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Perspective On: An Environmental Lab

New challenges are what make working at this lab fun

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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Airtech Environmental Services’ Denver, Colorado environmental lab may be small at just 600 square feet, but it deals with hundreds of samples from stationary sources—such as power plants, oil and gas facilities, and cement plants—all over the United States each month. On average, the lab deals with about 200 to 300 samples each month.

“The company will go out and do sampling, and we’ll either do the analysis on-site, or we’ll bring wet samples back to the lab and we’ll do the analysis [there] in Denver,” says the lab’s manager and environmental chemist Michael Ogletree of the lab’s role in Airtech as a whole.

The Denver office is 6,000 square feet in total, with 35 employees overall, and the company also has an office in Chicago.

“We’re not really like a traditional lab per se where people are sending us samples,” says Airtech president Patrick Clark about the Denver lab. “A lot of the samples we analyze we collect ourselves, and a lot of the analysis we do in the field in mobile trailers.”

He adds that the company has recently been expanding its lab capabilities and expanding on outside analysis for other stack testing companies.

There also isn’t one type of sample the lab does any more than another, with a wide variety being sampled all the time.

“Unlike a traditional lab, like say, a research and development lab that’ll do the same thing over and over or where there are three different tests that they’ll run over and over, from week to week our work varies significantly,” Ogletree said of the types of tests Airtech does and the samples the lab analyzes.

Clark adds the lab also often gets new compounds to test, meaning work in the lab is always fresh.

“It varies from week to week, month to month, and a lot of things are somewhat routine, but then a lot of them are compounds we’ve never done before, and we have to develop methodology for them,” he says. “That’s what makes it interesting.”

Preparation of analytical standards for EPA-CTM 027 (Ammonia).Ogletree, who has been working at Airtech for three years, is the lab’s primary analyst, and the company also has about ten field analysts who work on-site. Those field workers all have undergraduate degrees, and most of them are engineers, while Ogletree was working on his master’s at the time of writing this article. Working at Airtech also involves both hands-on training and written tests.

“For the first couple jobs there’s always someone who’s well versed in the method who goes along, so they [field workers] won’t go out on the job without having done it a couple times with someone who’s experienced,” Ogletree says of the training necessary for the field analysts at Airtech.

He adds a recent change has also meant new training.

“The whole stack testing industry has recently been mandated to comply with the ASTM D7036-04 standard practice for competence of air emissions testing bodies,” he says. “We’ve been going through that this past year, and we have achieved third-party interim accreditation through the Stack Test Accreditation Council. That involves training on specific methods for all the field guys.”

Management role

Ogletree’s role as lab manager also isn’t like that in a traditional lab, since he is the main analyst who works in-house and doesn’t really oversee the field workers.

Sample preparation for analysis by EPA Method 323 at Airtech’s Denver lab.“I don’t manage, per se, the field guys. What I do in the lab is take all the samples that get brought back [from the field],” Ogletree explains. “In the field, there are some limitations on what we can do, and some methods require samples to be collected in aqueous solutions, so a lot of the wet testing that’s done in the field will come back, and I’ll do the analysis in-house.

Time restraints also mean samples need to be brought in to the Denver lab instead of being analyzed on-site.

“Some analyses are more involved, so we need to do some kind of method development, and that’ll require samples to be brought back,” he says.

Keeping track of all the samples that get brought back from the field is another of Ogletree’s duties as lab manager, and while he doesn’t directly manage the field workers, he does do lab technique training with them and is currently involved in setting up a new lab at the Denver location to do water analysis for the oil and gas industry. He also prepares samples that Airtech cannot analyze inhouse and sends them to outside labs.

“Occasionally we’ll get a large allotment of samples at once, and some of the field guys will have to spend a week or two with me, helping out,” he says.

During a typical day in the lab, Ogletree starts off by looking at the sample list to see what is in-house and figuring out which are the priorities.

“Typically, when we have lots of samples in-house, I’ll be running one instrument while I’m working on another instrument,” he says. “A lot of times, it’s two or three tests going on at the same time just based upon run times. Some samples you’ll inject on the GC and it’ll take 25 minutes, and then with another instrument it’s ten minutes, and then I’ll be doing some kind of sample prep for another instrument. There are just always a lot of things going on.” All those samples are kept organized using chains of custody, the ASTM quality assurance program, and through a sample receiving area.

5890 Gas Chromatograph with FID used for EPA Method 18“We keep things organized by projects, and we keep a running list also, a computer spreadsheet, letting everyone know what samples are coming,” Ogletree explains. “We also have a job list that keeps track of when samples are going to be coming in the future.”

Things are also busy on-site, Ogletree adds.

“In the field, there’s always lots going on as well,” he says. “You’ll be running a rack of analyzers and then doing sample recovery and sample analysis all at the same time.”

Challenges, fun stuff, and technology

Ogletree says the variety of the work at the Airtech lab and out in the field is what makes his job enjoyable.

“I enjoy just getting new stuff in and the challenge of doing some kind of method development and figuring out how to do things,” he says. “And on occasion I get to travel for work. That’s fun because the jobs I go on are generally pretty complex and require a lot of planning in advance, and when you’re out there, there’s always something interesting going on.”

The work environment at Airtech is another plus of the job. Ogletree says Clark has done a great job of hiring people who all work well together as a team and who are friends beyond the workplace.

“We spend a lot of time together outside of work, and you kind of have to, because when you travel, you’re with these people for a week straight,” Ogletree says. “For instance, tomorrow [Feb. 2] we’re all getting together to go ice fishing. It’s not company-sponsored, but everyone just gets together and we do it as a company, and it’s a lot of fun. Pat usually hosts a St. Patrick’s Day party. Outside of work, we’re just a tight-knit group. We keep each other motivated for that reason. If someone gets down, we pick each other up just because we’re good friends.”

He adds that while the complexity and variety of samples the lab deals with can be challenging, they are also positive aspects of the work.

“I think the challenges are the fun part. As Pat likes to say, ‘Everything’s routine but not routine,’” Ogletree says. “The analyses are somewhat similar, but there’s always something new—it keeps things interesting. I used to do R&D, and it was boring doing the same thing over and over, but here from day to day it’s something different. Especially with this expansion into water analysis; it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to getting involved with.”

That variety means the lab uses many different technologies, including GC-FID, TCD, FPD, FT-IR, UV-Vis spectrophotometry, ion chromatography (IC), gas chromatography, atomic absorption spectrometry, and continuous emissions monitors (CEMs).

Ogletree says the GC is one of his favorite instruments to use.

“I’m pretty fond of our GC—it’s just a really robust instrument,” he explains. “We travel a good amount, so it gets bumped around, but it has always worked.”

Analytical balance used for gravimetric analysis in the Airtech lab.He adds the lab hasn’t seen a huge change in technology since he started, though they have added two GCs, an FT-IR, and several analyzers and are currently in the process of purchasing a GC-MS for the new water analysis lab.

“With the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], it takes a while to make drastic changes, so there’s some technology that’s really old, but it’s required by the EPA,” Ogletree says of why there haven’t been too many changes in technology at the lab. “We could get all kinds of crazy new stuff, but we’re kind of limited for that reason.”

Industry changes and lab outlook

The two new main industry standards, apart from the stack accreditation, that affect Airtech are 40 cfr part 60—the new stationary source performance standard—and 40 cfr part 63, which is an all-encompassing standard for hazardous air pollutants, Clark says.

“Detection limits have needed to get lower and lower because the limits are tighter and tighter,” he adds of the biggest change in the industry over the past few years.

Adding the new water analysis lab is the major change for the lab going into the future and will involve bringing on about five new employees, moving to a larger space, and adding new equipment in around a year and a half, Clark says.

“I think this expansion into water analysis is really an exciting thing to be a part of right now,” Ogletree says about the project. “It’s an up-and-coming field with oil and gas drilling and that kind of stuff. It’s a major part of what we’ve been doing recently. It’s somewhat of a slow time for us, so we’ve had a little bit of time to focus on expanding stuff and enhancing capabilities and doing things like that.”

Main Instruments:

  • Beckman DU-64 UV-Vis Spectrophotometer
  • Dionex ICS -90 Ion Chromatography
  • Ohio Lumex Atomic Absorption Spectrometer
  • GC-FID
  • TCD
  • FPD
  • CEMs