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Sustainable Lab Operations

Leading research institutions share best practices to meet institutional climate commitments.

by Nandita Vyas,John C. Mlade
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Leading Research Institutions Share Best Practices to Meet Institutional Climate Commitments

In the United States, buildings account for 38.9 percent of primary energy use and 38 percent of CO2 emissions. Labs use far more energy and water per square foot than the average building due to increased equipment, process, and ventilation demands. With this realization, increasingly more attention is being paid to strategies for reducing the energy use of newly constructed laboratories. However, there has been relatively little education for managers and users of existing laboratories about the potential energy savings of enacting thoughtful operational and maintenance procedures and behavioral change programs.

Fume hood management at the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, designed by Perkins+Will.

Many laboratories are operated by organizations that are required to take aggressive action to reduce energy use yet at the same time have restricted budgets with which to do so. The path to efficiency is not always clear either. For these reasons, sustainable lab operations have increasingly been given special consideration in government agency and university green operational plans as a way to effectively reduce energy use and related emissions. Many best practices for lab operations are simply a shift in behaviors that may result in energy savings. Others may require additional policy interventions that can also result in greater cultural shifts throughout the organization that will benefit the organization in new and unexpected ways. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), University of California-Davis, (UCD) University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and Yale have all developed best practices for sustainable lab operations to reduce energy use and waste, enhance safety, and reduce costs. These institutions share many of their materials and resources in order to help laboratories adopt best practices industry-wide. In recent years, climate agreements to address energy use throughout organizations and across building sectors have become commonplace. Consider the following:

  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, now signed by more than 1,000 mayors, and Resolution #50, which passed unanimously, call for mayors to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets in their communities, as well as to work with state and federal governments to aggressively move toward legislation on climate issues and greenhouse gas reduction.
  • The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment has been signed by 667 university leaders; the commitment requires a plan be put in place to achieve climate neutrality.
  • Architecture 2030 is a commitment to reduce energy requirements (based on 2003 CBECS data) in new buildings by 60 percent today, increasing 10 percent every five years to achieve buildings that consume no fossil fuels by 2030. It has been signed and endorsed by the American Institute of Architecture; US Green Building Council; World Business Council for Sustainable Development; Environmental Protection Agency (Target Finder); American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers; and major design firms across the country.

Even the federal government has released a series of executive orders (EO) and environmental legislation requiring federal agencies to comply with the following:

  • EO13423 affects agencies major daily functions either per agency or per building, depending on the regulation. It entails stringent environmental (but excludes energy) requirements that are more demanding than any previous legislation, EOs, or guiding principles.
  • EISA 2007, an energy law that consists mainly of provisions designed to increase energy efficiency and the availability of renewable energy, reduces total energy usage per federal agency by 30 percent by 2015 (3 percent per year FY08-FY15) relative to the 2003 baseline level. This requires 30 percent of the hot water in new federal buildings (and for major renovations) to be produced by solar hot water equipment, provided it is cost-effective over the equipments life cycle.
  • Guiding principles made mandatory by both EO 13423 and EO 13514 require that all new construction of federal buildings comply 100 percent with all guiding principles in order to be considered compliant. Fifteen percent of the square footage of all existing federal buildings must comply with the guiding principles by 2015 to be considered compliant. The guiding principles have the most requirement categories pertaining to both operations/maintenance and building-specific features and are the most stringent. They apply only to federal buildings.
  • EO 13514 does not rescind/eliminate the requirements of EO 13423; instead it reinforces energy reduction requirements, increases water use reduction goals through 2020, mandates waste reduction goals, and expands the environmental performance requirements identified in EO 13423. However, EO 13514s primary goal is to make reduction of greenhouse gas emissions a priority for federal agencies. The EO requires federal agencies to set absolute terms for a 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for all scopes.

Now that the dust is settling, many organizations are looking around and asking, Now what?

The following represents best practices for laboratory operations and maintenance that are applicable in many laboratory facilities. While some organizations may already have select practices in place, we hope there are other practices that can foster continuous improvement. It is Perkins+Wills intent that this article help create a learning community among leading research institutions to share best practices, continue to improve laboratory operations, and help meet institutional climate commitments at the same time.

Energy savings
Fume hood sash management

There is great payback from small behavioral changes, such as closing and properly using fume hoods. VAV hoods will greatly reduce energy consumption when closed; however, constant volume hoods also draw less air when closed. Strategies to encourage users to close the sash can be as simple as placing stickers along the side of the fume hood or across the sash. Examples of those used by MIT can be found at http://mit. edu/~slanou/www/shared_documents/Shut%20 the%20Sash_sticker_template_3X5.pdf.

If lab needs have changed and it is safe and practical, look into turning off unused fume hoods. Building management should be notified so that supply and return air can be rebalanced. The fume hood should be clearly marked as nonoperational.

Integrated task lighting in lab spaces at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, designed by Perkins+Will

Turn equipment off when not in use
With minimal planning, equipment such as chilled centrifuges, ovens and GCs can be turned on and off to conserve energy. Equipment should be marked with warm-up times and to indicate whether it is stable enough to be turned on and off. An example of Harvards stickers can be downloaded at attachments/labs/turn_me_off_sticker.pdf.

Measure power consumption
Using meters to determine how efficiently your equipment and appliances are running will help identify any repairs or replacements that need to be made. Information can be tied into a building management system and compared against Labs21, a partnership program sponsored by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy that works to improve environmental performance of U.S. laboratories by using benchmarking data. [See http://]

Refrigerators and freezers
Increase the efficiency of your compressor by eliminating excess ice and dust. Defrost the freezer when the ice is more than 2cm thick, and routinely vacuum the condenser coils.

Regularly clean out old samples. Proper management of sample storage may lead to being able to eliminate one or more freezers from the lab, saving about 700kWh per year per freezer. In some instances, how budgets are allocated and how reservations about sharing among scientists are perceived may present the greatest challenges.

Use the appropriate size container to hold ice for chilling samples. Dispensing less ice, dry ice, or liquid nitrogen lowers your carbon footprint. Ice machines that cycle off during nights and weekends can save energy if appropriate for your labs schedule.

More from Mississippi State University on refrigerator and freezer efficiency can be found at http://msucares. com/pubs/publications/p2254.html.


  • Controls and operation. From 10 to 20 percent of laboratory energy is used by lighting equipment. Allow for user controls or occupancy sensors so that lights can be turned off when there is sufficient daylight. Teach users how to operate multilevel light switches. Make sure interfaces are easy to navigate and that proper stickers and/or signs are posted to ensure proper use. Also question the need for overhead lights in hallways and other circulation areas where no work is being performed. These spaces often have windows and/or standby lights that provide adequate light.
  • Task lighting. The use of task lighting will cut down on the intensity of ambient light needed. NIH is now using only 50 footcandles for ambient light and 75 footcandles on benches, numbers arrived at by combining those of ambient and task lighting. In addition, if only a couple of people are working in the lab, the use of task rather than overhead lighting can amount to significant energy savings with low initial investment for the lamps.
  • Bulbs. Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs rather than incandescent bulbs should be used. Harvard recently retrofitted an entire lab for the Department of Physics with LED bulbs that will last through twenty-four years of use. Also consider removing bulbs where light is not needed. UCSB has a bulb-free program where bulbs are removed and ballasts marked to signify that it is intentional. An example of UCSBs stickers can be downloaded at http://sustainability. Cards_0802.pdf.

Use of right-sized appliances as seen here at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, designed by Perkins+Will.

Right-size appliances
An evaluation of how the lab is using its appliances will help identify equipment that is being underutilized. Autoclaves, incubators, and ovens that are not being used to their full capacity may be shared with other labs to reduce the total number of appliances in the building. Alternative smaller countertop versions of appliances may also be used. Ensure that occupants use appliances properly. Incubators, for example, should not be used as refrigerators, since they use five to 10 times more energy. Use smaller versions of both appliances if both are needed.

Recommissioning building systems may result in improved comfort as well as energy savings and, depending on the facility, may have a very rapid payback. Commissioning can be considered a tune-up in which the buildings systems are checked to ensure that they are working properly. It is thought that system performance in labs can diminish over 10 percent per year. Recommissioning ensures energy efficiency gains by helping the systems stay at peak performance.

Given the high energy use in lab buildings, sustained research on improving efficiency in new facility design is clearly needed. It is equally important to consider ways in which existing facilities can be run in order to minimize the carbon impact of their operations. Buildings can live up to their designed optimal efficiency potential only if the buildings operators and users have the proper knowledge. Facility and lab managers should be given the resources to develop and enact efficient operational and maintenance programs for their specific facility and its users. These behavioral changes will have the greatest sustained impact on the buildings energy performance over its lifetime and typically are some of the lowest-cost solutions. The change not only lowers your facilitys energy bill, but it also could be the beginning of a cultural shift toward efficiency.PHOTOS COURTESY OF PERKINS+WILL

Additional Resources

Labs21: Laboratories for the 21st Century
National Institutes of Health: NEMS Sustainable Lab Practices Working Group
Less Is Better A Guide to Minimizing Waste in the Laboratory
American Chemical Societys Green Chemistry Institute pageLabel=PP_TRANSITIONMAIN&node_id=830&use_ sec=false&sec_url_var=region1
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
List of Green Chemical Alternatives
General Solvent Substitutions Alternative_Guide.pdf
Tips for Sustainable Solvent Practices
Sustainability in Action: Greening Your Office and Lab at MIT
Carnegie Mellons Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry
The Sustainable Laboratory How Lab Managers and Technicians Can Make an Environmental Difference, September 2009
Harvard FAS Green Labs Program