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Get Proactive about Power Quality During the Lab Design Process

The power environment is crucial to the lab design process

Mark Nell

A high-performance lab demands both efficient design and seamless operation. The physical layout of a lab must balance ease of use with proximity demands, while seamless operation involves evaluating and resolving the risks that can compromise processes or outcomes. However, for operational and design success, lab managers must recognize and proactively address the underlying key to success: power quality in a lab’s environment.

power sources in lab design

Identifying the consequences of inaction

A lack of proactive power quality protection can cost your lab business. When planned and managed properly, a strong power environment is a tremendous asset because every piece of instrument works as it is supposed to, for as long as it is supposed to. Unplanned downtime is a costly productivity problem a lab manager can potentially encounter due to a neglected power environment.

Consider what happens when your building is hit with a blackout, either from a weather incident, a downed transformer, or any other external threats. Your generator will take about 30 seconds to start up, and in that time period, your lab’s instrument will most likely have abruptly shut down. This disruption can ruin samples, affect the accuracy of findings, and delay results, especially if equipment has a reboot time or processes need to be repeated. In many cases, lab staff do not have the time, resources, or materials to redo test cycles. 

For example, in a crime lab where you only have a limited sample available, a blackout can disrupt, degrade, or even worse, destroy what little sample you do have on hand. In an academic setting where instruments are shared on a schedule, students may find themselves locked out from participating in lab experiments simply because a storm coincided with their class period. In some cases, a severe blackout can even destroy instruments, rendering a massive investment worthless. 

Day-to-day internal power anomalies pose additional threats if left unaddressed during lab design. Internal power threats to lab instruments can be any other equipment in the lab such as a refrigerator or a HVAC machine. While a blackout seems more dramatic, routine power issues like sags and swells can lead to erratic results and shortened equipment lifecycles. Power anomalies act like ghosts in the machine, little blips that throw data off then disappears, resulting in “no error found” visits from support technicians. Every lab team wants accurate test results but that’s impossible if the power quality driving their instruments is unreliable, especially if the interruption is not immediately obvious. 

In addition to lost productivity, unplanned downtime can lead to delayed or compromised results that have less measurable but equally damaging impacts on reputation and retention. Who wants to work with a lab that can’t deliver accurate, timely results? Who wants to work for them either? This can affect teams outside the lab too, since IT staff, account and customer service representatives, and marketing or communications teams will scramble into damage control mode in response to outages or corrupted results. 

Explaining the power of proactivity 

lab research and power sources in lab design

Preventing any of the above issues is a convincing reason to be proactive about installing power quality protection during the lab design process, but there are a number of additional reasons that secure the value further.

Adding power quality protection once a lab is already up and running means you’ll need to pause operations for installers to do their work. It can also force a full rearrangement of the lab’s layout, as the footprint for these systems isn’t always compact. When working with customers of our own, we typically recommend that up to five percent of laboratory floor space be dedicated to power quality solutions, though the percentage will differ by location and use case. While today’s best power solutions are more conscious of their physical footprint, a commercial UPS system can be as large as an in-home refrigerator. This large size makes it easier to integrate into the lab before additional instruments are laid out. Wiring is another space consideration. Managers should leave plenty of space in panels, busways, and conduits to run clean power as applications change.

Instrument proximity is another reason to proactively plan for power quality management, as it is highly correlated with electrical noise transmission from machine to machine. We recommend each power conditioning unit is 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. This may often require the use of several strategically placed conditioners rather than a single, larger solution. You’ll also want to keep your highest energy consumption instrument well-spaced out, which takes advanced planning to ensure accessibility and easy workflow. 

Conclusion

Rather than waiting for power problems to cause downtime, lab managers should consider the power environment as the foundation of their lab design process. A power management suite that incorporates a UPS with an isolation transformer and a battery backup is a lot less expensive than replacing damaged lab instruments, and it’ll help you get the most from your instruments, as well. It will also protect the continuity of your business, the integrity of your results, and the quality of your reputation. So don’t wait around for problems to arise before addressing them: Get proactive about power quality during the lab design process.

Mark Nell is a sales application engineer with AMETEK Powervar.