Underfloor Pathways and Spaces

Office Space


A 21st Century Approach to Wire Management for the Modern Building

The delivery of information to every member of the workforce–from the C-Suite to the field worker, from engineers to administrators–demands uninterrupted data access. Uptime is sacred. Cable and wire management from data centers to desktops must be seamlessly integrated. When a change has to be implemented and cables and wires installed, the process should be fast, cost-effective and relatively easy with no loss of productivity.

Wire and cable management directly impacts data center management. ITS managers require open lines of communication with the data center team to understand projected capacity requirements. In 2012, the theme of the Uptime Institute’s symposium was Digital Infrastructure Convergence—a call to action for IT and facilities management to develop a common language, meaningful metrics and cross-disciplinary skills to meet rapidly evolving computing demands. “The Uptime Institute defines digital infrastructure as the entirety of an organization’s IT assets, including data center facilities, IT systems and third-party service providers,” said Matt Stansberry, program director for the 2012 Uptime Institute Symposium.

Digital infrastructure cannot occur without a commitment to a cable and wire management system that impacts the future of the enterprise. Choosing the best system should be the primary concern of facilities and IT before other decisions are made about furniture, seating, lighting and telecommunications systems. For the better part of a century, workplace managers endured the inefficiencies of rigid wiring in fixed locations behind walls, in suspended ceilings, in the concrete slab and in furniture. Connection points and plugs were also immovable. Fortunately, the new generation of wire management systems provides capacity, organization and ease-of-access anywhere in the floor while saving time and cost.

Traditional Wiring Methods

Changes to layout, furniture, equipment, lighting and AV require changes or additions to the wire and cable management system. Facility improvements and upgrades are often resisted if the cost and effort involved to make wiring changes is too great. With the explosion of technology, traditional wiring methods can be rigid with little flexibility, which can add costs and conflict to building management.

Traditional concrete core drilling has been used to provide pathways for conduits and to install pokethrough floor outlets. With this method, outlet locations are fixed in place, and space and cable run options are limited. Electrical, IT and telecommunications equipment compete in the limited space, and it is often a challenge to keep high and low voltage segregated.

Concrete trenches involve cutting a slab to create cable pathways. This is a noisy process, which can be a concern in a leased building with tenants located on other floors. Concrete trenches are also messy to install, and the room and adjacent work areas are unusable during installation. Cable installers are forced to use fixed locations for cable runs and floor boxes, resulting in restricted furniture layout. Accessing cables involves opening header locations and the time consuming process of fishing cable. With concrete trenches, the organization of cables is poor and pathways tend to fill quickly.

Traditional suspended ceilings also have some limits. J-hooks, cable trays or other hardware is installed to provide proper horizontal support for cables. The cables are then typically routed vertically behind drywall to fixed outlets on the wall, or down power poles to support wired furniture systems. Changes to wiring typically require at least two workers using ladders to remove ceiling tiles along the wiring path.

Wired furniture systems have been used in deployed office space since the early 1970s. The main feeds to furniture systems are typically provided in one of three ways–through power poles, from a wall or from the floor. Furniture stations are often connected electrically in a daisy chain fashion and do not offer flexibility for changes. Adding or changing cables in wired furniture systems can require hours to dismantle and reassemble, which can lead to deterioration over time. Some of the largest furniture manufacturers now offer access flooring product lines to support their wired furniture systems.

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Traditional Concrete Panel and Pedestal Raised Floors

When most hear the term raised access floor, they think of a traditional 2 ft x 2 ft heavy concrete panel supported by four posts (or pedestals). These systems were invented in the early 1960s to create a sealed air plenum to cool the transistors on mainframe computers. They were originally designed with a minimum 1 m (3 ft) tall finished floor height, and the basic design has remained virtually unchanged even though today they are sometimes installed at only 2.5 centimeters (cm [1 inch (in)]) above the slab. Traditional raised floors create a continuous cavity, with little means for organization or separation. Cables are often run randomly in various directions, which can lead to accumulation and interference issues. Cable tray can be installed in the raised floor to solve this issue; however, this installation adds expense and typically pushes the minimum finished floor height up to 15 cm (6 in). Since these floors create a sealed air space, plenum-rated cabling is also required.

With traditional raised floors, lifting several panels along the wiring path can be a time consuming process. These floors do offer efficient underfloor air distribution, but if wire management is the main objective, more flexible and user-friendly alternatives are now available.

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CSI’s New Wire Management Category

In the mid-1990s, the first of a new generation of low profile, fixed height access floors for wire management was introduced. In the years since, advanced product lines have come to the marketplace. These low profile access floors are not intended for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, nor do they create a sealed air plenum creating fire concerns. These systems range from 4 cm to 10 cm (1.6 in to 4 in) finished floor height– very different from the tall traditional underfloor air type systems that were introduced in the 1960s.

In 2009, the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI), the organization that maintains and advances the standards and specifications of the construction industry, took the extraordinary step of creating a new MasterFormat category 09 69 33 Low Profile Fixed Height Access Flooring. This new category formally differentiates low profile systems for wire management from traditional 2 ft x 2 ft concrete panel and pedestal floors that were designed for under floor air distribution.

The low profile design provides flexible wire management for high churn spaces where future adaptability is anticipated such as:

  • Offices and data centers
  • Training rooms, computer labs and classrooms
  • Libraries and multi-purpose rooms
  • Court rooms and conference centers
  • Broadcast studios and TV/radio stations
  • Retail spaces and casinos
  • Museums and fitness centers
  • Trading floors and call centers
  • Manufacturing facilities
  • Emergency operation centers
With low profile access floors, moves, adds and changes (MACs) and upgrades to the wiring system are accomplished in a fraction of the time. New cable runs are installed in minutes instead of hours. IT professionals are the primary beneficiaries of this approach.

Low Profile Access Floors

Many low profile access floor systems on the market are the plastic understructure type. These floors typically employ a hard polypropylene base that provides support for the floor panels. Panels can be fiberboard, plastic or steel. Installation can require screws, glues and fasteners to attach a support matrix of some sort to the floor and/or the use of these techniques to attach panels to these matrices or the floor itself. Because plastic understructure floors can have combustible components, it is important to check with your local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) before specifying and installing.

On the other hand, all steel gravity-held systems involve the use of interlocking modules that use gravity and the weight of the entire assembled system to keep the floor in place. They install rapidly without glues, screws or fasteners. Channels are created by the grid of the system, much like cable tray, allowing for organization and segregation of cables. Advances in design and materials for steel gravity-held systems have enabled the creation of strong, quiet and rapidly installed low profile wire management systems. These systems are easy to use–simply lift the floor covering tile, remove the channel plates and add or change the cables. Real cost savings are realized in all phases of the building–during construction, renovation, use and layout revision of the space.

All steel gravity-held access floors can offer a lower profile while still providing ample wire capacity. For example, a system with a finished floor height of only 4 cm (1.6 in) can accommodate 45 category 6 cables per channel at a 50 percent fill ratio. With this low of a system, ramping is minimized–an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant ramp would be only 48 cm (19 in) in length.

A key attribute significant to ITS technicians is ease of installing and relocating connection points. With low profile access flooring, power, voice and data floor boxes can be installed anywhere in the floor plan. Boxes can be easily configured with an array of device options to support power, data, phone and AV receptacles. If boxes need to be relocated, they can simply be moved to a new location in the floor in minutes. Some floor systems offer modular plug-and-play power options that provide additional flexibility for power distribution and eliminate the need for home runs to the electrical panel for every box.

There are numerous savings points that can be identified by installing a flexible and adaptable low profile wire management system.

  • Rapid installation– more than 1000 square feet per installer, per day
  • Up to 50 percent savings on electrical contractor labor
  • Up to 50 percent savings on low voltage contractor labor
  • No core drilling, trenching, wire raceways, walker ducts or ceiling wiring
  • Reduce or eliminate the need for wire management in systems furniture
  • Less expensive non-plenum rated cable is permitted
  • MACs in the future can be performed by in-house labor
  • Flexibility and cost savings over the life of the system

Closing Thoughts

The new CSI MasterFormat category 09 69 33 Low Profile Fixed Height Access Flooring differentiates low profile access flooring and supports the future direction of cable and wire management in office buildings, data centers, educational facilities, health care environments, casinos and hotels. Every CEO and CFO demands a work environment where uptime is optimal. IT is held responsible for every minute systems might be slowed in data delivery. In the financial sector, every second in the market counts. Facilities management and information technology are held accountable for lost productivity time. For ITS engineers and technicians, a lowprofile wire management system can offer immediate return on investment and optimal uptime and management.

Redistributed with permission from BICSI News Magazine – September/October 2013 issue