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A Data-Driven Approach to Lab Sustainability

Intelligent measurement and active controls are crucial to developing smart solutions for energy efficiency in labs

Dan Diehl

Dan Diehl is the CEO and president of Aircuity.

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Safe and healthy indoor environments in buildings have never been more important. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have clearly impacted everyone, and laboratories are no exception. Across the board, indoor air quality (IAQ) is simply something we must figure out. Labs, of course, have recognized the importance of air quality for decades, but providing the best lab environments requires the use of real-time data for proper management. 

Using the right technology

It starts with selecting the right platform, ideally one that offers simplicity and provides useful IAQ data to various operational team members. Specifically, lab managers should look for an IAQ platform that provides accurate measurement, active control, and sophisticated reporting. 

In this case, measuring accurately means the ability to provide differential measurement for outside air and supply air compared to a room with the same sensors. This eliminates the impact of sensor drift and provides an easy, single point of calibration and measurement for multiple—up to several dozen—locations. The platform should have the ability to deploy high grade “lab quality” sensors over a large footprint.

“Active” control reflects the ability to send a high select mpDCV signal to the lab control system based on the room or AHU conditions. Intelligent reporting, meanwhile, reflects the ability to provide insight by building, room, parameter, and by constituent based on what the lab manager most cares about. These analytics—whether through mobile or desktop apps—let lab managers easily take a deep dive into IAQ happenings in the building.

Data to drive efficiency

Labs are expensive to operate because they require so much outside air and consume huge amounts of energy. So, efficiency and more sustainable lab operations are key to controlling lab costs. After all, greater efficiency means more resources for owners to direct toward research and other areas.

In tracking occupied and unoccupied spaces, however, there are some head-scratching trends. A ventilation system might be in “occupied” mode, for example, and yet the flows are dropping. Well, if you have the right system, you can review the analytics to examine this trend. You might find that the temperature is controlling, using a lot of re-heat and wasting lots of energy. If you have access to the right data, you’ll likely find the right answer to explain this: the corresponding flows are set incorrectly. It’s an easy fix by looking at data, and you can save money.

Every lab manager knows that fume hoods are a huge source of wasted energy. That’s why your ventilation system should provide metrics for fume hood optimization/utilization. Measuring this area is the best way to drive behavioral change, not to mention identifying mechanical deficiencies. Behavioral change comes from awareness. Most people are sensitive to energy conservation and want to do the right thing, but they’re focused on research. Analytics are great reminders of where proven opportunities exist in a facility or with a researcher to save energy.

The analytics quickly identify the worst offenders—by lab or user—and tell you how they’re wasting energy. The savings can be substantial, whether it’s through fume hood optimization, DCV, or temperature controls. It’s all about data that’s quick, effective, and insightful. This data empowers the next layer of activity: arming the lab manager to squeeze more energy efficiency out of the building with very little effort.

Targeting specific problems

Climate change and the increasing frequency of large-scale fires are greatly challenging air systems that rely on 100 percent outside air. Lab managers in California, for example, need to ask themselves a series of questions: Is my filtration working as intended? Are the filters being bypassed? Should we modify the control sequence at such times?

Not every system is set up to address these challenges. You need a system that can look at outdoor air particle levels. You also have to make sure the filtration is working effectively—a level of 99 percent reduction is key. If you see a spike up or down that doesn’t correlate to outside air, that could result from a filtration change. Data that looks at outside air vs supply air can be hugely helpful in such instances. 

Are you responsible for environmental health and safety (EH&S)? If so, this type of data will enable you to become proactive. You pick what information you want to see by room or by occurrence, and you can analyze the entire lab for EH&S while determining which parameter is offending. Sometimes it’s CO2, other times it’s particles or TVOCs. You can look at the problems—not the areas that are doing fine—and determine what needs to be done. Such data is crucial for protecting the health and wellness of lab teams.

The future of research

Improving labs is part of the broader push for healthy buildings. We must dedicate ourselves to providing healthy and safe environments, and do so intelligently, cost effectively, and over the life of the building. It’s no longer enough to solve an individual problem by “throwing energy” at it. Now, we must use the most efficient solutions from the perspective of energy efficiency.

Many labs are struggling with sustainability and energy efficiency, and those problems can’t be solved with old thinking. The right solutions start with smart/intelligent systems that are proven. Data-driven solutions provide results that are undeniable and create better environments. Intelligent measurement and active controls—that is the future of the built environment.