Gray Power

The U.S. Census Bureau recorded a total of 35.9 million American seniors—65 years and older—in July 2003. That's an increase of 1 million since the 2000 census. So, there won't be a slowdown in the senior housing sector any time soon. And one of the most critical components of this specialized housing—be it retirement community, assisted living center or skilled nursing facili...

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett, Contributing Editor December 1, 2004

The U.S. Census Bureau recorded a total of 35.9 million American seniors—65 years and older—in July 2003. That’s an increase of 1 million since the 2000 census. So, there won’t be a slowdown in the senior housing sector any time soon.

And one of the most critical components of this specialized housing—be it retirement community, assisted living center or skilled nursing facility—is emergency power.

Naturally, based on the level of care required, code strictly dictates what systems within these facilities must have backup power.

“For senior apartment houses, you need standard life safety and egress for corridors and common spaces,” says Howard Yokum, P.E., principal, RTKL, Baltimore. In addition, it’s common to put nurse call stations in each bedroom and bathroom on an emergency circuit.

In an assisted living setting, Yokum explains, the requirements vary depending on the authority having jurisdiction, but generally, code is not nearly as stringent as it is with hospitals. For example, a facility won’t necessarily have to have emergency receptacles in each room, although many owners tend to go with this option.

“In general, there will be better coverage of emergency lighting and a few more systems will be on emergency power, such as refrigeration for medication and air conditioning in general assembly areas,” adds Yokum.

The issue of reliable emergency lighting is particularly important. “A little more emergency lighting [than normal] needs to be provided because people can’t see or get around as well,” says Ronald W. Britt, an electrical consultant with SFCS Inc., a Roanoke, Va.-based M/E firm.

But moving to a higher level of care—from assisted living to skilled nursing—the emergency power requirements become more stringent. “When you move on to care centers, that basically falls under NFPA 99 and NFPA 110,” says Yokum.

The former is the standard for health-care facilities, the latter for emergency and standby power systems. Jus a few line items on the NFPA punch list are:

  • Two emergency receptacles at each patient bed.

  • Emergency lighting in the rooms themselves.

  • Battery set attached to an on-site generator.

  • Critical, emergency and life safety on three separate distribution systems

  • Heavy duty, isolated ground receptacles.

  • Life-safety systems that switch on within 10 seconds.

In addition, Britt adds, at least one of a facility’s elevators, which incidentally take a lot of power to run, must operate on emergency power. Standby generators for these facilities need to generate considerable power, which raises a number of issues regarding fuel types and costs, as well as generator noise and exhaust.

Generating Issues

One general question about specifying generators here—or anywhere, for that matter—is whether to go with natural gas or diesel. Diesel is a reliable and ready energy source, because it’s stored on site. But natural gas tends to be less expensive, especially for smaller units, according to Scott Kesler, P.E., senior electrical engineer, OWP&P, Chicago. Oftentimes, the decision has already been made by the fact that codes frequently require on-site fuel storage—essentially eliminating the natural gas option.

Another issue is noise. Generators are loud, says Britt, and critical-type mufflers are a necessity. But even more than that, the consultant claims, “just the engine noise itself can be louder than [noise from] the exhaust; you’ve got to give consideration to how the noise affects the apartment and try to control that as much as possible.”

A general checklist of emergency power considerations comes from Douglass E. Stover, P.E., director of electrical engineering at FreemanWhite, Charlotte, N.C. He stresses the importance of taking into account the following items:

  • Weather . Events such ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and heat waves plague certain geographical areas with greater frequency, which are thus more prone to power outages.

  • Geography . Not only are regions affected by specific weather phenomena, but also, remote or urban locations may not have the most reliable utility source.

  • Environment . Environmental regulations can vary from state to state with regard to diesel-fueled generators.

  • Marketing . A robust emergency power system can be a selling point for the facility.

While some engineers agree with Stover on the last point—expanded backup power features make nice additions to senior-living center marketing brochures—others argue that more often than not, tight budgets limit emergency power to what’s required by code.

“People with the money don’t want to install any additional generation if they don’t have to, so they generally don’t go above and beyond what code requires,” claims Rajan Battish, P.E., principal, RTKL, Baltimore.

But while cost is an owner’s concern, there’s another issue that affects generator sizing: a population in a state of change. James H. Costley, Jr., a partner with Atlanta-based Newcomb & Boyd, points to another phenomenon affecting these facilities. People may be in pretty good shape when they come in, but over time, they age and their health deteriorates. Consequently, every facility ends up taking care of patients at a higher level of need than when they started, so backup power becomes more of a necessity, even if not required by code.

As a result of this natural delay in seniors moving up to the next level of care, facilities may need to take a long-term approach and consider a more inclusive backup power system.

Another situation comes up from time to time. The project budgets for a certain size of generator, but as things progress, the owner opts to put more and more systems on backup, thus requiring a larger generator and creating a subsequent shortfall of funding, says Britt.

Finally, a perennial issue with regard to generators is finding the space for them. “Talking architects into giving you enough space for the generators can be a problem, as they don’t want to give up any more space for M/E systems than necessary,” notes Britt.

In addition to space, Kesler adds, meeting both ventilation and fuel storage requirements can sometimes be a challenge. Fortunately, generators are often located outdoors, but if indoor space is needed, Britt reassures that ultimately the building team works it out.

On the ball

Beyond the issue of generators, when it comes to specifying backup power in general for senior facilities, electrical engineers point to a number of pitfalls to be wary of. “I think the biggest thing is providing flexibility and growth capabilities to the system, especially on the distribution side,” claims Kesler. “It’s important to oversize to provide for space on the panelboards to add additional circuit breakers to handle new loads.”

Battish warns of “cheap contractors” who don’t understand how these systems should be constructed. In such a case, engineers may have to deal with a whole list of things that have to be changed or modified.

On Stover’s list of things to watch out for, he mentions, per NEC 1999, one should be careful not to put required and optional emergency branches together. Also, he points out that “the amount of noise, vibration and odors that comes from the generator can impact the comfort and lifestyle of the residents.”

In general, in order to avoid such common mistakes, Stover advises, “An experienced senior living engineering group is critical. These professionals not only understand the building type, but they are also knowledgeable about the uniquely individualized needs of the senior residents. And secondly, the owners should have the engineers involved continuously through the entire project from programming onward.”

One other technical item, notes Costley, is an alarm enunciator to indicate abnormal conditions with the emergency power system needs to be provided in a visible location. In addition, “engineers should think about providing bypass switches, so the backup power systems can be worked on without interruption.”

Incidentally, Britt adds that transfer switches are getting more and more sophisticated, not to mention the fact that packaged standby power units and becoming more inclusive with skid-mounted fuel tanks, batteries and more reliable controls packages, adds Costley.

Right Kind of Retrofit

Due to the nature of senior care facilities, when it comes to retrofits, things might take some maneuvering. “The biggest issue with retrofits is they want to keep the people in place, but then you have to be able to maintain things like fire alarms, lighting and all emergency systems, which can be a problem,” notes Britt.

“During a renovation,” says Stover, “our major goal is to move as few residents as possible. As one might imagine, moving the more fragile seniors is extremely taxing—both physically and emotionally.”

Similar to hospital renovations, safety is a big issue. But the difference, says Costley, is that at least hospitals anticipate such disruptions, whereas senior care facilities view it as much more of an inconvenience.

What can also be hard is finding out that the original emergency power system wasn’t wired separately, adds Costley. Along those same lines, Kesler points out, “A lot of existing installations don’t meet code. They are a random mishmash of things added over the years and it can be challenging to sort that out.”

Speaking of Code

While negotiating with AHJs regarding the interpretation of the local code is a significant issue with any project, again, the nature of senior care facilities tend to lend themselves even more to differences of opinion in this arena.

“There’s always this tug of war going on as they [AHJs] have their own ideas about how they want to classify these buildings,” explains Kesler.

For example, a facility could be split between skilled nursing and assisted living, but the AHJ wants to classify the entire building as skilled nursing.

“We then present a case to the AHJ to try to get them to segregate and classify based upon criteria. In most cases, they’re receptive, but not always,” says Kesler.

Britt mentions what can sometimes be frustrating is doing a project in a new geographical area and failing to realize, until after the fact, that the local code requires additional things, which no one bothered to inform the project team about. Consequently, it’s always good practice to spend the time up front to investigate such matters. However, the consultant points out, “sometimes it’s difficult to find out every little regulation in each locality.”

Taking it a step further, Britt admits there have been cases where AHJs have really gotten carried away, in his opinion. For example, on one project, he recalls the AHJ asking for a minimum of five foot-candles (fc) of outside lighting over any walking area, which is a much greater level than what’s found in places like shopping center parking lots. In another case, the AHJ wanted to limit lighting spilling on the adjacent property line to 0.5 fc, which, on a good moonlit night, could easily be exceeded.

“Sometimes I think some of the code people don’t realize what they’re asking for,” claims Britt. At the same time Battish points out that ultimately, “what they say, goes.”

Here Come the Baby Boomers

One major trend in senior housing that is indirectly affecting backup power systems is the increasing number of amenities being included in these facilities. For example, it’s not uncommon to find swimming pools, woodworking shops, game rooms, different dining areas or even TV studios broadcasting news, announcements, events and interviews.

According to Stover, some facilities have even begun selling services such as high-speed Internet access, television service with hundreds of channels, LAN and WAN computer networks and resident call systems with wireless activators.

“In such cases, there is even a greater need to keep the systems up and running in the event of an extended outage,” he says.

But in general, due to the lifestyles and market preferences of this generation, Stover predicts, “as the Baby Boomers begin to enter these facilities, they will expect to maintain their lifestyle and, as a result, demand as little disruption as possible—and that includes possible interruptions in power.”

But whatever the case may be, the way these entities are naturally evolving, in addition to the changing world we live in, it appears that emergency power will become an even more prominent feature in senior care facilities.

As Stover points out, three to five years ago, emergency power systems were often an afterthought.

“Commonly, when a potential or new resident would ask, ‘What happens when the power goes out?’ the facility administrator would be left scrambling to provide some sort of service or explanation,” he says. “Today, in the post 9/11 era, emergency considerations, such as backup power systems, have become part of the planning process and are usually budgeted from the project’s inception.”

Senior Surfers

Although the increasing number of seniors surfing the Internet, e-mailing their grandchildren, etc., may not necessary directly affect emergency power in senior living facilities, nevertheless, it’s an important trend to note in this growing population.

Specifically, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found in a survey conducted in February of this year, an astonishing 47% increase in the numbers of senior citizens online since 2000. Broken down, approximately 22% of Americans, 65 and older, spend time on the Web, which equals roughly 8 million people .

Within the next age group of retirees and soon-to-be retirees, ages 50 to 64, 58% of these middle-aged folks regularly dial in to the Internet.

“The ‘silver tsunami’ of older Internet users is gaining momentum,” notes Lee Rainie , director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “Internet users in their 50s who work, shop and keep in touch with friends and family online will age and transform the wired senior population.”

Taking a Look at Demographics

Where are all the seniors? According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics taken in July 2003, 17% of Florida’s population is 65 and older, followed closely by Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Dakota and Iowa, interestingly enough.

The state with the largest 65+ population is California , with Florida, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania also ranking high on the list.

As far as the fastest growing senior states, Nevada tops the charts with a 15% increase from 2000 to 2003, followed by Alaska—yes, that’s right, Alaskaup 14% . Other rapidly growing retiree states include Arizona, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico and Colorado.


Get more on this story with the following web links:

Pew Internet & American Life Project

NFPA Standards 99 and 110