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When is it time to rip off the band-aid and really plan for healthcare facility power?

March 15, 2018

By Jeff Hankin

A 10-year-old healthcare facility is outdated when looking at power density; a few questions can help determine when it’s time for an upgrade

Today’s healthcare facilities are bringing innovative technologies and procedures—along with the comforts of home and community—into the patient care environment unlike any other time in history. When you consider that most of these innovations and desired amenities rely on electrical power, it’s clear that the amount of power needed to run a hospital—or the power density—can be severely lacking in an older facility.

It’s common to see anywhere from two-to-four times more power devices or capacity required for equipment in operating rooms, intensive and critical care rooms, patient rooms, and imaging departments than was expected even 10 years ago.

Flexibility and room adaptability are key in planning and design in today’s hospitals—two bed areas today could become one larger area tomorrow.

My facility meets code—isn’t that all I need?

Industry experience and user preference show that most of today’s facilities require much more than just code-minimum power to deliver the current standard of patient care. For many years leading up to the 2014 National Electrical Code (NEC), the requirement for quantity of receptacle devices within general and critical patient care areas had not changed. With the 2014 NEC, Article 517 increased the requirement of receptacle quantities, which means most renovation and upgrade projects must comply with more stringent, higher-density requirements.

For example, a general care patient room now requires eight receptacles whereas prior code cycles required only four. However, even the newest code requirements are the minimum requirements. Of course, those requirements should be followed but also challenged by facilities and engineering professionals each time a healthcare facility upgrades equipment, changes modalities, or renovates a department.

Adding just one extra piece of equipment can overload a circuit and impact the ability to use that room for patient care, not to mention the possibility of compromising patient and staff safety.

Upgrades are expensive, can’t we just make it work?

The big challenge for facilities professionals who manage the power systems infrastructure is to effectively plan for short-term increased demands while developing strategies that will accommodate future upgrades and power requirements for years to come. But, all too often, facilities professionals dealing with power density issues and cost issues look for ways to “get by,” trying to fit updated equipment and patient care methods into rooms that were not built for today's standard of care.

To manage costs, some facilities choose to defer upgrades and opt for temporary solutions to their power density issues, such as using power strips, doubling up circuits in panelboards to run two circuits off the same 20-amp circuit breaker or moving loads between the normal and emergency power branch circuits. “Band-aid” solutions are not long-term solutions.

What could happen if we defer to a temporary power solution?

Adding just one extra piece of equipment can overload a circuit and impact the ability to use that room for patient care, not to mention the possibility of compromising patient and staff safety. Furthermore, many temporary solutions may not be compliant with current codes and must be carefully studied ahead of implementation.

Even acceptable “deferral methods” that may temporarily fix the power density problem within a facility are usually not recommended by design engineers because the fixes are typically short-term solutions and do not address the long-term needs and overall power density problems. Deferral methods eventually catch up to a facility, and often require more upgrades and cost expenditures than if the power density concerns were addressed earlier.

Receptacle densities in today’s patient rooms—it's not uncommon to see devices every few inches.

How do I determine when we need to upgrade our power system?

The decision of whether to defer a power upgrade is critical and should be considered by both administrators and facilities managers. To make the right determination, ask the following questions:

  • If the new equipment or program changes can be fit within the current electrical systems, how much capacity does that leave for the future? Will the power serve the appropriate locations and configurations?
  • Will the facility be “handcuffed” if an electrical system upgrade is deferred? If so, how can this be mitigated?
  • If upgrades are deferred, will the safety of patients, guests, or staff be jeopardized?
  • If upgrades are deferred, is there an estimated time frame for the next renovation project that will provide an opportunity to make the upgrades?
  • Does the facility's current electrical system meet code minimum standards that will coincide with planned upgrades or renovations?

Staying ahead of the game for long-term power needs

When trying to balance infrastructure needs with increasing power densities and cost issues, it’s essential to have a good understanding of the facility’s electrical infrastructure and what is causing increased power densities. Keeping good records to manage and plan for increases in the amounts of power is vital. By executing sound planning and design throughout the life of a facility, healthcare facilities professionals can stay ahead of the need for future power increases and provide safe, cost-effective electrical systems that will easily meet current—and future—standards of patient care. 

  • Jeff Hankin

    Jeff finds the most rewarding part of his career is having the opportunity to work with great people to create amazing projects.

    Contact Jeff
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