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An image showing an interior lab space with a lab bench on the left in the foreground, a fume hood in the background, and counters on the right. The surfaces are mostly white and the back and left walls have windows that look onto the rest of the building space.

Follow the Recipe for a True Smart Labs Design

The original Smart Labs principles are still critical to achieving maximum benefits

Dan Diehl

Smart Labs is a repeatable design or “recipe” that when followed, delivers deep reductions in energy and carbon emissions, improves safety, and reduces capital and maintenance costs. The Smart Labs Program was launched in 2008 at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Led by Wendell Brase, who at the time of its creation was vice chancellor for administrative and business services, the UCI Energy Team that included Matthew Gudorf and Marc Gomez devised the renowned lab retrofit program. Thirteen years later, the Smart Labs Program has been extremely successful, and is even endorsed by the Department of Energy.  

Somewhat paradoxically, the term “Smart Labs” has become diluted over time, often attached to lab energy initiatives that do not follow the core principles of the original vision and that fail to deliver the full range of potential benefits of the traditional Smart Labs design. With energy efficiency now becoming front and center for many labs, perhaps it’s time to refocus on the key design elements needed for a true Smart Labs Program. 

What is the Smart Labs Program?

Smart Labs is a comprehensive program that optimizes several key benefits over the life cycle of a building or campus. This includes the safety of lab personnel and dramatic reductions in energy costs and carbon emissions. How dramatic? UCI has achieved 50 - 60 percent energy savings among labs using the program. Smart Labs also reduces capital and ongoing maintenance costs by right-sizing HVAC systems and provides real-time collection of accurate safety and performance data to support continuous commissioning, reassure employees, anticipate and avoid mechanical failures, and enable continuous learning. 

Follow the “recipe”

Results from a Smart Labs program are extremely replicable if seven essentials are included:  

  • Lower system pressure drop
  • Demand-based ventilation
  • Dynamic, digital control systems
  • Fume hood airflow optimization 
  • Exhaust fan discharge velocity optimization
  • Continuous commissioning with automatic cross-functional platform fault detection 
  • Demand-based, LED lighting with controls 

Note that six of the seven essentials pertain to the lab ventilation system. It can be difficult to determine optimal air exchange rates in labs, especially given the need to balance costly air exchange with the need for a safe working environment for researchers. The reality is that setting a single air change rate to balance safety and energy consumption will not achieve either objective. Rather, ventilation should be matched dynamically to frequently changing needs. 

For this reason, the Smart Labs approach focuses on how to intelligently control building ventilation. The resulting design utilizes demand control ventilation (DCV) technology, not just to generate energy savings of up to 50 percent, but also to supply key building air quality data and act as “the brain of the system” by delivering intelligent data about the lab operation.  

Avoid a “non-smart” lab

  • To ensure your Smart Labs projects produce the benefits of a true Smart Labs program, avoid the following:
  • Focusing on discrete sustainability or safety measures in isolation, rather than adopting the Smart Labs holistic, system-thinking approach. For example, making EH&S risk assessment the primary focus of an energy savings effort.
  • Not leveraging technology—the intelligent systems that make Smart Labs smart! Examples of this include using manual air changes per hour (ACH) turndown strategies instead of a dynamic, DCV system, and/or not using technology to capture and analyze real-time data to track system performance and enable continuous commissioning and continuous learning.
  • Not seeking to capture the full range of potential benefits over the full life cycle of the building. This often entails trying to achieve a more modest level of energy savings and carbon reduction, and an acceptable level of safety, while minimizing the initial investment, when a true Smart Labs Program would deliver much higher energy and carbon savings, while generating greater life cycle cost reductions.

Best practices for today and the future

Smart Labs is still a successful solution for optimizing safety and sustainability in labs, unlocking deep energy savings, addressing deferred maintenance, and maximizing sustained EH&S benefits through intelligent insights. Plus, the Smart Labs Program is more relevant than ever, given the heightened focus on IAQ and safety, and the acceleration of net-zero timetables.

There are many universities and life sciences organizations that have not yet adopted the Smart Labs Program. For those institutions, Smart Labs is a great opportunity to take their safety and sustainability game to the next level.  

Remember to stick to the seven elements, avoid strategies that aren’t core principles, and combine the strengths of each best-in-class solution to optimize safety and sustainability benefits for all stakeholders. This will generate maximum long-term benefits for the organization and the planet.