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Ask the Expert: Designing an Eco-Friendly Laboratory

Matthew Gudorf, campus energy manager with the Facilities Management group at University of California, Irvine, (UCI) discusses the Smart Labs program developed at UCI, which aims to reduce overall energy consumption by 50 percent.

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Matthew Gudorf, campus energy manager with the Facilities Management group at University of California, Irvine, (UCI) talks to Tanuja Koppal, Ph.D., contributing editor at Lab Manager Magazine, about the Smart Labs program developed at UCI, which aims to reduce overall energy consumption by 50 percent. Smart Labs has been implemented across various research and teaching buildings at UCI, as both retrofits and new construction, and it has resulted in significant energy and emissions savings.

Q: Can you give us some details about the Smart Lab program developed and implemented at UCI?

A: We have taken all the different pilot projects that we’ve done over the years and rolled them into one retrofit program called Smart Labs. Smart Labs is centralized demand control ventilation (CDCV), exhaust stack velocity reduction, energy efficient lighting, active and passive daylighting, and all other retrofits found in our Smart Lab Energy Retrofit Guide. We looked at each system individually, sequenced the retrofits for the best possible energy savings and payback, and then put them into one program, and that’s Smart Labs.

Q: Can you tell us about your team and how it goes about planning, designing, and implementing projects across campus?

A: The university has what we call the Energy Team, which is made up of the campus engineer, the campus energy manager (that’s me), some project managers who run the construction projects, the director of project services, and the associate vice chancellor. We meet weekly to look at where we are, where we need to get to, what projects are under way, what projects are in planning, the budgetary issues, and such. Once a project gets an initial scope and budget, it gets assigned to a project manager, who takes the lead and starts the initial talks. If the retrofit involves one of our major lab buildings, the project manager outlines the impact that we think the building is going to sustain while we’re doing the construction and gets initial feedback from the lab and facilities manager. While we are doing the design work with our engineers or with the architectural firms, we’re already aware of how the researchers in the labs feel and what kind of interruptions they can sustain with minimal impact to their research.

Q: Why is there this sudden need to attain energy efficiency, and how has technology impacted what you can accomplish to achieve those efficiencies?

A: Obviously the cost of energy has gone up and is now becoming more and more significant. When you look at the future and try to make the lab more eco-friendly and economical to operate, you start to look at each individual system. We take a look at the lab efficiency cycle, do some monitoring to figure out how the energy is used, and identify two or three opportunities to implement some changes. It can be something very simple, such as raising the blinds to bring in more daylight or using perforated window treatments or applying a daylight control to the lighting. Then we do some more monitoring to see how the outcome compares to past results and whether there is something else we can do to make it better. Technology has certainly improved, bringing down the costs of controls and sensors and making them more capable. A system like the CDCV did not exist 10 or 15 years ago. Similarly the building and environmental codes have changed too. In the past, the solution to pollution was dilution. Instead of doing point source controls and making sure that the labs are safe, they just diluted their way out of it. So now we are going back and making the savings adjustments and the retrofits.

Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

A: The most challenging aspect of my job is this: After you do these retrofits and have all this equipment installed, you have a huge flow of data coming in. The amount of data is overwhelming. Taking that data, breaking it down, and coming up with action items—whether it’s a retrofit project or a behavioral change or something that is just designed or operated that way—can be very daunting. The challenge is really trying to pick out those key actionable pieces and then effecting the change on them.

Q: Is heat the biggest concern from an energy perspective?

A: Whenever you have all this equipment in laboratories that produces heat, it’s going to drive your cooling demand. If your cooling demand is high, you’re going to have more air changes per hour. So you have to deal with the heat-generating equipment in your laboratory, and that can be anything from an ultra-low-temperature freezer to an autoclave to the general lighting load in the room. Just as we talk about point source control of dangerous chemicals, we want to have point source control of heat generation in the laboratory to reduce those air change rates that allow you to save energy.

Q: Are you looking into any alternative green sources of energy?

A: We have on campus 895 Kw of solar power installed and another 136 Kw under construction. With a combustion turbine that’s 13.5 megawatts and a steam turbine that’s 6 megawatts, we have 19.5 megawatts of self-generation capability at UCI, which is natural-gas powered. We haven’t currently gone down that path because it’s just cost prohibitive. But of course, that will be another green opportunity for us sometime in the future, as more biogas becomes available and the price comes down or the price of burning natural gas goes up.

Q: Are there any obvious gaps in technology or know-how that make you feel limited in what you can do?

A: Every system has its next generation, and we’re always waiting on technology to kind of catch up. When you look at the lighting side, obviously light-emitting diode (LED) is where we’re going to go. But it hasn’t gotten to the point where it makes economic sense to do it. So there’s going to be a breakthrough. It’s going to come, but it’s not there yet. Lab equipment, I think, falls pretty far behind. There are so many different pieces of lab equipment, and a lot of it is legacy equipment, probably from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, without the technological improvement to make it energy-efficient. We’ve gone in and taken a really hard look, and we’ve done as many retrofits as we can to make our buildings efficient. The next step is trying to get that plug load down, trying to reduce that equipment load within the building. So obviously we’re looking for technology improvements there.

Q: What are you most excited about in this field?

A: I guess I’m most excited about the way that UCI has come up with this lab retrofit program. It’s the fact that we’re really driven to conduct pilot projects on campus, and then, once the proof-of-concept is out there, that we can balance safety with energy savings and then go out and start retrofitting our labs campus-wide. Then we get the opportunity to go out and try to show people we’re willing to take the risk, we’re willing to be that pilot project, we’re willing to try the new technology. We get to share our results. So that’s what’s really interesting—trying to push those new technologies out to the consumer market and trying to get more acceptance. If you want to make an environmental change, you can’t just do it on one campus, in one building, in one location. You have to be able to go out there and spread the word and get people to buy into the concept and take it forward.