Blog, Senior Living

Designing for Safety: Senior Living Electrical Considerations

May 25, 2021
An elderly couple sitting on a couch watching tv.

By Dipali M. Sheth

In recent years, many senior living communities have shifted from the more sterile, hospital nursing home designs of the past in favor of spaces that provide a greater sense of community and emotional well-being. Despite this shift in aesthetics, the same electrical design considerations must be accounted for when designing for the different types of senior living facilities.

By far, one of the most important design considerations MEP firms like VP Engineering are tasked with is ensuring the safety of residents and staff. This requires in-depth knowledge and expertise to stay current with ever-changing modifications in national electrical codes and local health department regulations, regardless of facility type. Below we explore just a few of the safety considerations we account for when designing for Assisted Living (AL), Memory Care (MC) and Skilled Nursing (SN) facilities.

· Emergency/Backup Power System: A backup generator, also called a standby generator, serves as a second-line electrical system. In the event the traditional electrical system goes off-line – whether by storm, rolling blackouts, or a failure at the central electrical grid – an automatic transfer switch senses the loss of power (all within seconds of the loss of power). When this occurs, a command signal is delivered to the generator which assumes the electrical load and supplies power to the electrical circuits. The generator will maintain electrical service depending upon fuel capacity.

Of the devices a generator will power, medical equipment is arguably the most important. This includes ventilators (especially vital during the current COVID-19 pandemic), IV pumps, cardiac monitors and a host of other equally important equipment. The loss of continuous power can equal a loss of life. Having a generator in place can help eliminate these life-threatening situations.

In order for the above process to occur seamlessly, electrical engineers must ensure that senior living facilities meet NFPA 110 and NEC 700 codes during the design phase. They also must account for any State and local Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements as well as any requests from the owners. Facility owners often have their own specific requirements that must be considered during the design, such as the inclusion of an additional on-site generator to serve non-essential items.

· Lighting – As we age, our eyesight often deteriorates, placing seniors at a much more significant risk for accidents such as falls. To address this, electrical designers take into account residents’ visual adaptation and the lighting needed for specific tasks. Visual adaption is the ability of the eye to adjust from one light level to another so as to maintain the same level of visual acuity. For many seniors, adaptation between extreme contrasts — such as leaving the bright sunshine to enter a dim building — can reduce visual acuity, which can sometimes also lead to disorientation. To ease the transition, entry spaces such as lobbies and vestibules should feature brighter, uniform light levels to better allow the mature eye to adapt.

Task lighting is equally as important, particularly its placement. Typically, 50 to 75 foot candles or more are needed in a given task area, depending on the activity performed, whether residents are preparing a meal, enjoying a game of cards or reading a book. Being able to adjust the

light’s intensity, location, and direction will likewise make tasks easier on aging eyes as well as the use of light that does not produce a glare.

Electrical designers also consider circadian health and often include higher blue light levels during the morning hours (5000K or 10000K measured at the eye) and dimmer in the afternoon (3000-4000K at the eye) so as not to disturb melatonin levels. Additionally, low-level night lighting is recommended to combat potential accidents. The lighting should be mounted no higher than 2 ft. above the finished floor.

Well-Being and Health

As mentioned above, a facility’s electrical design can contribute to residents’ sleep health. It can also help in multiple other ways (particularly important given the impact COVID-19 has had on senior living facilities). Providing key fob access to individual rooms and/or common areas eliminates the need to touch potentially germ-infested surfaces. Automatic doors, smart light technology, and automatic paper towel and soap dispensers can provide the same benefit. UV-C disinfecting lighting can also be used to further sanitize shared spaces such as amenity areas, bathrooms, stairwells, elevators, lobbies and fitness rooms.

Additional Considerations

MEP firms take a multitude of other factors into consideration when producing the electrical design for a senior living project. For example:

· To reduce maintenance calls and ensure resident safety, lockout electrical panels should be installed in acute care/memory care resident units.

· Nurse call pull stations should likewise be placed bedside and the toilet for resident safety.

· GFCI receptacles should be placed within 6’ of a sink to prevent accidental electric shock.

· GFCI protection should be in an accessible location for commercial kitchen equipment per code requirements.

Proper senior care lighting should, above all else, contribute to a safe and comfortable living environment. While it cannot resolve the issues that come with growing older, it can help increase visual performance, improve residents’ quality of life, and contribute to an improved bottom line through energy efficiency. Contact us today to see how we can help you create a safe environment for your next senior living project.


About VP Engineering

VP Engineering is a top Charlotte-based MEP design firm offering engineering expertise in senior living, multi-family, hospitality, and retail/commercial markets worldwide. With experience in a wide range of building types, our MEP engineering services help keep projects on budget and achieve your goals. Learn more at