10 Sustainable Lab Solutions to Implement Today

/// By Chris Ertl
High-performance buildings often consume massive amounts of energy, and CRB provides our clients with innovative savings solutions for their operational costs. These solutions are great for clients with new projects or renovations on the horizon, but what about clients whose current budgets don’t foresee any new design work? 
Our research shows that there are several low-cost, high-impact strategies that an institution can implement to reduce a building’s carbon footprint and improve operational expenses—even without large-scale upgrades.

1.   Shut the Sash: Fume hoods are one of the most energy-intensive types of equipment in a laboratory environment, but significant savings can be achieved by keeping them closed when not in use. Consider implementing a “Shut the Sash” awareness program that rewards groups who most consistently shut sashes when not in use. The practice can save up to $2,000 annually per hood.

2.   Save Money on Lighting: Eliminating lighting in spaces that don’t need full lighting levels can save money. Reducing the light levels in corridors is a good first step. Within the labs, reducing ambient lighting to 50 foot-candles at the bench, and using smaller task lighting where additional light is needed should provide sufficient light levels for most research activities. Finally, while it may seem like a no-brainer, prioritize developing a culture where the last one out always turns off the lights. 

3.   Start a Freezer Management Program: In addition to being noisy, ultralow temperature freezers use a lot of electricity and release heat into the space they occupy. Installing these freezers in central areas reduces the impact on the mechanical systems servicing your labs.  

Most long-term freezer samples can be stored at -70° C instead of the standard -80°C. This temperature tuning of your freezers a mere 10° will conserve up to 40% more energy. Once you have raised your freezer temperature, there are several other maintenance items that can improve freezer energy consumption:

  • Defrost freezers regularly to maintain optimal energy use and storage capacity
  • Keep filters and fins clean
  • Discard samples that are no longer in use
  • Once the units have outlived their useful life, purchase replacement units that are energy-efficient and use scroll compressors. 

4.   Conserve Purified Water: It takes 2 to 3 units of water to make 1 unit of purified water. Many researchers don’t like the automatic shut-off valves we suggest for the pure water fixtures, but with the high cost of producing and supplying pure water to the lab, it is important to only use what you need, and utilizing these valves is a great way to cut down on waste. 

5.   Green Purchasing & Recycling:  Visit with your lab’s purchasing department to look for ways to choose supplies with recycled content, consider the lifecycle of products purchased, and group orders to minimize shipping.

6.   Minimize Air Changes: Many lab mechanical systems were designed on the premise that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and that room air changes must be maximized to keep people safe. As an architect, my number one concern in designing a lab is providing a safe environment for its occupants, and I have found that this can often be accomplished with fewer air changes than is commonly believed. Fine-tune your supply and exhaust valves down to 6-8 air changes per hour in occupied mode, and look at setting the air changes back in unoccupied conditions. These changes can have a dramatic operational savings of up to 25%.

7.   Manage Your Chemicals: If I had a nickel for every lab I’ve seen with expired or unused chemicals in it, I would be able to retire a rich man! Take frequent inventory of your chemical store rooms and research labs, and safely dispose of unneeded or expired chemicals. Check with others before ordering chemicals to avoid unnecessary duplication, and only order the appropriate quantity for the work to be completed. This saves unnecessary chemical storage space in your lab facilities, and it will make your Fire Marshall and Environmental Health and Safety officers happy!

8.   Manage Plug Loads: There are many pieces of lab equipment that continue to use power when they’re plugged in but not in use. Unplugging equipment from electrical outlets, turning off the power strips when not in use or adding timer plugs to appropriate equipment are all easy solutions we rarely think of. Take stock of what is plugged in to outlets in your labs and offices, and you may even realize you never use the equipment anymore, which leads to the next solution…

9.   Donate Old Lab Equipment: You can donate or redistribute scientific materials or equipment you no longer use in your lab space. When purchasing new equipment, be sure to select energy-efficient models. 

10.  Green ChemistryGreen chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. The EPA is a great source of knowledge on the principles of green chemistry and how one can implement this in their lab. Keys to this include designing your chemical syntheses to prevent waste, designing chemical products that are fully effective yet have little or no toxicity, run chemical reactions at room temperature and pressure whenever possible, and probably most important minimize the potential for accidents including explosions, fires and releases to the environment.

The institutions I work with have reported reduction to the operating costs of their labs when they implement these ten simple techniques, which goes to show how many opportunities there are to be greener--without having to build a LEED Platinum or Carbon Neutral facility!

I am always looking for other low-cost sustainable solutions that have been successfully implemented in high-performance facilities. Please feel free to share your ideas and comments with me!


FINAL 10 Sustainable Lab Solutions 500

About the Author

Chris Ertl, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Chris Ertl, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Chris Ertl, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a Sr. Lab Planner at CRB based in our Kansas City office.


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1 comment

  • June 6, 2017 10:22 am by Jeff Wegner

    This is great Chris! Simply put and well stated! You've covered all the BIG items. I'm printing the infographic now! Thank you for the blog!!

    Additional considerations;
    Space temperature and humidity requirements, energy recovery of high outside air needs, evaluating makeup air needs on a CFM basis in lieu of air-change (good example is drop-ceiling vs open to structure where your chemical inventory remains the same), chilled beams for higher heat load labs, daylighting controls, light shelves, glass frits (or equivalent exterior louvers), automated mechoshades or electrochromic glass, and of course HOW we produce the chilled water, hot water, high purity water is another topic in itself! Thanks again!

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