Innovative electrical solutions increase flexibility and efficiency in schools

Electrical engineers focus on strategic placement of branch electrical rooms and spare breakers, while collaborating with architects and owners to ensure efficient, flexible and sustainable electrical/power systems in K-12 school projects.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer May 23, 2024
Engineers need to take indoor and outdoor spaces into consideration when designing K-12 buildings. Courtesy: CannonDesign

K-12 insights

  • Lighting designs in K-12 school projects often feature LED solutions with dimming or zoning capabilities for flexibility.
  • Collaborative efforts between electrical engineers, architects and owners focus on incorporating extra pathways and spare breakers, along with commissioning processes and user training.

Courtesy: WTWH Media

Courtesy: WTWH Media


  • Keith Hammelman, PE, Principal, CannonDesign, Chicago
  • Sean Holder, P.E., Principal, Salas O’Brien, Houston
  • Steven Mrak, PE, Vice President, Peter Basso Associates, Inc., Troy, MI
  • Johnny P. Wood, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CxA, CPD, Associate Vice President, Regional Market Segement Leader, Dewberry, Raleigh, NC

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

Johnny P. Wood: Often K-12 buildings are not a typical shape. Locating electrical branch electrical rooms throughout the building is key to incorporate into the building floor plan. Incorporating spare breakers in the electrical panels allows modifications to happen in the future with ease. Locating branch independent distribution frame rooms throughout the building is key to incorporate into the building floor plan. In addition, locating door hardware power supplies near main entrances where open structure is located, sometimes creates a challenge.

What types of unusual standby, emergency or backup power systems have you specified for K-12 school buildings? Describe the project.

Johnny P. Wood: We often use lighting inverters to power emergency lighting in K-12 buildings. It’s important to make sure your client is able to maintain these systems that contain batteries.

What kind of maintenance guidelines are involved to ensure the project is running efficiently after the project is finished?

Sean Holder: System commissioning by a commissioning agent that includes user instruction and training creates optimal system performance after project completion.

Johnny P. Wood: We believe preventative maintenance begins with the design phase. Incorporating a list of acceptable manufacturers, school maintenance staff walk-thru during construction and school maintenance staff walk-thru after construction has been a great help. Incorporating a coordination study for breaker settings into the design will help prevent nuisance tripping on the electrical system normal power side during everyday operation.

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?

Johnny P. Wood: If owner preferences are not published, we meet and try to develop a guideline from our discussions. We include extra pathways in detached or hard-to-reach areas of the building to allow for modifications and/or additions to occur with ease in the future. We also include extra spare breakers for future modifications.

What kind of lighting designs have you incorporated into a K-12 school project, either for energy efficiency or to increase the occupant’s experience? Discuss the use of holistic lighting or other lighting techniques.

Keith Hammelman: Most frequently, we provide LED solutions with dimming or zones to allow for flexibility in the educational environment. Many school districts are asking how the lighting control systems can be better integrated into the HVAC systems to sense occupancy within the building. In practice, however, this is not often used to the maximum benefit. When a building is designed to have reasonable daylight penetration, we are seeing daylight control systems provided, but we are yet to see the economic pay off to provide a circadian lighting system.

When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are being requested? Are there any particular technical advantages that are or need to be considered?

Keith Hammelman: There is a lot of talk about circadian lighting, however the current added cost of this technology is limiting the application the K-12 environment. There are great studies showing the value of daylight, and a cooler crisper light color temperature for student alertness and productivity, which will need to become part of the payback equations for school district to push the use of this technology in the educational environment.

Johnny P. Wood: Different lighting levels are needed in the different areas of the school. We provide products and mount in locations where they can be best reached and maintained. For example, providing light fixtures high above stair landings creates a situation where these lights are very difficult to maintain, which should be avoided.