Services & Maintenance: Choosing An Acoustic Ceiling

By Joann Davis Brayman
Published in the May 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

healthcare ceilings facility maintenance interiors

Selecting a ceiling, regardless of what type of facility space it will be installed in, is rarely based solely on one criterion. A variety of criteria usually factor into the decision: acoustic performance, aesthetics, fire and humidity resistance, light reflectance, maintenance demands, and installed cost. As a result, ceiling system selection becomes a balance between design, performance, and budget. When selecting an acoustic (or “drop”) ceiling, facility managers (fms) should keep several points in mind.

Visual Appeal

Visual appeal will often be the initial area of investigation by fms. And, in this regard, one of the more recent developments is acoustic ceiling systems that organize lighting fixtures, air diffusers, and sprinkler heads in a narrow, linear “zone” or strip to create a more monolithic appearance.

These new systems virtually eliminate the need for penetrations in the ceiling panels themselves, making them more aesthetically pleasing and easier to install and replace. Maintenance hassles and potential panel damage are also limited, since technical services are housed in the dedicated area of the ceiling panels.

Able to be installed in standard suspension systems, these integrated acoustic ceiling systems use standard components while delivering the desired quantity and quality of light and air into a space.

Fire Resistance

Fire resistance is crucial to facility safety. To help ensure fire safe construction, many building codes rely on two ratings to evaluate compliance: flame spread rating of a material and fire resistance rating of a construction assembly.

The flame spread rating indicates the relative rate at which a flame will spread over the surface of a material. Ceilings with a Class A flame spread rating are generally the required standard for most commercial applications.

The fire resistance rating is an hourly rating indicating the degree to which an entire ceiling assembly—not individual components—withstands fire and high temperatures while retaining its structural integrity.

Fms must remember that flame spread ratings and fire resistance ratings are two separate issues, which should be addressed independently.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Most acoustic ceiling panels are designed for use in the normal occupancy temperature range and a maximum relative humidity of 70%. For spaces where in-service humidity and temperature are expected to exceed these ranges, humidity resistant panels are an option. By resisting humidity, these types of panels are designed to prevent visible sagging, thus minimizing ceiling replacement.

High humidity conditions can also lead to mold and mildew growth. Ceiling panels can be manufactured with antimicrobial treatments that inhibit the growth of mold and mildew on both the face and back painted surfaces of the panel.

Today, increasing attention is also being given to the quality of the indoor environment as it relates to the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In this case, fms should note that ceiling manufacturers offer a selection of acoustic products that satisfy stringent requirements for formaldehyde and other types of VOC emissions. Many mineral fiber acoustic ceilings have no added formaldehyde, while there are also mineral fiber and fiberglass acoustic ceilings classified as low formaldehyde.

Light Reflectance

When indirect lighting systems (those that feature uplighting rather than downlighting) are used in a space, specifiers often overlook the role of the ceiling in the lighting plan. This is unfortunate, because high light reflectance ceilings—meaning those with a Light Reflectance (LR) value of 0.83 or higher—can make lighting systems more effective while reducing energy costs.

The benefits are most significant with indirect lighting systems, because the ceiling reflects and distributes light back into the space. In addition to increased light levels, fewer fixtures may be needed to obtain a given illumination level. Fewer fixtures means less energy is required, along with fewer lamps and ballasts to replace.

Maintenance And Durability

When it comes to the maintenance of acoustic ceilings, most mineral fiber panels require no more attention than painted drywall ceilings do. However, when maintenance is necessary, certain procedures should be used to ensure continued high performance.

Dust and loose dirt can be removed by brushing or vacuuming. Vacuum cleaner brush attachments, such as those for cleaning upholstery, do the best job. Cleaning should be done in one direction in order to prevent rubbing dust into the surface of the ceiling.

Another point to keep in mind is that mineral fiber acoustic ceiling panels are painted during their manufacture. However, if an fm decides to repaint them, it is important to note that the manufacturer cannot guarantee the published fire, acoustic, or light reflectance performance. Repainting will also render mold inhibiting and retarding treatments ineffective. And all warranties are usually voided by field painting.

Surface durability and soil resistance are key criteria wherever ceilings need to withstand abuse. Consequently, fms should expect reliable data that supports performance claims pertinent to an application, such as scrubability for ceilings installed in laboratories. They should also expect substantiating references to accepted ASTM (or other) tests, testing methods, and/or code criteria. If necessary, fms should be able to obtain copies of verified test data.

When selecting ceilings with durability and cleaning in mind, fms should remember a few more points. Dirt accumulation, such as that from air diffusers, not only detracts from appearance, but it can require replacement. Soiling can also cause substantial reduction in light reflectance and acoustic efficiency. Many ceiling panels, especially those with high light reflectance, are available that provide effective soil resistance; this is achieved with an applied membrane.

In applications where cleanliness is a priority (e.g., healthcare, clean rooms, laboratories, food preparation), acoustic ceiling panels may require cleaning beyond normal procedures. For these installations, there are acoustic panels that resist water for improved cleanability without compromising panel finish integrity. These panels may feature a water repellent paint that can be washed and scrubbed for infection control.

Finally, in any areas where lay-in panels frequently need to be removed for plenum access, fms may prefer products with high surface scratch resistance. This would minimize panel damage from hanger wires and other obstructions.

Choosing an acoustic ceiling that will stand the test of time without imposing undue demands on the maintenance staff is key for most fms. Identifying the standard and specialty needs of the space in question will help ease this decision making process.

Davis Brayman is a member of the Marketing Committee of the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association (CISCA), which can be found online at She is also vice president of marketing for commercial ceilings at Armstrong World Industries.

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