Research laboratories are vital components of an industrial economy, but they’re usually energy-hungry, consuming considerably more energy than other spaces.

Creating a more sustainable, or green research lab, is critical to a business’ environmental and sustainability plan. Such a plan requires maintaining worker safety and maximising material recycling while cutting energy use and maintaining an environment that consistently produces innovative products and materials.

A building’s HVAC system is one of the primary components in maintaining a healthy environment, and is also one of the greatest energy users. According to Siemens, HVAC equipment in the laboratory space must:

  • Exhaust air from primary containment devices (fume hoods, biological safety cabinets) at rates needed to control exposure
  • Replace room air at rates needed to dilute and remove contaminants
  • Balance supply and exhaust to avoid migration of contaminants
  • Condition supply air to maintain required room ambient conditions.

According to Steve Smith, portfolio sales professional with Siemens Building Technologies Australia, HVAC systems offer great potential for improving energy efficiency.

“In the past, we simply brought air into the building, conditioned the air, then exhausted it, making sure we stayed within Australian Standards,” Smith said. “Nowadays, we also measure the air quality, because there’s no need to be exhausting as much air if the air quality’s adequate or if the lab is not in use.”

In addition, energy efficiency can be improved over time if treated as an ongoing operational goal, rather than an objective just at the design phase.

“When the building is designed, it’s obviously built to a specification, so it’s not actually in operation with operators in place,” Smith said. “Things change over time, such as how people use the labs, and this happens with all space, so once things start getting put to use, they need to be adjusted and tuned around the actual physical environment.”

A building automation system, or building management system, can provide the data necessary to track and improve energy efficiency over time. By measuring all aspects of a space, you can better see where energy can be conserved.

The building management system combines functional control of building components with detailed analysis of performance.

“It’s the operator’s eyes into the building, helping to run it,” Smith said. “The building can run without it, but it wouldn’t be very efficient. If there’s no BMS to control it, it’s just a lab with basic control, so it’s just air in and air out and we are not considering all the other aspects and variables of the lab operation.”

Adding a building management system provides a view into a variety of metrics.

“By putting a BMS system in to control and monitor the area, we know the temperatures, the air flows, the air quality, the users’ habits,” Smith noted. “We can look over historical data and then make changes that are safe for people as well as the environment, and that saves energy and ultimately saves money.”

The building management system can provide control of various components, such as fume hoods, which are used to ventilate gases in the research lab and can consume vast quantities of energy.

“We can connect the fume hoods and monitor them through the BMS,” Smith said. “If someone has left a fume cupboard sash up, we can set off alarms to tell the operator and facilities manager that it has happened and they are now using unnecessary energy.

“If there’s nobody in front of the fume hood, it should be at its minimum height. By doing that it reduces the airflow, again saving money.”

Ongoing building tuning offers great promise for creating more sustainable and energy-efficient research laboratories, but a recent building code change offers another angle. Until recently, regulations in Australia prohibited what’s known as manifolding of the ductwork of fume hood exhausts. Manifolding refers to combining ductwork from multiple fume hoods into a reduced number of exhaust fans and corresponding exhaust stacks, Smith said.

“According to the previous regulations, where a facility might have 100 fume hoods, the previous requirements would dictate that there would potentially be 100 separate fans and 100 exhaust stacks protruding from the facility’s roof,” Smith noted.

“However, with the introduction of the new regulations, we can now design a manifold such that one fan, or possibly four, feed all 100 fume hoods, thereby reducing the installation, ongoing maintenance, and overall energy costs. You would also only have four exhaust stacks protruding from the roof. It’s a much more energy-efficient solution than running 100 fans.”