewable energy is moving toward the point where it will be included in standard designs.

Sylvain: Exterior pathway lighting often is using solar power as a primary source. Also, smart and IoT pole lighting is becoming popular, with interconnect options like Wi-Fi, emergency blue-light call buttons, speakers for music or announcements, and a host of other options including water detection, on-demand dimming of light levels, image sensors for security, etc. While these solutions are not unique to higher education facilities, we are certainly receiving requests for renewable energy systems from college and university clients.

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

Sczomak: Emergency power in college and university facilities for small life safety loads, such as egress lighting, typically is provided from an emergency generator. Emergency battery units are much less frequently employed in college and university facilities than in some other types of facilities due to maintenance concerns stemming from the extremely large number of battery units that would be required across a typical campus. When life safety loads include not just small lighting loads but also larger loads, such as an elevator or smoke-control fans, a generator is a typical source for emergency power. When a generator is being provided for life safety loads, college and university facilities staff often are requesting that the generator also provide optional standby power for such loads as sump pumps, and in cold climates, primary heating equipment. In addition, there seems to be an increasing trend among colleges and universities to request full backup power for all building systems, which we have accomplished through the application of emergency backup generators and related automatic transfer switches.

Sylvain: Schools are starting to use inverters for emergency power operation in areas without a generator. This is a shift from the use of local battery packs or emergency batteries within fixtures. The cost of small inverters has decreased while the cost of replacing or testing individual batteries makes it unwieldy and expensive in terms of maintenance.

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.

Wiechart: LED lights are a standard design at this point. Design of other lighting sources is typically discouraged. Lighting controls to dim/turn off are coupled with LED lights for controllability.

Sylvain: All lighting projects now use LED technology, daylight-harvesting controls, and vacancy sensing. The watts per square footage often are way below what is code-mandated. Higher ed projects reap the rewards of extra points for LEED, energy savings, and a more pleasant atmosphere.

Sczomak: We typically design clean, uncluttered lighting systems that will stand the performance and visual test of time. We reserve special lighting that may have unique decorative or dynamic/color-change effect for specific areas that will have the most meaningful and enduring impact, thus making the most impact for the added cost. LED has become prevalent, but properly vetting new products is vital in sifting out products and manufacturers that may disappear in a rapidly changing lighting-manufacturer landscape.

Locke: LED light fixtures have evolved quickly and are very popular. The light levels that can be achieved with the lower power requirement thus cooling load make them attractive. The product range/availability has rapidly increased.

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?

Sylvain: Lately, many owners are considering tunable white lighting or circadian rhythm lighting and controls. Although both are much talked about, they represent an additional upfront cost to the owner and more sophisticated and more constant maintenance. The latest research does support the notion of circadian rhythm helping our bodies’ natural function, but there is presently no evidence that “electric” lighting offers the same help to our human function that sunlight offers. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the leading researcher in this field and, at the present, they recommend that all people get 2 hours of actual daylight per day. They believe that this solution far outweighs the investment in an electrical solution that is still unproven at this time. So, after some conversation with owners, we have yet to have a project that wants to make this investment.

Sczomak: Cost is always a factor, as it should be. Working with campus standards helps with maintenance and cohesiveness of the campus as a whole. LEDs add some complexity because it’s no longer just about minimizing lamp types. Forward thinking about upgrading, maintaining, and repairing lighting without tearing out ceilings is an important strategy.

Wiechart: The biggest discussion item as it pertains to lighting is whether the lighting system is fully integrated with the BMS for control. Typically, we see that universities want to have review of the system but do not want full integration for control with the BMS. The owner also wants the ability to sweep the building’s lighting to limit energy in case lights remain on. Since the universities do not want any further control, they typically do not want to pay for the added expense of the full integration.

CSE: What new lighting or daylighting techniques are being used in colleges and universities?

Sczomak: Daylight harvesting usually is required because of ASHRAE, LEED, and WELL standards. The proper use of daylighting, though, typically involves precise coordination with architecture, glazing, skylights, building finishes, furniture, and actual use of the space in the present as well as the future.

Locke: Natural lighting in the new buildings has increased dramatically, thus focusing our attention on lighting levels during night hours and then how the lighting levels function during the days. The energy code has specific requirements regarding daylight zoning, which needs to be reviewed to make sure it meets the functional space requirements as well.

Wiechart: New lighting technologies are not being discussed. Daylighting control of lighting to automatically dim perimeter fixtures is designed as part of a lighting system to meet energy codes and sustainability requirements.

Sylvain: Daylighting controls are now code-mandated in many states, with California and New York requiring the highest levels of requirements. This is mostly due to the energy savings that can be achieved. Vacancy sensors are used in lieu of occupancy sensors, which saves an additional 10% of energy in rooms that use them. Vacancy sensors require manual “on,” unlike occupancy sensors, so if you go into a room to grab something, you don’t automatically turn on the lighting for 15-30 minutes of time.