Contributed to Technologies for Worship Magazine

The advances in audio, video, and lighting technology have ushered in a new era for houses of worship. Never before have facilities had the opportunity to create spaces that fully captivate their congregation and immerse them in the messaging. However, there is another side to this story and it’s a conversation that’s frequently not given enough attention — your power distribution and electrical support for LED lighting systems, video walls, projection solutions, sound systems, and much more. Here are some of the most important questions you can ask to set your facility up for the best operability and longevity of these systems and protect your investment.

  1. Who can help me assess the power and AVL needs suitable to my space — who do I need on my team?

For big upgrades or new equipment installations, you’re obviously going to have an AV or lighting design/installation team on site.  However, it’s also important to include an electrical professional on your team who understands and is up to date on the National Electric Code as well as local electrical codes.  As we’ll discuss, new equipment often has different powering needs and it’s important to have your electrical distribution evaluated prior to the install.  As a side note, many AVL firms are adding licensed electricians to their staff for this very reason.

  1. What do I need to know about my current setup before I look at an upgrade, renovation, or overhaul of my AVL systems? 

First you need to know the size of your current installed utility power service.  That’s either your budget limit if you don’t want to increase your electrical service, or do you need to consider a larger service to support the new gear you’re going to install?  In most cases, especially if you’re converting to LED lighting, you’ll be gaining back some room in your panel. This gives you the option to add more equipment or downsize your service. However, don’t forget to consider all of the electrical loads that are staying. Your panel will almost always have additional loads other than just the audio, video or lighting circuits.  Keep those in mind when completing your current load calculations.

  1. How often and how much of the current electrical system needs to be replaced in an upgrade? What are the installed branch circuit breakers?

Rarely does internal wiring have to upgraded or replaced to support new equipment.  However, it seems to be common for additional branch circuit breakers to be added to support new gear or to isolate equipment to allow for automation to be added to the system.  A branch circuit breaker is located in your electrical panel and provides overcurrent protection to all of the equipment that draws current from that specific circuit breaker.  There are often empty circuit breaker slots in your electrical panel that were left there for future upgrades.  If no empty slots are provided, then you may have to have a new electrical panel installed to handle the new loads.

Wiring is sized to the branch circuit breakers.  So for example, if you have a 15 amp circuit breaker installed, the wiring off of that breaker will be sized for a 15 amp load.  You cannot simply add a 20 amp circuit breaker and expect to pull a 20 amp load across the old wiring.  Pulling more than the rated current draw across a wire will generate excess heat and be considered a fire hazard.  If you need to upgrade loads (in amperage or voltage), for example, to accommodate higher power amplifiers, then the wiring must be properly sized —which may mean new wiring.

  1. Do you currently have electrical automation in place, and what impact does that have on an upgrade?

If you do have electrical automation in place, you may be working with proprietary control protocols that may no longer be supported. Relays and control pads may have to be updated to open protocols. This is higher cost up front, but lower costs over the long-haul.

If automation is not in place, then now is the time to add it! Controllable circuit breakers save time, space and installation costs for larger projects, and relay panels are more cost effective for smaller retrofit projects. The more complex the install, the more important simple electrical control is —especially if your church depends on volunteers for AVL support and doesn’t have ready access to trained professionals for support.  For volunteers, good electrical automation simplifies system operations. Automation can also lower the cost of your electrical bill and cut maintenance bills.  Don’t forget, standard circuit breakers are not meant to be used as switches. In fact, it’s against NEC codes to do so.

  1. In the lighting space, what power advantages are offered by going with an all LED setup?

Because LED lamps pull less total electricity and last much longer than a traditional light bulb, you can reduce your electrical demand a great deal by converting to LED fixtures.  And because of the reduced current draw from the LED lamps, each circuit can then handle a greater number of LED fixtures than traditional lamp fixtures. Upgrading to LED lamps can free up electrical headroom to add more fixtures, performance lighting, or façade lighting.

However, it is important to add automation to turn LED fixtures off.  Most manufacturers recommend this because it extends the life of LED fixtures, lowers maintenance costs. And will cut electrical costs.  Why is this true?  It is because end-users wanted brighter LED fixtures, to make them brighter the manufacturers feed them more electrical current, more current led to higher temperatures in the fixtures, and this has resulted in the need to make sure that fixtures are turned completely off during periods on non-use.

  1. A number of churches are updating their AV setups with completely new elements, such as replacing projectors with video walls. What are the power implications of new technologies like video walls?

Video walls are all the rage right now.  Video walls have more light and are far brighter than projectors. However, if you have more light output that requires more electrical input. And because video walls are nothing more than a whole bunch of LED panels tiled together, they have to be sequenced on when powering up because they create a very large electrical inrush. Most likely, depending on the size of your video wall, you’ll need to add circuits to handle the inrush. Typically, a single 20A circuit can’t  take the power inrush of more than eight panels. Too much inrush can cause nuisance circuit breaker trips, and in the worst case, it can actually burn our processors in your LED video panels leaving a blacked-out square in the middle of your video wall.

The bigger the video wall, the more circuits you’ll need. Although it’s tempting to leave a video wall on and save your system from that temporary energy draw, they do generate heat, even in standby. Turning them off when they’re not in use will not only cut down on the heat but it will protect the longevity of your investment.

  1. What are the power implications of upgrading audio such as adding a line array or more powerful amplifiers?

First, you have to remember that more amplifier output requires more electrical input. Many amps nowadays require 208V service. This makes the amps operate more efficiently, but if your wiring isn’t sized to handle the requirements of this system, you’ll need the electrical service and wiring to support the upgrade. Also sequencing is needed as more power is required, and because newer digital gear takes longer to boot up, you need a system where step rates and delay times can be easily adjusted.