How UC Irvine redefines efficiency in laboratories

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How UC Irvine redefines efficiency in laboratories

Even before becoming a signatory to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment in 2007, facility managers at the University of California, Irvine were challenging conventional notions of energy efficiency in the campus' laboratories.

UCI engineers took note of the fact that gains in energy efficiency had plateaued at about 20 to 25 percent better than code, a number that was not sufficient enough to meet the ACUPCC's climate neutral goal. Campus leaders set their energy efficiency goals much higher  to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent in both new and retrofitted laboratories through their Smart Labs system.

They targeted recently constructed laboratories, which possessed the unexploited potential to be far more efficient if variable-air volume features and digital controls could be integrated with advanced air quality and occupancy sensors driving smarter control logic. The end goal was to reduce air changes per hour when conditions permit, on a space-by-space basis.

Campus engineers developing the technology worked under a "binding requirement that these energy savings could not be achieved at the expense of occupant safety," according to Wendell Brase, UCI's vice chancellor for administrative and business services and chair of the University of California's Climate Solutions Steering Group.

Because research universities' laboratories are extraordinarily large energy consumers, reducing the labs' energy consumption is the primary way to shrink the institution's utility budget. "For most research universities, laboratories consume two-thirds of the campus' energy. On a per-square-foot basis, laboratories typically consume six to 10 times as much energy in a year as nonlab spaces on campus," Brase said.

Why is this the case? "The short answer is ventilation," Brase said. Regulations require that laboratory buildings use 100 percent fresh air for ventilation, with no recirculation of the return air. As a result, the entire volume of the building's air is pushed out of exhaust stacks every five to eight minutes  requiring an enormous amount of energy to supply, heat, cool, humidify, dehumidify, filter, distribute and exhaust the air.

This complete exchange of air, or air changes per hour, occurs 10 or more times per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week at laboratories in colleges and universities, the private sector and government research facilities across the United States. For one laboratory building on a campus, that is approximately 80,000 complete air changes per year. Significantly reducing this energy consumption is essential in meeting UCI's climate neutrality goal.

What makes a Smart Lab so smart?

There is no single technology that constitutes a Smart Lab, but rather an integration of design criteria and performance standards, including variable-air volume features and digital controls with advance air quality and occupancy sensors, that reduce and tailor the number of air exchanges per hour on a space-by-space basis. In addition to generating energy savings nearing 60 percent, this level of granular focus supplies staff with constant air-quality data that provides important information about the safety of the building.

Unlike earlier generation systems, Smart Labs enhance safety information by providing a "detailed, space-specific record of air-quality and system performance" from the chemical sensors installed in labs that indicate a chemical leak or spill. Marc Gomez, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management and Environmental Health & Safety notes that when a chemical spill occurs, "the system can increase the ventilation rate and summon technical staff by texting them so they can fix the problem."

The cornerstone of UCI's Smart Labs program is the newly constructed Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Laboratory (pictured above), where the energy savings resulting from the smart lab design criteria are equivalent to taking 130 automobiles off the road for 20 years.

How to retrofit existing laboratories

Ten other Irvine campus laboratories have been retrofitted with the required technology to make them "smart."

The seven key components to retrofitting any existing labs are:

  1. Install fundamental baseline features including direct-digital controls, manifolded exhaust fans, differential pressure control of heating hot water, and fixing known problems.
  2. Install real time, demand-based ventilation to control air changes per hour based on occupancy and measured air quality.
  3. Improve lighting efficiency.
  4. Sharply reduce exhaust fan energy.
  5. Remove duct noise attenuators, where feasible.
  6. Reduce fume hood standby ventilation.
  7. Perform final commissioning to ensure all improvements are working, integrated and meeting performance standards.

Return on investment

While this list of requirements may seem daunting, the return on an admittedly large initial investment is clear. Smart Labs and continuous commissioning provide for greater long-term financial savings and stability, as well as strategic analysis and monitoring  all things that cannot be accomplished with traditional monitor-based commissioning.

Incorporating Smart Lab features into the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Laboratory during initial construction in 2010 added approximately $900,000 to the clinical research facility's $72.4 million price tag. UC Irvine expects to save at least $110,000 annually in energy costs as a result of this investment  an eight-year ROI. The five-level, 125,000 gross-square-foot facility carries a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council and is one of the most energy-efficient laboratories in the nation.

By comparison, it cost about $675,000 to retrofit Natural Sciences II. The five-story, 140,000 gross-square-foot building was built in 2005. It houses biological and physical sciences laboratories. The retrofit, completed in 2011, is expected to save more than $180,000 a year in energy costs  meaning the retrofit pays for itself in less than four years.

"Three factors will determine whether a smart labs retrofit will pay for itself in another institution, in a different locale," Brase noted. These are:

  • Relative energy prices, particularly for electricity.
  • Existing lab ACH (which might be considerably higher than UCI's prior to the retrofit).
  • Thermal savings, which for most locales will be far greater than UC Irvine realized in its temperate climate.

"Most laboratories will realize comparable or even greater savings than UC Irvine," said Brase. "Some institutions will realize fewer savings but could still benefit from many of the elements of the Smart Labs program."

"We are heartened by the savings the university is realizing from deep energy-efficiency projects," said Brase. "The energy saved from these projects, which typically reduce energy consumed and carbon emitted by half or more, could be considered the most feasible form of sustainable energy — longer-lasting, larger scale and more affordable than most renewable technologies currently available."

In fact, UC Irvine is receiving nationwide attention for its expertise and innovation. Smart Labs are a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's Better Buildings Challenge, aimed at making commercial buildings 20 percent more energy efficient by 2020 and accelerating government and private-sector investment in energy efficiency. In fact, UCI is on track to achieve 40 percent savings on the main campus by 2020, doubling the president's objective.

Undoubtedly, UC Irvine's Smart Labs innovations in energy efficiency will raise the bar on laboratory performance in all sectors.

To see presentations and learn more about the UC Irvine Smart Labs program, visit their Smart Labs Initiative page.

To read more from Wendell Brase:

• What Carbon-Cutting Projects Pay for Themselves if Your Electricity Costs Only a Nickel?

• Institutional Readiness to Implement Climate Solutions

• Don't Blame Your CFO if Progress is Slowing

• Why Do Good Plans Die?

Photo of Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Laboratory courtesy of Nick Merrick © Hedrich Blessing 2010.