University labs are where some of the most advanced and important research in the world is performed. Because of the presence of numerous chemicals and other potential airborne hazards, labs present unique safety concerns. Having adequate ventilation to ensure proper and safe working conditions are maintained is one of the key factors that contribute to lab costs and lab safety concerns. Under-ventilating can potentially be dangerous and over-ventilating is expensive and increases the campus’ environmental footprint because labs are very energy intensive. According to Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), ventilation associated with a single hood can cost up to $4,500 or more annually. With thousands of hoods spread across all campuses, Penn State spends millions of dollars every year on the costs associated with lab ventilation.
To help reconcile what is often seen as mutually exclusive competing needs (how safe is safe v. how low can we go), Woodard & Curran developed a Laboratory Ventilation Management Plan (LVMP) for Penn State to help ensure their campus labs are safe and healthy, while minimizing energy costs and environmental impacts related to laboratories. As part of the LVMP, a system-wide web-based lab assessment application was built to: 1) analyze the ventilation needs in labs at Penn State’s 19 campuses, and 2) matches the needs (based entirely on safety criteria) to the lab/building’s actual HVAC system settings. The application identifies individual laboratories that are satisfactory, under- or over- ventilated by efficiently gathering lab safety and building systems data, assigning a ranking to each lab, assigning airflow exchange frequency to each ranking, and then establishing ventilation operating parameters.
The web interface allows principle investigators (PIs), researchers, and Penn State’s environmental health and safety (EHS) staff to access the data 24/7 on multiple device platforms, such as iPads or laptops.
“This is one of the first lab ventilation management projects of this magnitude undertaken at a university and Penn State is proud to be at the forefront,” said Kate Lumley-Sapanski, Assistant Director of Environmental Health and Safety at Penn State. “Keeping our students and researchers safe is our number one priority; being able to do so in an energy efficient manner saves precious university resources and furthers the University’s important sustainability efforts.”
Building the tool required extensive data gathering and energy assessments that were integrated into the LVMP and the web-based application. Beyond enhancing lab safety, the results identified multiple energy savings opportunities at Penn State that included over-ventilation of unoccupied labs and excess hoods. The energy savings in the pilot buildings are projected to save up to approximately $35,000 per year without capital investments; resulting in an 18-month project payback for the university.
Other benefits and uses of the web-based application also became apparent. Specifically, the EHS office decided to add and link additional EHS data, including: hood inventory by lab/building; tracking annual hood assessment status; assigning/identifying audit frequency and employee training needs. The tool was also built to enable EHS staff to monitor changes and trends over time.
By investing in an LVMP, universities can improve lab safety while realizing cost savings through energy efficiencies. Utilizing a web-based lab assessment tool ensures that similar labs can be ranked consistently over time in an efficient manner, which lab personnel can rely on. It can also lead to further process efficiencies that empower EHS staff, PIs, lab managers, and researchers to update lab data and new hazards; ensuring labs are being safely ventilated.