Moving Towards Energy Efficient Labs: Assessing the Plug Load in Biomedical Research Laboratories

Moving Towards Energy Efficient Labs

Laboratories at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are energy intensive facilities using five to ten times more energy per square foot than an average office building. Reducing utility consumption makes it possible to accomplish more biomedical research without spending more money. This project captured energy consumption data from a sample of NIH laboratories. Initial findings validated the hypothesis, provide short-term recommendations, and support the further collection of data in order to improve lab design standards.

Moving Towards Energy Efficient Labs:
Watch the 5 minute project presentation and pitch.

Project Summary

When designing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, equipment loads are one of the major contributors to internal heat gains in conditioned spaces. Currently, the NIH Design Requirement Manual for Biomedical Laboratories and Animal Research Facilities (DRM) requires every lab to support at a minimum 8 watts per square foot of equipment load. Many universities and institutions have started using lower energy utilization indexes based on their studies. Utilizing higher energy utilization indexes can result to oversizing HVAC systems, which can translate to increased construction costs and increased energy use due to inefficiencies at low part-load operation.

This project tested the hypothesis that equipment load design in NIH laboratories translate to oversized HVAC systems that operate at low part-load operation. Energy use of a sample of NIH laboratories was collected and analyzed. Due to the high number circuits that needed to be measured and limited energy meters, each meter was installed for one-week duration and rotated each week to measure a different circuit.

For equipment that operates constantly such as freezers, refrigerators, incubators, and biosafety cabinets, valid conclusions can be drawn about their daily energy consumption. A database is being assembled to develop energy reduction strategies by denoting other factors associated with their condition such as age, ambient temperature, time of operation, and maintenance. Based on this project, failing to provide preventative maintenance on ULT freezers and incubators translated to the units consuming 12-25% and 15% more energy, respectively. Installing timers on A2 biosafety cabinets saves approximately $250 annually. These strategies are easy to implement with very little capital investment that can translate to huge energy savings if it were adopted throughout an entire research institution.

No larger strategy recommendation can be made at this time with high degree of confidence. Because specific lab operation can vary from week to week; a longer period of data collection is needed to ensure that the full range of energy use is represented in the metered data. To supplement the data that has already been collected more energy meters would need to measure the energy consumption for all circuits in a given lab simultaneously over a longer period of time. Interviews with the lab researcher would be needed in future studies to assess the diversity of lab equipment operation to ensure maximum operating conditions are captured during the measurement period.

The NIH DRM promulgates minimum performance design standards for NIH owned and leased new buildings and renovated facilities. The NIH distributes more than 80% of its funding to almost 50,000 competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and around the world and all these labs also adhere to the NIH DRM. The NIH DRM is also used internationally as the gold standard for lab design; therefore energy saving realized from right-sizing HVAC equipment would likely be replicated and expanded internationally to both public and private sector labs.

Further studies are still needed to develop equipment load database; however, the HHS Ignite (beta) program provided the catalytic resources to launch the study.

Team Photo

Team Members

Leo Gumapas (Project Lead), National Institutes for Health
Rajib Chainani, National Institutes for Health (not shown)
Sy Sadighi, National Institutes for Health (not shown)
Don Guan, National Institutes for Health (not shown)

Project Lead’s Approving Supervisor:
Susan Hinton, Division of Environmental Protection, Office of Research Facilities, Office of the Director, National Institutes for Health


HHS Ignite

HHS Ignite is the IDEA Lab’s incubator for Department staff with ideas on how to modernize government. Selected teams are introduced to startup methodologies for problem identification and project implementation. In the entrepreneurial spirit, Ignite projects are iterative, their impacts measurable, and their solutions scalable. This is one of 13 projects that participated in the beta year of Ignite which ran from June 2013 to February 2014.

Status update: 3 Months Later

As part of Ignite’s approach to evaluating it’s effectiveness, each Ignite team is asked to provide information on their project status three months following their pitch. The NIH Labs team is continuing to gather data to help determine potential areas for savings.


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