Learning how to engineer colleges, universities better: Electrical, power and lighting

Read about emerging trends in college and university buildings, and learn about the emerging trends impacting their design

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer October 25, 2019


Travis Fletcher 


Fletcher brings more than 15 years in the construction and real estate development industries to the company. He is an active member of industry organizations such as the Urban Land Institute, Smart Cities Council and Orange County Business Council. 

Ryan Fryman 

TLC Engineering Solutions 

Fryman has managed the engineering team for numerous higher education facilities, predominantly for public universities in Florida. His range of experience extends from fitness centers to highly sophisticated laboratory buildings and housing to university administration buildings, commonly attaining LEED Gold certification or higher. 

Carl Holden 

Henderson Engineers Inc. 

As Vice President|Higher Education Practice Director, Holden works on local, national and international projects. His areas of specialty include higher education, medical education, K-12 schools and sustainability-focused projects. 

John O’Connell 

Kohler Ronan 

As senior associate, OConnells primary responsibility is managing the companys electrical department. He keeps current with industry trends such as green building design and LEED certification to educate other staff. 

David K. Piluski 

RTM Engineering 

Piluski has more than three decades of experience designing MEP systems for a broad range of new construction projects as well as renovations. His specialties include higher education, health care and restaurant/entertainment facilities. 

Bob Sherman 

Affiliated Engineers Inc. 

As principal and project manager, Sherman offers expertise in higher education research labs and health care facilities, During his tenure, he has led more than 2 million square feet of functionally complex facility projects.  

Randy C. Twedt 


Since joining the company 25 years ago, Twedt has worked on a diverse range of MEP projects. His contributions include medical projects, multiunit residences, university structures, courthouses and more. 

Jeffrey P. Wegner 


Since joining the firm in 2013, Wegner has worked on a range of projects, focusing on life sciences, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, aerospace and other high-tech projects. His expertise includes site utility master planning, alternative energy solutions, biocontainment and more. 

CSE: Are there any issues unique to designing electrical/power systems for these types of facilities?  

Fryman: College and university buildings today are being designed with more and more spaces for collaboration and student engagement. These spaces, by their very purpose, are places where students congregate and camp out. The students always need access to power for their devices, often more than one per student. Though the power demands are not high, the number and locations of power outlets is important. If there is a spot that looks like a student or two may stop for 15 minutes between classes, put an outlet (or more) there. 

OConnell: We are finding that universities are increasingly including the student body in their design requirements. It challenges the design team to find creative means to incorporate specialized power, lighting to accommodate students requests. A great example is a recent video gaming wall, which our company assisted in designing. The design request came during construction when much infrastructure had already been installed. We worked with the construction team to find creative solutions on how to provide power, lighting and HVAC systems for the owner request. 

Piluski: The key is master planning for the long term. As building and teaching technologies evolve, the need for electrical infrastructure becomes greater. While electrical systems should be oversized based on perceived future use, electrical rooms and switchgear equipment can be planned such that future upgrades and expansions can be accommodated with minimal modifications or rebuilding of original systems. 

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

Piluski: All of our college and university projects have involved the installation of emergency generator systems as a design standard for life safety and optional loads. 

OConnell: In certain situations, owners have requested that lighting fixtures have battery backup even though an emergency generator is included in the project to provide power to select lighting fixtures for emergency lighting. While this design will keep select fixtures on during generator startup it does increase maintenance requirements as the batteries needing to be changed approximately every five years. 

Fryman: Joseph Hernandez Hall at the University of Florida has a huge volume of ventilation air being removed from the building via fume hoods and snorkel exhaust systems due to the function of the chemistry and chemical biology labs that occupy nearly all of the buildings 110,000 square feet. Many of the graduate level chemistry labs have experiments that may run for days or weeks. If power is lost during these experiments, then the data may be corrupted and the experiment must be repeated.  

Also, many of the chemicals used in the fume hoods require the fume hoods be able to operate continuously, if only at a minimum level, to avoid contaminating the lab with noxious fumes. To assure that these functions continue in a power outage, emergency backup power was provided to the building with a bi-fuel (diesel and natural gas) generator. However, to manage the size of the generator, the electrical code required that we provide load shedding to assure that the life safety systems always had a priority to the power. HVAC controls were designed to reduce the loads on the generator by putting the exhaust systems into a degraded mode of operation that would provide the absolute minimum of flow through the fume hoods to keep the loads on the generator such that no loads had to be shed.  

Suspecting that the buildings load diversity would allow all of the loads to operate without shedding and operating in the degraded mode, we planned for the control sequences to be adjusted to allow full exhaust operation (not go into the degraded exhaust mode) once we had enough load history to confirm that the system would operate at full exhaust without exceeding the capacity of the generator. The building systems diversity proved our suspicions correct, so we revised the sequence of operations to maintain the full exhaust mode to keep the fumes moving out of the building at safe design levels and the building operates under generator power without shedding any of the important lab experiment loads. 

CSE: What are some of the challenges when designing high-voltage power systems in college and university projects? 

OConnell: When designing the high-voltage power distribution system it is important to discuss the campus requirements with the facility personnel as to what their infrastructure expectations are for maintaining power to the buildings. Traditionally, there is a campus loop using highvoltage loop switches that allow the isolation of a cable section that is having an issue while maintain power to the buildings. If only a radial system exists, then the campus is subject to a single cable failure removing power from the entire site. In these situations, the owner conversation would be the phased in approach of introducing loop switches to provide better redundancy. 

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

Piluski: We are requiring commissioning on all projects regardless of whether this is required by the governing or funding entity or any certification being sought. Commissioning establishes that the owner project requirements and the basis of design have been fully implemented at the time of project turnover and establishes recorded milestones for future reference, measurement and verification and retrocommissioning. 

Fryman: Some design guidelines that have significant effects on operation after the buildings are in use are those that have to do with maintenance of the systems. Requirements for clearance to allow access to easily change filters, belts or strainers in large AHUs helps to assure that these functions are performed on the schedules that are planned to limit poor performance. Requirements to use fan wall type systems for high volumes of air movement eliminates a single failure point so that the unit can still operate at a reduced level until it is convenient to change it out without impacting class schedules. Requirements to provide difficult to reach LED light fixtures with remote drivers in locations with easy access for maintenance to ensure these are replaced quickly and more safely. 

OConnell: Many schools that we have worked on request trending/monitoring of specific energy and performance metrics. These have included individual electric panel energy meters, cold water flowmeters and Btu meters. When trended, this information can then be used by the school to determine if systems are not operating beyond design parameters requiring maintenance to be provided. 

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

OConnell: Devices that are most likely to be used by the occupants labeling of the abilities or intention of the device should be posted to aid the user. 

Fryman: One key to designing lighting control systems for higher education facilities is to design a control system that is easily adjusted for schedule changes or scene changes for zoned controls. The reason for this is that the personnel that are often tasked with making changes to the schedules are staff members who tend to change over time. Graduate assistants or other student workers are often given these types of tasks while they are in the department. Then they move on and no one knows how to adjust the system. The next person needs to figure it out easily without having to go through factory training on how to operate the system. I have seen this happen multiple times. 

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

Piluski: Master planning is key to future flexibility. It is important to not design the project at hand within a vacuum only to limit expandability in the future. By working with the owner to understand not only future building additions or renovations but advancements in programs and curriculum, we can best prepare the design for future requirements and eliminate the unforeseen. 

Fryman: It is imperative for electrical designers to participate in user group meetings to get input directly from the users as to the equipment that will be used in the spaces and how they will use it in the space. For example, knowing where the professor will likely set up a podium to address the class; or whether one professor may like it in a different place, allows planning for power and data in both places. Will they operate projector and screen controls from the desk or while standing somewhere in the room? These types of operational questions need to be asked to ensure that the usability of the space is considered. 

OConnell: Our firm has found it productive to sit with the owners representative and project team to discuss their previous experiences on campus. It may include good experiences, but oftentimes bad experiences leave a lasting impact on their impression of building issues. Considering code safety, maintenance and cost requirements our company makes an effort to provide products that meet the owners needs. Occasionally it may be a product that the owner is not familiar with but with the proper communication the owner can be advised on the benefits of alternate products/materials or limitations on what they may have used previously on campus. 

CSE: What kind of lighting designs have you incorporated into college or university project, either for energy efficiency or to increase the occupants experience? 

Fryman: With the very wide variety of facilities in colleges and universities, there are many, many factors in lighting design. One consistent design fact is that if there is no one in a space the lights should not be on. Occupant sensing is used everywhere. In private spaces, when there is any daylight available, occupancy sensors are set to require the lights to be manually turned on, so if the light is sufficientthe occupant will not turn on the switch. If the lights are turned on, then they always turn off automatically when the occupant leaves. Other energysaving opportunities are in sports facilities where the light levels must be designed to perform at a high level for competition activities and at a lower level for recreational activities. LED sports lighting is now common in the market, so that helps with ease of controls and energy efficiency. 

OConnell: Our firm finds that in university and college classrooms there are many users, most of whom may never have been on campus before and are unfamiliar with the lighting controls. Classroom requirements have multiple lighting control settings such as all onpresentation; 75% level; 50% level; 25% level and all off. Seeing these many buttons on the control station without knowing their purpose can be confusing or frustrating. To alleviate these situations, we require the engraving of the buttons to indicate their purpose. 

Piluski: As part of a complete renovation of the existing 110,000-square-foot library building at Harper Community College in Palatine, Illinois, we included the flexibility of LED lighting products into interior and exterior building design elements to enhance the overall experience. These elements included highlighting architectural aspects of the building and providing attractive and useful lighting scenes for study areas and small group settings. 

CSE: 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? 

Piluski: Lighting control and integration is a key request. The goal is to minimize the need for facility staff interaction with lighting system controls as the method of transitioning buildings into daily occupancy, changing uses throughout the day or adapting to available ambient lighting. 

OConnell: Many owners have requested higher lighting levels in corridors for safety concerns, beyond code minimum levels. Additionally, many owners have requested lighting within stairwells be dimmed 50% when not occupied and through the use of light fixture sensors increased to 100% when occupied. 

Fryman: LED fixtures are being used for just about everything now. Owners want lighting that is easy to maintain, flexible, long life, energyefficient and attractive. The LED lighting market is now so well developed that competition is getting the pricing to such an acceptable level that it is the only way to go. Higher education owners keep and operate their buildings for a long time, so the payback on energy savings and maintenance costs are easy to see for the little extra cost. LED provides dimming at no extra cost, less heat load for the HVAC to respond to and the design of fixtures has opened an enormous palette for interior design options. I have used LED fixtures in classrooms, labs, theaters, galleries, television studios, offices, gyms, parking garages, you name it. When using LED lighting, you do need to pay close attention to the color temperature of the fixtures LED source. Sample fixtures are always a good idea. And if you get substitutions for the specified fixtures, look at all of it again; lumen output, color temperature, color rendering index and get another sample.