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How to Properly Manage Power When Setting up a New Lab

Highlighting the importance of a power protection plan 

Peter Huss

Peter Huss is an applications engineer at AMETEK Powervar.

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Michael Czarnecki

Michael Czarnecki is the national accounts sales manager at AMETEK Powervar.

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Lab equipment is complex, and the timeliness and accuracy of the results produced is paramount. When setting up a new laboratory, managers must consider countless variables to ensure success. While proper staffing, training, sanitization, segmentation, and any number of other processes each contribute to a new lab’s smooth assembly and operation, one of the most overlooked factors of a new laboratory is the power environment. With that in mind, maintaining a checklist of power environment considerations can help in planning and protecting a new lab. 

Downtime is devastating

Lab throughput is a critical profitability metric, and labs have high expectations for the timeliness of their results. While downtime can be scheduled to accommodate equipment maintenance or system updates, unplanned downtime caused by a compromised power environment can wreak havoc on a lab’s results and revenues. 

Recent research indicates that nearly 75 percent of laboratorians listed unplanned downtime as a critical killer of productivity. This is especially true for medical labs—which a 2016 Ponemon Institute study estimated lose an average of $7,900 per minute during unplanned downtime. This figure may differ from lab to lab, but the principle persists. Assuming a machine runs 24/7, losing just eight of those hours costs more than five percent of a lab’s weekly productivity.

There are two approaches that lab managers can take in tandem to minimize unplanned equipment downtime as they get new labs up and running. The first is to ensure that the equipment is being driven by properly treated power, making use of power conditioners that feature surge diverters, noise filters, and isolation transformers. These products, which are addressed more fully below, will save a machine from lockups, performance erosion, and overly frequent maintenance. 

The second approach is to have a failsafe in place in the event a destructive event, such as a downed powerline, knocks out your equipment through no fault of its own. A backup generator that kicks in after a short period of time is the traditional solution, but to truly eliminate downtime, lab managers will want an uninterruptible power supply, a product also addressed further below.

Everything electric creates noise

Downtime due to power disturbances is a bigger and more subtle problem than the occasional power outage during a thunderstorm. Ninety percent of electrical disturbances impacting a lab’s power quality come from within the lab environment itself in the form of noise. Internal power variables, like spikes, normal-mode noise, and common-mode noise are present to some degree all the time. Left unchecked, they can make a constant negative impact on equipment. 

In technical terms, “noise” refers to voltage and current fluctuations causing unwanted electrical variances at higher frequency that ride on and distort the source sinewave. Everything in a lab that relies on electrical power will produce these fluctuations, though the more power a machine draws, the more it will dissipate. The noise from a given device can even impact systems it doesn’t physically touch. All equipment with rectifiers—small, highly common devices that convert AC power to DC—can radiate noise into nearby power cables, which can carry that noise into the equipment they are connected to.

Efforts that lab managers can take to minimize the impact of electrical noise—in addition to installing an isolation transformer-based power conditioner—include adequately spacing out high-energy-consumption equipment, deploying shielded cables that help absorb common-mode noise, and keeping route cables away from other equipment. Properly grounding equipment is essential as well, since it provides an alternative place for noise to go, rather than into the lab’s machinery.

Equipment is sensitive

Lab equipment is typically built with the expectation that it will be paired with proper power protection solutions. This is an assumption original equipment manufacturers frequently articulate in pre-purchase preparation documents and as a pre-condition of warranty coverage. Much like dirty fuel would degrade the performance and shorten the lifespan of a fancy sports car, unconditioned power will damage sensitive lab equipment.

The newer your equipment is, the more susceptible it is to spikes and other noise. Though this may sound counterintuitive, it is a product of technology manufacturers’ endless pursuit of efficiency. As the instruments’ semiconductors run at lower, and therefore more energy efficient voltage amplitudes, line spikes have a much larger proportional impact. Consider an older machine with a voltage amplitude of 5 volts against a newer machine with a voltage amplitude of 1.5 volts. A spike of 3 volts produces 160 percent of the expected voltage in the old system. In the newer machine, it produces 300 percent—a far greater proportional impact. 

This is something to keep in mind over time as aging machines are rotated out. While an older machine may chug along for years without many noise-related issues, a newer machine may experience the negative effects of noise right away. Lab managers should be sure to consult with their equipment dealers and installers as to how sensitive each piece of machinery is relative to the machine it is replacing. They should also perform comprehensive testing throughout their space to gauge where noise plays the largest role. Just as you wouldn’t put a low-light plant in a high-light windowsill, nor should you put a fresh, highly sensitive new machine in an area where significant noise is unavoidable. 

Proximity matters

Remember, machines do not need to be touching for noise to carry over. Introducing some distance between heavy duty equipment is a recommended precaution. Distance matters for power protection products too: each power conditioner should be positioned within 15 feet (4.6 m) of the machine(s) it protects, to prevent the power signal from acquiring noise after it is cleaned. 

To ensure that the appropriate proximity between conditioners and equipment is satisfied, lab managers are advised to opt for several smaller conditioners rather than a lower number of large conditioners cleaning power for a sprawling array. Managers should incorporate space and infrastructure for these conditioners into the overall laboratory design, leaving plenty of room in panels, busways, and conduits to run clean power as applications change. 

Use proper products

Lab managers should consult with a power management expert to determine which pieces of equipment should be protected by a power conditioner. Although surge protectors and backup generators alone are not enough, they are a good first step in handling unexpected outages.

A surge protector, more appropriately labeled a surge diverter, simply redirects voltage back into the ground, which can potentially distribute noise throughout the system. A more comprehensive way to deal with surges is by pairing a diverter with a noise filter and a low-impedance isolation transformer. This will keep equipment safe from surges while conditioning consistent power, too.  

Though useful, backup generators are a half-measure. They take precious time to get equipment up and running, may not support full performance, and do not condition the power they provide. To bridge the gap between a power incident and the start of a generator, lab managers will want to introduce a power conditioned uninterruptible power supply, which will not only prevent downtime in emergencies, but will also provide clean power under normal operation. 

Ultimately, lab managers setting up a new space have their hands full when it comes to preparing their power environment. That said, as long as they know the dangers of downtime, the ubiquity of electrical noise, the true sensitivity of their machines, and the importance of proximity, they should be positioned well to start their power protection plan.