Lab Energy Optimization: How to Do it Safely
Matt Fragala | January 24, 2020
College campuses across the country are instituting green initiatives and signing aggressive carbon reduction goals to become better stewards of the environment. While this aim is admirable and necessary, many colleges and universities set these goals without fully developing a plan for how to achieve them. Once they discover their plan isn’t as easy to implement as expected due to safety risks or other complications, they are more likely to abandon pursuing an aggressive green initiative than finding a better solution.
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Often, the biggest hold-up to meeting carbon reduction goals is campus laboratories, which are predominantly the largest energy users on campuses. However, the primary method for optimizing energy in labs involves modifying the ventilation, which can quickly raise a lot of safety concerns for environmental health and safety managers. This then typically — and understandably — leads to a standstill. The institution doesn’t want to make changes that potentially put researchers and students at risk, so they decide to do nothing and live with the high energy consumption.
Yet, this course of action assumes there are only two choices — make your laboratories less safe, or ignore potential energy savings. Luckily, there’s a third option: bring in professionals to conduct a laboratory optimization risk assessment. With professional insights from a team comprised of environmental health and safety consultants and engineers, colleges and universities can actually receive clear, accurate answers on energy savings opportunities that won’t negatively affect safety conditions.
Here’s the key: laboratories are varied, unique spaces that can’t be lumped into one category. They serve different purposes, they work with different materials and, because of this, some are better candidates for energy optimization than others. One blanket solution isn’t going to apply to all of the labs on your university’s campus. However, when each lab is analyzed individually, a plan can be developed that takes each unique space into account without compromising safety.
To give you an idea of how this process can work for your college or university, we’ll walk you through the basic steps an environmental health and safety and engineering firm would use to assess your campus’ potential for energy optimization.
A Peek Into the Process: Safely Determining Lab Energy Optimization
The first and most important step toward better campus energy optimization is to obtain buy-in from both your institution’s environmental health and safety department and facilities department. It is essential for both to be on the same page before moving forward.
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The next step should be hiring the right environmental health and safety consultants to support your project. Since many of the recommendations made for reducing energy consumption will likely involve modifications to the mechanical systems of the building, finding a firm that also offers engineering services can save you a step.
For instance, here at EH&E, our health and safety experts work alongside our engineers to provide the best solution in the most efficient manner. Our optimization process involves two steps: control banding and engineering analysis.
The control banding process involves conducting interviews with key people to understand the purpose and procedure of each laboratory on campus. We’ll look at specific research processes and materials to assess the needs of the researchers and the chemical inventory being used. We’ll also look at how specific equipment is being used and where it is located within the lab.
From there, we put each lab into a risk group, ranked one through four. Lower ranked labs are considered stronger candidates for energy optimization, while higher ranked labs may require a cost benefit analysis to determine if the more complex and costly changes necessary to maintain safety will be worth the investment. Labs in the highest risk group are often considered too risky for energy optimization.
Next, each lab undergoes an engineering assessment to document current ventilation rates, cooling and room pressure criteria and the current sequence of operation. Engineers look at the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system and building infrastructure to determine what changes can easily be made and at what cost.
Finally, we deliver a Laboratory Ventilation Management Plan (LVMP) to ensure continued performance and energy savings in each lab building. The LVMP provides a detailed format to document the performance of the lab mechanical ventilation systems over time and can help identify changes in system performance, which may be an indicator of a problem that needs to be resolved.
Through this process, we generally discover that around 60 percent of labs on campuses are good candidates for energy savings. This is because, despite their different purposes, laboratories are often designed and built with identical ventilation and airflow standards. A control banding risk assessment takes the time to look at the individual lab and the specific work occurring in the space.
Putting It In Practice: How Brown University Prioritized Safety
At Brown University, there are 11 research buildings with more than 400 research labs. These labs serve nearly 10,000 students, graduate students, and medical personnel. Each lab went through the control banding process and engineering analysis to determine potential energy and cost savings.
By optimizing lab ventilation rates to align with the purpose of the lab space, Brown will experience an estimated 20 percent reduction in annual HVAC energy-related costs. For less-utilized labs, this number may grow even higher. These results were presented at the 2017 I2SL National Conference, and can be seen in greater detail in the table below.
Predicted Savings – Nighttime Setback
Rather than allowing safety concerns to keep your green initiative plan from getting off the ground, choose an approach that considers all variables to fully prioritize both safety and energy optimization. With the help of professional environmental health and safety consultants and engineers, your institution can experience a trifecta of benefits: becoming better stewards of the environment, keeping students and researchers safe, and saving on energy costs.