The power systems in any facility are critical and constantly evolving technology plays a crucial role in facility power design and operating costs. This Q&A showcases our electrical engineering team’s expertise and how they can help you as a client.
Q. Outline for us what role electrical engineers play in the design and construction process.
A. Generally our task is to design low and medium-voltage equipment. If we take a typical large facility, you’re going to need power for the mechanical systems, IT, lighting, security, fire protection and often backup or redundant power supply systems. Basically, we connect power to everything the building needs to live and breathe. We design all of the equipment and systems necessary to take electricity from the source to where it’s needed. Finally, electrical engineers are responsible for making sure that all building codes and client needs are met, so that people’s health and safety is protected.
Q. Are people unaware of just how complex the electrical systems are in any given commercial building?
A. It’s not something most people think about. Our clients are naturally focused on the aesthetics and functionality of a particular facility. Electricity is viewed as a “black box” – we want it to work, but we don’t want to think about how it works. It’s important that the power needs be considered up front, however, because even small changes in a design will hugely impact the electrical systems within a building.
Q. Are there any significant changes you’ve seen in your field?
A. All engineering disciplines are constantly using new technology, but the electrical field is advancing faster than most, hand-in-hand with computers and semiconductors. It’s hard to think of a machine or appliance that doesn’t have a microchip in it. In the broader field, mostly improvements are ongoing in the efficiency of the electrical equipment, meaning what percentage of power going into the equipment is usable coming out. Transformer efficiency, for example, has improved greatly.
User trends have also changed in regard to lighting and how much is really needed. It used to be that when you entered a building every light was on and blazing. Now we have much broader use of natural lighting, with occupancy sensors that turn lights on when people enter a room and off when it’s empty. Other lights, especially security, hallway and emergency exit lighting, have been reduced in overall brightness while still meeting the needs of the occupants. All of this obviously reduces the overall operating costs for the facility. Solar water heaters are also used much more widely now, which again saves on power costs. We’re even starting to see solar-powered streetlights with motion sensors.
Another thing that’s notable is that aluminum wiring is making a comeback. It doesn’t conduct quite as well as copper wiring, but it’s lighter, cheaper and not a target for thieves, like copper wire. So we’re seeing that emerge in new construction as a way to cut costs.
Q. How closely do you work with other members of the design team?
A. As electrical engineers we work very closely with the client, with the architects and with the structural and mechanical engineers from the beginning regarding the placement of equipment and the electrical loads associated. When the client says ‘This is how we want this laid out,’ then we can offer options that help them to be more efficient and save money, both up front and through reduced power expense down the road.
To learn more about evolving technology in facility power design or trends in electrical engineering, contact J.T. Little at jlittle@fsb‑ae.com.