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Double height white cement block lab with exposed ducts above lab equipment. View, left, through windows to green space
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10 Ways to Address Energy Use in Science+Technology Facilities

Chris Ertl

High-performance buildings often consume massive amounts of energy, and we provide our clients with innovative solutions to reduce their operational costs and lower their environmental impact. These solutions are great for clients with new projects or renovations are on the horizon, but what about clients whose current budgets don’t foresee any new design work?

Our research shows that there are several low-cost, high-impact strategies that an institution can implement to reduce a building’s carbon footprint and improve operational expenses—even without large-scale upgrades.

lab with white parallel vertical tubes with pink centers and electric piping bisecting horizontal and vertical metal tracks.
Advanced Energy in San Jose, CA. Photo by Peter Alfred Hess.

1. Shut the Sash

Fume hoods are one of the most energy-intensive pieces of equipment in a lab, but significant savings can be achieved by keeping them closed when not in use. Consider implementing a “Shut the Sash” awareness program that rewards groups who most consistently shut sashes when not in use. The practice can save up to $2,000 annually per hood, and will keep your occupants safe.

2. Save Money on Lighting

Eliminating lighting in spaces that don’t need full lighting levels can save money. Reducing the light levels in corridors is a good first step. Within the labs, reducing ambient lighting to 50 foot-candles at the bench, and using more efficient LED task lighting where additional light is needed should provide sufficient light levels for most scientific activities. Finally, while it may seem like a no-brainer, prioritize developing a culture where the last one out always turns off the lights.

3. Start a Freezer Management Program

In addition to being noisy, ultralow temperature freezers use a lot of electricity and release heat into the space they occupy. Installing these freezers in central areas reduces the impact on the mechanical systems servicing your labs. Most long-term freezer samples can be stored at -70° C instead of the standard -80°C. This temperature tuning of your freezers a mere 10° will conserve up to 40% more energy. Once you have raised your freezer temperature, there are several other maintenance items that can improve freezer energy consumption: – Defrost freezers regularly to maintain optimal energy use and storage capacity – Keep filters and fins clean – Discard samples that are no longer in use – Once the units have outlived their useful life, purchase replacement units that are energy-efficient and use scroll compressors.

4. Conserve Purified Water

It takes 2 to 3 units of water to make 1 unit of purified water. Many researchers don’t like the automatic shut-off valves we suggest for the pure water fixtures, but with the high cost of producing and supplying pure water to the lab, it is important to only use what you need, and utilizing these valves is a great way to cut down on waste.

5. Green Purchasing & Recycling

Visit with your lab’s purchasing department to look for ways to choose supplies with recycled content, consider the lifecycle of products purchased, and group orders to minimize shipping.

lab environment with rows of clear glass electronic manufacturing cubes with plastic tube systems connecting to the ceiling
Octapharma North American Headquarters in Charlotte, NC. Photo by Tim Buchman.

6. Minimize Air Changes

Many lab mechanical systems were designed on the premise that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and that room air changes must be maximized to keep people safe. As an architect, my number one concern in designing a lab is providing a safe environment for its occupants, and I have found that this can often be accomplished with fewer air changes than is commonly believed. Fine-tune your supply and exhaust valves down to 6-8 air changes per hour in occupied mode, and look at setting the air changes back in unoccupied conditions. These changes can have a dramatic operational savings of more than 25%.

7. Manage Your Chemicals

If I had a nickel for every lab I’ve seen with expired or unused chemicals in it, I would be able to retire a rich man! Take frequent inventory of your chemical storerooms and research labs, and safely dispose of unneeded or expired chemicals. Check with others before ordering chemicals to avoid unnecessary duplication, and only order the appropriate quantity for the work to be completed. This saves unnecessary chemical storage space in your lab facilities, and it will make your Fire Marshall and Environmental Health and Safety officers happy!

8. Manage Plug Loads

There are many pieces of lab equipment that continue to use power when they’re plugged in but not in use. Unplugging equipment from electrical outlets, turning off the power strips when not in use or adding timer plugs to appropriate equipment are all easy solutions we rarely think of. Take stock of what is plugged in to outlets in your labs and offices, and you may even realize you never use the equipment anymore, which leads to the next solution…

9. Donate Old Lab Equipment

You can donate or redistribute scientific materials or equipment you no longer use in your lab space. When purchasing new equipment, be sure to select energy-efficient models.

10. Green Chemistry

Green chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. The EPA is a great source of knowledge on the principles of green chemistry and how one can implement this in their lab. Keys to this include designing your chemical syntheses to prevent waste, designing chemical products that are fully effective yet have little or no toxicity, running chemical reactions at room temperature and pressure whenever possible, and, most importantly, minimizing the potential for accidents including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment.

The institutions I work with have reported reduction to the operating costs of their labs when they implement these simple techniques, which goes to show how many opportunities there are to be greener–without having to build a LEED Platinum or Carbon Neutral facility. I am always looking for other low-cost sustainable solutions that have been successfully implemented in high-performance facilities. Please feel free to share your ideas and comments with me!

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