Technology drives K-12 school changes: Electrical, power and lighting

Updates, COVID and tech trends are shifting the way electrical and power systems in K-12 schools are designed

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 7, 2022
Courtesy: Page


Luis Alvarez, PE, Electrical Engineer, Associate, Page, Austin, Texas, David Bonaventure, PE, CEM, Principal, Salas O’Brien LLC, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lawrin T. Ellis, PE, LEED AP, Managing Principal, TLC Engineering Solutions Inc., Fort Myers, Florida, Keith Hammerschmidt, PE, Senior Project Manager, RTM Engineer Consultants, Overland Park, Kansas, Scott Peck, PE, Vice President, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Michigan

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

Luis Alvarez: Each school will have its own specific requirements outlined in design guidelines provided by the school district, including specific uses of each space and the demands of the project site. For example, the quantity of receptacles per classrooms, the amount of power required inside the IT rooms, lighting requirements for theater and athletics buildings and many more. These spaces are not dictated per NFPA 70: National Electrical Code, but rather by the standards and needs of the client. Because each school is unique, open dialogue with the building users is imperative to ensure a satisfied client.

Lawrin T. Ellis: Educational facilities often have a wide range of functions that require expertise in varying electrical designs within a common distribution system. These include kitchen/dining, theatrical, laboratories, machine shops, automotive maintenance, data centers, virtual reality and flight simulation labs, indoor and outdoor sports/athletics and multimedia meeting and instructional spaces. Each of these spaces requires unique electrical power and lighting designs and extensive coordination with other trades.

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

Luis Alvarez: We don’t typically see dedicated emergency power systems in K-12 schools. In our experience, emergency lighting is often handled through local battery backups at the fixture level, although a central lighting inverter is another option that can be used. For schools of a certain height, an inverter to power an elevator for egress purposes may be necessary as well. Finally, the Austin ISD standards call for provisions to connect a portable generator to the power system, specifically to power the building’s main IT room. This is accomplished through the installation of an automatic transfer switch serving a dedicated panelboard in the IT room. The emergency source of the switch is connected to a camlock connection located at the building exterior that allows for the hookup of the roll-up generator.

Lawrin T. Ellis: K-12 schools may include specific systems and equipment that will require emergency power, depending upon the function and programs planned for the school. A project involving the addition of a classroom building on an existing campus required analysis of the existing emergency power system loads and design for expansion or additions to that system. In addition to life safety systems, the school has certain kitchen loads on emergency power including walk-in coolers and freezers.

Technology infrastructure must be maintained for short and long term outages, requiring uninterruptible power supply systems at main and intermediate IT rooms and having these UPS also fed by a standby generator. The requirement for use of portions of the campus as a public emergency evacuation shelter then increase the emergency power loads to serve increase lighting throughout shelter areas, ventilation systems and possible kitchen equipment if the facility will provide meals for the evacuees.

What are some of the challenges when designing low-voltage power systems in K-12 school projects?

Lawrin T. Ellis: Security is now a key design consideration for schools. Access control systems, intrusion alarm and closed-circuit TV systems must be closely coordinated with the school district’s plan for increasing the safety of students and teachers. This is determined through a coordinated design process, with the proposed architectural floor plan, for entry and exit points and circulation throughout the campus. Coordination of the design for audiovisual and other multimedia systems has also become more critical as the use of technology in teaching has increased. School districts often have design standards that must be reviewed and understood, to provide the owner with systems which the teachers and facility staff are familiar with and can easily use and maintain.

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

Lawrin T. Ellis: Electrically, the key systems requiring maintenance and/or training are the lighting control systems and emergency generators. Programming by a manufacturer’s technician and then training the school staff in operation of the lighting control systems for the various types of spaces is important. Often lighting controls are perceived as either not designed or installed properly, when either proper setup by the technician or proper training of the staff have not been provided. There can be long-term effects on the emergency power if proper maintenance is not performed during the life of the system. This includes regular operation of diesel fueled generator engines, running under full load with load bank and maintaining fresh fuel supply.

At James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, the new fine arts and athletic facilities required full integration of audiovisual and information technology to ensure teachers and students can maximize the spaces for creative and interactive uses and experiences. Courtesy: Page

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

Luis Alvarez: Fine arts buildings often include unique spaces such as makeup rooms with specific lighting needs in workstations. In theater spaces, it is preferred that all light fixtures are digital multiplex capable so they can dim all the way down to 0.1% without observable flicker instead of the usual 0 to 10 volts that will only get to 10% of output and then turn off. Engaging a theater consultant is often wise as they will have knowledge of the requirements for the schools and what K-12 clients usually install in their facilities.

Lawrin T. Ellis: Educational facilities often have a wide range of functions that require expertise in varying electrical designs within a common distribution system. These include kitchen/dining, theatrical, laboratories, machine shops, automotive maintenance, data centers, VR and flight simulation labs, indoor and outdoor sports/athletics and multimedia meeting and instructional spaces. Each of these spaces requires unique electrical power and lighting designs and extensive coordination with other trades.

Scott Peck: There can be a lot of unique spaces involved with K-12 electrical design most notably when it comes to high schools. Within a high school, in addition to the corridors and classrooms, there are many spaces that have special uses or equipment. Some examples of this are: theaters that have lighting requirements for both the house lighting along with stage lighting, as well as scene shops and dressing rooms with receptacles for curling irons, hair dryers and scene shops; natatoriums with their associated locker rooms and pool equipment rooms; kitchens both for home economics class and for the main building’s kitchen and lastly for various shops with specialized equipment such as air compressors, paint booths and emergency power stop buttons.

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?

Lawrin T. Ellis: School districts typically have design standards, which include systems and equipment that they have extended experience with and are compatible with systems throughout their district. Coordinating with the owner and all other design team consultants to incorporate these standards is a key to providing a project that the owner can successfully operate. Coordination of electrical systems in areas with extensive equipment requirements is also critical. These areas include science labs, tech maintenance and repair training shops and technology in classrooms.

Scott Peck: We take a conscientious approach on where panelboards are located in the building. Some of the items we consider are the length of branch circuits to limit potential voltage drop issues and what obstacles would make running future branch circuits difficult. We also take in to account any future additional electrical load that will be added to the distribution system. This is one of the key ways to have a flexible and sustainable future for the system.

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?

Luis Alvarez: Energy code requires all spaces (except equipment rooms or rooms that can potentially be safety issues for the occupant) to be automatically controlled and have dimming capability, which will enable the end user to control the output of the light for the best experience for the students. Classrooms often require multiple lighting zones, for example independent control of the row of lights closest to the front of the room is a common requirement.

Gymnasiums usually require high-bay lighting and potentially multiple lighting zones controlled from a single location. As mentioned above, specialized spaces such as fine arts and theaters can have very specific lighting requirements. Finally, students with special needs often require fine control of both brightness and color temperature to accommodate their sensory requirements.

Lawrin T. Ellis: LED technology is being used almost exclusively in school lighting design. LED sources allow a wider range of controls to be more easily implemented throughout the school. This includes user-controlled dimming systems, daylight harvesting and varying color temperatures. LED use for athletic facilities both indoors and outdoors provides improved control and better performance over the life of the system.

Keith Hammerschmidt: RTM has designed all of our recent schools with energy efficient LED lighting with lighting controls to help decrease the amount of lights on when a space isn’t occupied or lights aren’t needed. One unique technique we have used in some schools is to use circadian rhythm LED lighting. Studies have shown how daylight and circadian rhythm play a large role in students learning. We have used circadian rhythm LED lighting in spaces where the architect wasn’t able to get good daylight into a space. We have also used it in SPED type classrooms. We have received great feedback from school districts that it has helped student attentiveness.

Scott Peck: We recently completed a major addition and renovation for a special needs school. In addition to dimming within all the classrooms, we also added color tuning (tunable white) with individual control located within the classrooms. This allows the teacher to change their room lighting to a warmer, more comforting feel or a cooler more crisp feel when needed.

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?

Lawrin T. Ellis: Maintaining consistent, uniform, code required lighting levels in primary areas of the school are the key design factors. These areas include classrooms and kitchens. Providing flexibility of lighting controls for teaching spaces is also being requested, to allow for wide range of teaching methods.

Scott Peck: With the advancement of LEDs, lighting can now take on many forms. For select spaces in the buildings, we are getting requests from architects and designers for shapes such as rings, triangles, squares and wavy lines to name a few. Also, both recessed and aircraft-mounted. By providing this type of lighting, it gives the building some pop that would have been difficult to achieve using previous K-12 lighting design solutions.