Integrated control systems for labs

Successful controls integration can be a challenge in both new construction and renovation projects. Laboratory facilities present unique challenges with critical lab spaces and non-lab areas that include both traditional building automation systems (BAS) and packaged laboratory controls.


This article is peer-reviewed.Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the steps necessary to ensure controls integrations across all building systems are functional, ensure occupant safety, and allow for energy-efficient operation.
  • Review the commissioning services provided to ensure proper system operation per the contract documents.
  • Understand the various ways to save energy using control systems in laboratories. 

Integrated controls can be a challenge in both new construction and existing buildings. Laboratory facilities, in particular, present unique challenges as they contain critical lab spaces and non-lab spaces, which include both traditional building automation systems (BAS) and packaged laboratory controls.

Figure 1: The BSL-3 Suite at the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Servicesin Richmond, Va., used local laboratory control panels integrated to the traditional BAS panel serving the air handling unit and exhaust fans. Integration was key in ensuring proIn some cases, laboratory control systems are left to be stand-alone with only basic alarming capabilities. If a system isn't fully integrated, owners will face safety, reliability, and efficiency challenges that have to be immediately addressed. Whether the facility contains biological, chemical, animal, or physical lab spaces, all are critical areas where occupant safety is the No. 1 goal. OSHA defines engineering controls as one of four of the "hierarchy of controls" in dealing with workplace hazards. Whether laboratories controls are integrated into a BAS, they must be functional and must protect the occupants.

Whether integration is required for advanced monitoring or is used as a means for additional levels of controllability in the name of energy savings, integrating anything and everything is now standard practice. However, automation systems and systems integration don't happen magically. Be it by BACnet, Modbus, or another protocol, system integration needs to be properly designed, specified, and reviewed during both the design phases and submittal reviews to be successful. Incorporating commissioning services early in the design phase and carrying through the construction phase of a project adds another level of assurance that a successfully integrated system will be turned over to the owner.

Integrated control systems

Many owners with nonintegrated laboratory systems are perfectly happy to leave them that way. They use separate computer interfaces to access each building system individually. Although this is an acceptable method of accessing the building data, there is lost opportunity not only for potential energy savings, but also for capturing opportunities to identify preventive maintenance tasks or quicker responses to system failures or faults. Having an integrated system accessible via Web-based laboratory dashboards, tablets, or phones is now commonplace and a standard technology for system monitoring.

Whether performing a new system design, recommending system improvements during an energy audit, or executing a re-commissioning or retro-commissioning effort, owners and engineers should always look for opportunities for energy reduction and potential energy savings. Through extensive integration between traditional BAS and localized laboratory control systems, energy-saving measures—such as supply and exhaust air static pressure reset, standby and occupancy control, and temperature-reset strategies—can be implemented. Without the full integration of the labs, none of these measures can be successfully implemented; the systems will be unable to save the maximum amount of energy.

Fully integrated systems also present an elevated level of safety. Stand-alone laboratories can pose safety issues if room pressurization is lost and building operators are unaware of the problem. Stand-alone labs commonly have fume-hood low-velocity alarms, but oftentimes, airflow tracking and zone pressurization are not alarmed. When building operators have multiple systems, they are responsible for reviewing and maintaining their daily monitoring procedures. Because of the complexity of the management of the systems, operators can become lax over time.

Although it varies based on the type of facility, many building operators are more concerned with human comfort than laboratory safety. An operator will immediately adjust controls based on a hot or cold occupant complaint but may not look for laboratory airflow or pressurization issues, frequently because they don't even know what to look for. Fully integrating a laboratory controls system to the same operator terminal as the rest of the building gets operators into the habit of reviewing all of the systems onsite. Automating laboratory alarming also adds an additional level of occupant safety.

In the more advanced laboratories, there are energy-driven reasons to integrate building and laboratory systems. Control strategies—such as supply and exhaust air static pressure reset—are used by linking laboratory terminal equipment differential pressures or damper positions back to central air handling units (AHU). By allowing for static pressure reset at the air handlers, there is typically instant savings in fan energy. Of course, safeties are built into the control logic to allow for fail-safes, ensuring that laboratory airflows are never compromised.

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