Designing safe laboratories and research facilities: Automation, controls, and technology

Engineers working on laboratory and research projects are tasked with balancing state-of-the-art systems, budgetary concerns, occupant safety, sustainable performance, and other factors including automation, controls, and technology

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer December 19, 2018


Scott A. Bilan, PE, Principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich.

Matt Edwards, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Mechanical Associate, ME Engineers, Golden, Colo.

Gordon Handziuk, PE, Peng, Vice President, WSP, Atlanta

Rick Hombsch, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Energy and Infrastructure Group, HGA Architects and Engineers, Milwaukee

Kent Locke, PE, NCEES, Associate Principal, Bailey Edward, Fox River Grove, Ill.

Christian Matthews, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP, Associate; Client Manager, Dewberry, Raleigh, N.C.

John C. Palasz, PE, HFDP, Mechanical Engineer, Primera Engineers Ltd., Chicago

Aaron Saggars, PE, LEED AP, Core Team Leader, CRB USA, Kansas City, Mo.

Jim Sharpe, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Affiliated Engineers Inc., San Francisco

CSE: From your experience, what mechanical, electrical, plumbing or fire protection (MEP/FP) systems within laboratory and research buildings and medical facilities require specialized automation or controls that previously might not have, or have there been specific requests for increased automation?

Sharpe: Major energy savings are realized by integrating the lighting system and HVAC systems’ air-terminal devices. We can see the energy waste when leaving lights on, but a bigger energy waste is the unseen ventilation delivered to an unoccupied room. As design engineers, we do this control economically by using the lighting system software points to communicate to the building automation system (BAS) when a room is unoccupied. In California, the code does not allow complete shutoff of ventilation air when a room is unoccupied (during buildings’ normal occupancy times), but code allows the room to shut off ventilation air 75% of the time within an hour. This works in office-type spaces but not in laboratory spaces with fume hoods, contamination, or critical pressurization requirements. In laboratory spaces, we reduce the hourly air-change rates down to 6, 4, or even 2 depending on the type of lab and acceptance by the owner’s environmental health and safety group.

Hombsch: We are seeing a need for more precision in airflow measurement and management at the room level.

Palasz: Monitoring pressure differential is somewhat common for labs and may require specialized automation and controls, such as pressure-independent lab air valves for room supply and exhaust. Humidification is often needed, and if the lab has sensitive electrical equipment, the humidity sensor and temperature sensors may need a high degree of accuracy as well as improved control for the humidifier. This is a challenge because many labs have high amounts of outside air, so the interior humidity may be very dependent on the outdoor air’s humidity level.

CSE: What types of automation and control features are you seeing on these types of projects that you wouldn’t on other facilities?

Locke: Space pressurization is vital to each lab, whether positive or negative. These controls need to be closely calibrated within each room as well as to adjacent rooms. Specified equipment needs to be closely reviewed to verify that sensitivity can be obtained from this equipment.

Palasz: There are almost always special building automation and control features for the HVAC system, often the differences are in the sensitivity of the sensor, and sometimes there are specialized sensors, such as for hydrogen or other chemicals, that may be used in the lab.

Edwards: Laboratories require special attention to space pressurization, which dictates higher-performance zone systems. Venturi valves have become commonplace, and control systems for space pressurization vary widely based on the HVAC equipment in use. Another challenge is energy recovery. With high ventilation rates and potentially contaminated exhaust flows, energy-recovery systems in laboratory buildings must strike the balance between safety and energy efficiency.

Handziuk: We’re seeing more interest and installation of programmable logic controllers (PLCs) or distributed control systems (DCS) within containment labs. The interest resides in two areas. One, the speed of response allows for acceptable control over a pressure cascade across the full lab and within a space that is sealed to a leakage rate of 0.0125% volume per minute. Second, a PLC or DCS allows for better integration with process equipment, such as treatment systems.

Hombsch: We’re seeing measurement and control of return airflow at the room level. Typically, only exhaust air is measured and controlled.

CSE: Have you experienced the Internet of Things (IoT) come up in discussion or implemented on such projects? How has this integration impacted the project? If so, please give an example. 

Hombsch: We have seen traction around the concept of a Div. 25 Master of Integration specification and subsequent dedicated controls contractors. This brings forward the conversation of controls and integration earlier in the project and reduces scope gaps.

CSE: How have your engineers worked with building owners and facility managers to implement integrated technology in these structures?

Hombsch: Building owners can go home and adjust their heat, turn on lights, and check their garage door status from their phone. The expectation is that they have the same type of control and monitoring at their place of business. Our company is working with clients to develop a business case for these smart solutions so that the value is perceived by the entire organization. Some of the solutions become a process change for the client, so the end result needs to be validated by the building users.

CSE: What types of system integration and/or interoperability issues have you overcome for these projects, and how did you do so?

Palasz: Nearly all new construction projects are using BIM software, but occasionally renovation projects will not use BIM software.

CSE: Is your team using BIM in conjunction with the architects, trades, and owners to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance (O&M) or measurement and verification (M&V). 

Bilan: BIM is now commonplace industrywide. Generally, the design team takes a model to a certain level of development. The model then gets handed over to the construction team when the design is complete, and construction coordination begins. The contractor(s) then further(s) the level of development to as-built conditions. These as-built models have been used for facilities to track equipment maintenance, locate/identify valve tags, link training videos, etc.

Hombsch: We’ve been using a one-model approach on select projects with integrated MEP trade partners. The one-model approach requires all parties from the design and construction teams to draw their models together. In essence, every trade and scope is contributing to the Revit one-model solution, which is producing a highly coordinated set of documents at the start of construction. Our clients are currently resistant, or perhaps unsure, about using BIM and in most cases continue to use PDFs, or even paper copies, as their computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) solution. We do see this changing with familiarity, education, and training.

CSE: What specialized technologies or capabilities have you specified for laboratory and research facilities? Describe the technology systems and their challenges/solutions. 

Handziuk: We recently used a WinCC to collect data from various PLC-based systems. The PLC systems were functionally independent but with point-to-point integration. The various PLC systems included BAS, treatment systems, access and door-status controls, fire alarm, and so on. The WinCC served as a platform for recording alarms and notifying both those within the facility and off-hours personnel through text messaging. The WinCC collected nearly 5,000 points at 0.2-second intervals and served to collect trend data during commissioning, establish benchmark performance, and quickly access data trends under failure scenarios for purposes for forensics.