Remote monitoring systems are used in laboratories to safeguard equipment, maintain the quality of inventory, and ensure the security of sensitive data. These systems provide environmental monitoring to confirm that standards and regulations are being met, and product is not compromised by factors like improper temperature levels, unsealed doors, or a sudden power outage. Remote monitoring systems can also track the people who come in and out of a laboratory, and the data collected by these systems can be analyzed to improve workflow and create a healthier, safer work environment.
The level of remote monitoring needed in a laboratory depends on the kind of research being done, says Dan Castner, AIA, LEED AP, principal with BAM Creative of New York and Los Angeles. “Some laboratories are heavily regulated. If it's a pharmaceutical company, they may have regulations; they may report to the FDA. Ultimately, a controlled environment is critical for any kind of research. You really want to keep the variables to a minimum,” he says. Individual pieces of equipment, methods of storage, and the environment all play a role in how heavily a lab may be regulated, especially with facilities such as animal research labs and others where in vivo research is being performed. Air quality must also be monitored, he says, not only to protect the outcome of the experimentation, but also for the health and safety of the occupants.
Remote monitoring in labs must be a “given” in the year 2021, says Stephen Tierney, president of XiltriX North America. “From anywhere on this planet, you should be able to have access to all the paramount information and reports you need.” He continues, “A key part is that the technology nowadays has the ability to integrate—and ‘integrate’ means not just looking at, for example, ‘What's my temperature? What's my humidity? Is the door open and closed in my lab? Is the differential pressure OK?’ So, I think the key point here is that good systems have the ability to integrate all of the above, plus also integrating with your equipment within the lab. Adding the metadata to integrate from an equipment level all the way up to the ambient parameters gives you a much more insightful process of your overall quality of your facility.”
Communication is key
When designing or renovating a research facility, lab managers and design/build teams need to collaborate with each other on how a remote monitoring system will be implemented into the design. Castner says that the initial things he talks to lab managers about are security, electrical requirements, and low voltage requirements. “As an architect, I care a lot about the environment from the quality of the air. And then I'll be with my mechanical engineer, who will also be asking about pressurization and the importance of isolation or negative or positive pressure that also will dictate some of the space planning components of a space,” he says. Remote monitoring systems can analyze that data to make sure that those spaces are being used optimally, and can impact everything from security camera placement to the selection of door hardware.
The building owner or landlord needs to be brought into the initial discussions as well, says Castner. He adds that architects often step in as a go-between for scientists who need to concentrate on their research, and building owners who are concerned with the cost of a project. “We kind of work between the two to make sure that everyone's speaking the same language, if you will—translating it back and forth.”
Tierney also agrees that having a monitoring systems expert on the team is a good way for lab managers and staff to select the best kind of system for their facility. “It’s not a finite list of questions they can ask [about] what they really need—it’s somebody with a lot of experience, a consultant to help bring those two parties together.” Most labs don’t have an unlimited budget, and therefore it’s crucial for lab managers and building owners to be very clear about what they want so that professionals can help them select the best monitoring system for the job. “If you don't do the right things up front, and you do not ask the right questions, you will end up with a situation … where [you are] at the end of it and you go live, you are not quite satisfied,” he says.
Selecting the right remote monitoring system
While lab managers and building owners don’t necessarily need to have the exact remote monitoring system picked out when they bring on an architect or another design/build representative, they should at least have a basic idea of what capacities they will need in their system. “For example, security control, understanding how you're going to secure the space, is going to not only identify or help inform how that monitoring system is going to operate, but it's going to help inform how the entire lab is going to operate in general. So, we need to know that as soon as possible,” says Castner. “Identifying which systems we're going to need without having a specific product in mind is something that we would want to identify early on. But then choosing one specific vendor or brand wouldn't need to happen until later on in the process of design.”
Remote monitoring systems are just one of the factors that need to be considered when the design plan for a new or renovated lab is being developed. The size and placement of equipment within the lab is the first thing that design/build teams will likely ask for when they meet with a lab management team. Remote monitoring systems are included in that list of equipment. The requirements for all of these different pieces of equipment and monitoring systems will help determine the number of outlets or receptacles in the space, and the overall flexibility of the design. “We're typically putting electric raceways everywhere because there's such a higher demand for power in a laboratory versus any other type of space, and the raceway really allows for that flexibility,” says Castner, adding that the cost of installing an outlet later on for a major piece of equipment such as a minus 80 freezer may be very difficult and costly. “You have a monitoring system that's detecting the temperature inside the unit. But not only that, the unit itself that's sitting in the space is generating a whole bunch of heat for the room. So that informs how warm that room is going to get, which will ultimately affect the controls for the room itself, which are up in the ceiling. So, all of those conversations have to be had very early on in the process.”
Tierney also says that flexibility is of major importance when designing a lab that will accommodate a remote monitoring system. “If you can leave a proper foundation of a system as early as possible, just find a system that's flexible enough to go with you,” he says. “Lab space is the most expensive per square footage of anything. It's not the people, it's not the equipment, it's the actual lab space itself. So, if you have a room and you have space, then you can even afterwards retrofit anything you want to it, but it could be a little bit more expensive.”