As universities and research companies seek to attract the most talented students, faculty, and researchers to their institutions, a critical part of the effort often involves renovating or expanding laboratory space. Such an investment must be balanced against other institutional concerns, of course, including efficient use of space and capital funds, long-term operating costs, and environmental considerations such as energy use and waste reduction. Further, as multidisciplinary buildings are often designed in order to put scientists of different disciplines in creative proximity, ensuring that the new space meets their various needs can be a challenge.
Goodbye, cellar dweller
One often-overlooked utility that offers a possibility for satisfying all of these objectives is vacuum supply. Especially in multidisciplinary space, some of your new labs will require vacuum supply; some will not, and there is every possibility that your needs will change over time. That dinosaur of a central vacuum pump in the basement is probably well past its prime and in need of constant service and oil changes, and your old vacuum lines may be corroded, leaky, and need replacement. How do you provide appropriate vacuum for those applications that need it, with the least demand on your limited construction budget?
One option is to install no central vacuum system, and purchase individual pumps where vacuum is needed. But that means at least one vacuum pump for each lab, and several vacuum pumps in research labs with multiple workstations. The right oil-free pump will run clean and quiet. But what if you have several applications in a lab that need vacuum—a rotary evaporator, for example, and filtration and drying oven? Do you really want to buy all of those dedicated pumps and consume so much bench space and energy?
Networking for success
A local area vacuum network bridges the gap between dedicated vacuum pumps and central vacuum systems. Like computing technology, which has moved in recent decades from mainframes with dumb terminals to local area networks (LAN) with smart workstations, lab vacuum provided by local area vacuum networks offers similar advantages in flexibility and control. With a vacuum network, a single, local, dry vacuum pump supports several vacuum ports. Individual ports are isolated with check valves that minimize interference between workstations and reduce the need for a large-diameter, high-flow vacuum supply just to damp system variability.
This approach has come to dominate in Europe. Vacuubrand GmbH (Germany), the originator of the concept, has equipped buildings in leading research companies and universities with hundreds, and even thousands, of networked vacuum workstations. Nonetheless, the approach is unfamiliar in the U.S. Yet it has many advantages compared with the traditional way of providing vacuum to science buildings.
A vacuum network is plumbed with PTFE tubing that can be wall-mounted with light tools or installed in lab casework, so it is suited for lab-by-lab renovation projects. There’s no hard piping, so installation is fast and easy. You supply vacuum only where it is needed with local vacuum networks served by distributed pumps, and eliminate the material and labor costs of whole-building copper tubing systems. With available controls, differentiated vacuum can be delivered to each application simultaneously; a filtration application can get 100 mbar of vacuum, while a rotary evaporator gets exactly the vacuum it needs. Check valves isolate vacuum ports, so aspiration applications in your biology labs don’t affect the stability of vacuum supply to critical chemistry evaporations. You get the performance advantages of dedicated vacuum pumps, with the economy and space-saving efficiency of a central system.
With a vacuum network:
• You install only what you need, when and where you need it.
• One quiet, small-footprint, oil-free pump serves up to ten workstations in a lab.
• Labs are isolated from one another— important when different disciplines use the same building, or when there is danger of cross- contamination between labs.
• Your networks can be pre-installed in casework and exhaust hoods, or wall/surface-mounted, and may be expanded or relocated at minimal cost as needed.
• Waste vapors from evaporative applications can be captured at the pump to protect air quality and recover solvents for reuse or appropriate disposal.
• Service is minimal; some dry pumps will operate up to 15,000 hours before the first scheduled service.
• You avoid the investment and the building-wide disruption associated with central vacuum system installation.
Flexible and responsible
With a local vacuum network, you can choose the amount of control you need, from on/off to manual flow-control to full electronic control at each port. You can also add capacity or change control options at a later time. Because networks are modular, you can add to them or relocate them as your needs change.
A local vacuum network saves space too, with much less bench space lost to dedicated pumps. Just install the quiet, local pumps under benches or fume hoods. No more precious square footage needs to be lost to soundproof rooms for noisy duplex or triplex central system pumps.
There’s also the “green” factor. Quiet, corrosion-resistant, oil-free diaphragm pumps mean there’s no contaminated oil to monitor, change or dispose of. Pumps operate only on demand, so they are energy efficient—especially compared with the 24/7 operation of central system pumps that consume energy even when the building is empty. Vacuum networks can also be equipped with condensers that trap vapors at the pump to reduce atmospheric emissions and improve the air quality of the lab environment.
A new option in lab renovations
When the time comes to renovate a lab—or for new construction—networked vacuum offers a proven, modular alternative that is flexible, economical, and versatile, while supporting “green” construction objectives and multidisciplinary science. It’s worth a look.