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New ULT Energy Star Standards Coming Amidst Evolving Sustainability Expectations

Considerations for balancing sustainability and performance while minimizing ULT ownership costs

by Thermo Fisher Scientific
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Josh Lewis is a senior commercial manager for Cold Storage Products at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Having been in the laboratory products industry for the last 13 years, Lewis has experienced cold storage from multiple lenses including R&D as well as global product and commercial management. He holds a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and bachelor of science degrees in both mechanical and aerospace engineering from Stanford University.

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Josh Lewis
Credit: Josh Lewis

Q: How has the landscape of ULT purchasing and usage changed in recent years?

A: Since 2015, ULT design and functionality have drastically improved. Before 2015, ULT energy usage matched that of a house, but afterward, energy consumption improved by 50-70 percent. Institutions then developed individual environmental sustainability goals, presenting new challenges. For example, heat expelled from the freezer cabinet requires the HVAC system to remove it from the room, adding to the environmental costs of ULT equipment. 

In the last few years, third parties like My Green Lab and the EPA have introduced measures such as the ACT label and ENERGY STAR certification on ULT freezers quantifying both energy usage as well as other sustainability metrics. Consumers can now assess various aspects of their equipment's environmental impact. Many institutions now have sustainability officers, a role that has become more common since 2015/2016, who consider product and overall energy consumption in their facilities. With comprehensive sustainability goals and third-party assessments, selecting ULT models that align with these factors has become increasingly challenging, despite their improvements in energy savings.

Q: How does frequently opening ULT doors impact sample integrity and lab operations?

A: Sample integrity and lab operations are highly dependent on temperature stability and rapid recovery after ULT door openings. Maintaining uniform temperature distribution within the cabinet ensures that samples are kept at a consistent and reliable temperature, regardless of their placement. This is critical because fluctuations can compromise sample integrity. Many users cannot choose where their samples are stored, so these fluctuations must be minimized at every location within the ULT. Additionally, a well-insulated cabinet with a backup power supply ensures steady temperatures even during power outages. Rapid temperature recovery after door openings is essential to quickly return to optimal conditions, minimizing the impact on stored samples and ensuring smooth lab operations.

Q: What are some strategies that labs frequently accessing samples and materials stored in ULT can implement to mitigate the impacts of door openings? 

A: In a laboratory with multiple users accessing their ULTs throughout the day, previous designs with a 30- to 40-minute recovery time may never fully return to the desired temperature if the door is frequently opened within that period. The recovery process is influenced by factors such as the duration the door remains open and the type of materials accessed or stored. To mitigate the impact of frequent door openings and optimize equipment recovery capacity, labs can implement three strategies. First, each freezer should contain a mix of frequently and infrequently accessed materials to reduce overall door opening frequency. Second, selecting specific locations within the freezer for these two types of samples will help maintain the overall temperature of the cabinet. For example, placing infrequently accessed material in warmer sections of the freezer, typically the top, will help maintain cold, thermal mass where the naturally warmer air following a door opening will circulate. This will help the overall cabinet return to temperature more quickly following door openings. Lastly, maintaining a detailed map and thorough knowledge of item locations within the ULT can minimize open door time.

Q: Are there ULT considerations specific to storing different types of materials like reagents, delicate or irreplaceable biological samples, or vaccines?

A: A valuable yet often underutilized resource for laboratories handling precious materials is the data collected and stored by ULT manufacturers. Many companies gather performance data from their customers to evaluate how the equipment functions in specific environments. Customers have reported holding the door open for approximately 45 to 60 seconds on average, significantly increasing recovery time and affecting stored materials. However, standards like that of ENERGY STAR, test ULT freezers with 15 second door openings. This is why manufacturers often test various door opening times for these freezers. By leveraging data based on practical usage, laboratories can more accurately assess how prospective ULTs will perform in real-world conditions. Additionally, some companies, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, offer demo units for in-facility testing with actual samples, allowing labs to evaluate functionality in real time. It’s also important to note that laboratories handling tissue samples, blood products, and other clinical materials must ensure compliance with FDA regulations. Specifically, cold storage environments for materials intended to reenter the human body must be certified as a medical device. Unless specifically listed, most ULTs are designed for research purposes and are not intended for medical applications.

Q: How can labs balance their sustainability and financial concerns when selecting a ULT?

A: When considering sustainability, it is tempting to evaluate cost of ownership solely based on specifications, but this approach overlooks the multifaceted nature of ULTs. Collaborating closely with a ULT sales team can reveal the true savings a unit offers, extending beyond its initial purchase price. Factors such as energy consumption, downstream energy usage (such as HVAC costs associated with removing heat generated by ULT freezers), and the temperature stability of the unit must all be considered. Evaluating the overall cost of ownership by incorporating all performance indicators and actual usage is essential for making an informed decision.

Q: What key considerations should managers and purchasers keep in mind when selecting or evaluating ULT in the future?

A: Significant changes are coming for ENERGY STAR. The EPA’s program is renowned across various industries for certifying the most sustainable products. However, energy consumption is just one aspect of understanding environmental impact. In 2025, ENERGY STAR will introduce a new standard for cold storage products, which will feature more stringent criteria for energy efficiency and certification. Many existing products on the market will no longer meet these updated standards. Therefore, it is crucial to stay informed, as the field is continually evolving with promising advancements on the horizon.