Making the grade with K-12 projects: electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety

With state-of-the-art learning facilities, sustainability concerns, and modern design, K-12 schools can be just as advanced as colleges and universities and—for consulting-specifying engineers—just as demanding. The following focuses on electrical/lighting/power and fire/life safety in K-12 schools.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer March 31, 2017


Mike Barbes, PE, LC, Senior Electrical Engineer, AECOM, Atlanta

Ben Hobbs, PE, Mechanical Engineer, CMTA Consulting Engineers, Lexington, Ky.

Timothy J. LaRose, PE, Vice President Development, Education, JENSEN HUGHES, Warwick, R.I.

Jason Moyer, PE, PMP, STS, Senior Mechanical Manager, Brinjac Engineering, Baltimore

Jon Rasmussen, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Energy+Engineering Leader/Senior Associate, DLR Group, Denver

CSE: Describe a recent electrical/power system challenge you encountered when working on a K-12 school project.

Barbes: The one that comes to mind is the renovation of an existing school, whose original service was not designed for the load densities of current schools. There is a need to pay particular attention to applicable code sections for load additions to existing schools, and most typically need to be prepared to replace/upgrade existing electrical services.

CSE: How do you work with the architect, owner, and other project team members to make the electrical/power system both flexible and sustainable at the same time?

Barbes: Plan load densities as early as possible and request the appropriate floor spaces for the electrical equipment. Having adequate space for electrical equipment is a good start for achieving and maintaining flexibility. Unfortunately, flexibility and sustainability both have increased costs for the electrical installations.

CSE: What lighting/lighting controls are in high demand for K-12 buildings? Describe a recent lighting design project.

Barbes: Minimal control options are typically the norm. Lighting controls in a typical classroom are kept to a minimum. Offices, storage rooms, corridors, and open administrative spaces’ lighting controls have local occupancy sensors.

CSE: What are some of the challenges for fire and life safety system design for K-12 school buildings? How have you overcome these challenges?

Hobbs: Challenges include designing a chemical fire suppression system for districtwide information technology (IT) closets and concealing pipes in exposed structure areas, such as lobbies, cupulas, and skylights. The chemical fire suppression systems require explanation and buy-in from the owner. The architect additionally has to be informed of space requirements, volume design considerations, and ceiling design considerations. Coordination with the owner and architect present the opportunity to successfully implement this system. Issues with concealing pipes in exposed structure areas often are overcome by coordinating with the structural and architectural disciplines. Often, simply presenting the problem leads to the architect providing the guidance needed to achieve a clean and aesthetically pleasing solution.

LaRose: Budget is the biggest challenge. Many school districts are drastically deficient in fire and life safety compliance. The solution is planning and doing construction throughout the year, not just during the unoccupied summer months. Trying to cram these projects into a 3-month short summer window is very expensive, and workforces are usually depleted during these times because of demand.

CSE: Describe unique security and access-control systems you have specified in K-12 school buildings.

Barbes: Increased security concerns will require cameras/monitors, controlled access points, and communications between controlled entry points and administrative control locations. This seems to be a growing concern for both public and private schools, and not just for K-12, but also for higher education and technical schools.

CSE: What are the recent changes or updates you are experiencing for mass notification systems (MNS) or security systems in such facilities? Are clients requesting more “active shooter” notification systems, and if so, how is your team designing these MNS?

Barbes: We are encouraging K-12 end users to integrate MNS and public address systems to get the most bang for their buck. In addition, if these systems are used on a regular basis, they are more likely to be functional when needed in an emergency. The users will also get comfortable with operating them so they will not be hesitant or unprepared when that nonfire emergency occurs.

CSE: What are some of the commissioning challenges for proper alarm signaling for K-12 school buildings?

Barbes: With voice-capable false answer supervision (FAS), it is imperative to provide the correct messaging and make sure it is audible and intelligible. If the FAS is not loud enough or cannot be understood, it defeats the intent of the voice capability. You also want to provide the correct message for each type of event; not all emergencies will warrant evacuating the building. Testing these scenarios with different messages is very important to successfully commission the system.

CSE: Do you see any future changes/requests to building design in regards to fire/life safety systems?

Barbes: Most of the life safety requirements seem to be fairly stable and have not noticed any increased concerns.

LaRose: Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-style buildings have been evolving, which come with an entirely new group of concerns related to the types of fire hazards in the buildings. Proper design will be needed for the use of flammable and combustible liquids and to address other acute health hazards. Introducing these types of hazards to older buildings that are not designed for these conditions may create serious fire hazards and threaten the life safety of the students and faculty if not properly addressed.