Making Room for CLA Systems

May 13, 2009

“The network” in modern buildings has become more than simply “the data network”

While MEP is an acronym that’s widely understood to stand for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, CLA is a relatively new acronym. It stands for communications, life safety, and automation systems. In broad terms, think of MEP systems as systems that transport “energy” through a building; CLA systems transport “information” through a building.

Initially, the data network in a building primarily provided a means to connect computers that ran the data applications for an organization; however, today, many organizations are beginning to provide telephone services (VoIP) via their networks. In addition, the network is also being used to transport audiovisual signals; support electronic safety and security systems, like access control and CCTV; and even support building-automation/-management systems. This trend toward a common platform for transporting information began nearly 20 years ago with the advent of a structured cable plant. In the first iterations of convergence, UTP (unshielded twisted pair) cable was used as a common platform to connect a number of different systems with one type of cable. Today, “the network” has become the common platform. As a result, more and more systems are being developed to operate over a local area network or over the Internet – we simply need to provide access to the IP network, plug in the device, and it’s connected. (Your network manager would tell you that this is an oversimplification; we’ll leave the network-management issues for another discussion.)

The key point is that “the network” in modern buildings has become more than simply “the data network.” With more and more systems depending on “the network” to function, it’s imperative that the spaces and the infrastructure supporting “the network” be as reliable and as stable as possible.

Those in the IT/CLA industry understand the demands being put on modern networks, but aren’t always able to adequately influence the design and provisioning of the spaces in which they need to operate. The reason for this is twofold: IT people don’t fully understand the design and construction process, and construction people don’t fully understand the IT requirements and, therefore, lack a common ground on which to communicate.

Here are a few key issues to consider when provisioning space for CLA systems and “the network” – either during design or as a retrofit project. Industry standards generally refer to these spaces as telecommunications rooms (TRs).

Size and Location
The spaces should be vertically aligned in the center of the space they’re supporting. The maximum cable length from the TR must be less than 328 feet. This includes patch cords and station cords, so a good rule of thumb is to keep the door-to-door distance via the corridors under 200 feet. The TR should be located off of a publically accessible corridor with 24/7 access. Consideration to future increase in the demand for network services and technology migrations should be given when selecting a location. TR spaces may need to support the building for 20 to 30 years, but the technology in the TR will need to be refreshed every 5 to 10 years, so the space should include enough capacity to accommodate this. With more and more equipment requiring 4-post equipment racks and cabinets, minimum room size with three equipment racks should be 10 feet by 12 feet, and the 12-foot dimension should be increased in 3-foot increments for each additional rack or cabinet. 

Architectural Considerations
Architecturally, TRs typically should not have ceilings – this allows for easier access to the conduits and cables entering the room. The walls should be lined with plywood and painted with fire-retardant paint. The floors should have VCT tile (non-static tile is good if you can afford it, but isn’t always necessary). The door should swing out with 180-degree hinges.

Mechanical and Plumbing Considerations
Network electronics and the other CLA systems located in the TR can generate a significant amount of heat, and proper cooling and heat exhaust must be provided. TRs with critical systems should also have a redundant means of providing cooling 24/7 – not just when the building is occupied. Sprinkler heads should be turned up, and cages over the heads should be provided. No piping or ducts should pass through the TRs. 

Electrical Considerations
Consideration should be given to locating a small electrical panel in the TR. Power needs will range from 110V/20A circuits to 208V/30A circuits, depending on the nature of the electronics in the room. The panel should be on emergency or critical power if available in the building. With a number of building systems running on the network in addition to the business systems, consideration must be given to the impact of a power outage and its likely duration. A properly designed grounding system should also be provided in the room. Lighting should be in front of and behind the racks, and should be at least 8-feet above the finished floor and link the sprinkler heads; they should have cages over the bulbs.

A few resources are listed below in terms of where you can learn more about the industry standards applicable to the design of the spaces that support “the network.”

Additional information on best practices and methods for designing spaces for CLA systems can be found at www.bicsi.org.

If you’re involved with construction or renovation projects, the CLA systems are listed in CSI’s MasterFormat™ 2004 in Divisions 25, 27, and 28. You can download a PDF at www.csinet.org.

Thomas C. Rauscher is president at Archi-Technology LLC. He can be reached at (585) 424-1952 x22 or [email protected], or at www.archi-technology.com.

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