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Optimal Performance: Choosing a Lab Vacuum System

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Research and development labs are complex environments. They are home to various equipment and utilities, all of which must work together cohesively. When required in a lab, the vacuum system is an important component to discuss and design to meet users’ requirements.

Unlike a vacuum for cleaning, a lab vacuum provides airflow to essential equipment and procedures. Precision is key; sometimes, the vacuum is used to manipulate material at a cellular level, requiring highly controlled suction, so careful planning is vital for successful vacuum systems. When designing a new lab or renovating an existing one, building owners should work with their architects and engineers to consider the pros and cons of several types of systems.

Whole-building systems

Whole building vacuum systems initially sound like a great idea: They have one vacuum pump that serves the entire building and is hidden to minimize noise. There is only one pump to monitor and maintain. However, if it fails, the whole facility may be without a vacuum. The lab’s staff must also be diligent about monitoring what the vacuum is used for in each lab. Occasionally, chemicals and debris are inadvertently siphoned into the tubes, posing concerns when labs use chemicals that can react with one another if they meet at the pump. This also can cause issues with the pump filter, which needs to be cleaned periodically and may become hazardous for the staff. Generally, a single pump for an entire building will restrict the system’s flexibility unless the pump is oversized. Locating a single pump in an isolated location helps address noise but will require a larger pump to deal with pressure loss over long pipe runs to the point of use. If owners consider a whole-building system, they should understand the full range of their facility’s vacuum functions while accounting for future uses.

One system per lab

Separate vacuum systems for each lab reduce the concern about chemicals mixing at the pump because individual labs can more easily monitor their chemical usage than the entire building’s. Pump problems are also isolated to one lab space and will not impact the whole facility. If owners need to upgrade the pump in the future, they can do so on a case-by-case basis rather than installing a new facility-wide system. In this scenario, the pumps are usually installed in small closets near the labs to minimize pipe runs. The owner must consider the pump’s noise and heat generation when designing the closet. This usually requires acoustic insulation and an exhaust fan to prevent the pump from overheating. One disadvantage of having a single vacuum for an entire lab is that the owner must ensure adequate suction pressure for all users. This may require distinct types of valves to regulate airflow and prevent a significant pressure drop at one location when new users open valves in other locations on the same system.

Point-of-use systems

Point-of-use installations provide owners with the most flexibility, allowing the pumps to be customized for specific applications. Chemical waste is mostly controlled in this type of system. However, point-of-use systems require careful planning because space must be allocated in the lab for the pump. They are often located next to the equipment they serve or where the processing occurs, such as on the bench, the floor or in a cabinet. Some cabinets are explicitly designed for this application; they are insulated from noise, have a fan to dissipate the heat, and have a built-in electrical outlet and switch.

Mixing and matching systems

Owners should carefully review the specific needs of their labs, including the chemicals they use and the processes the vacuums will support, to determine which system suits their facility. It does not have to be entirely one system or the other. For example, owners may choose one vacuum pump that serves the lab overall and some point-of-use pumps for specific applications. Once they determine the system’s configuration, owners and their consultants can evaluate and select the proper pump sizes and regulators.

Working with construction partners

The most successful lab spaces result from a coordinated team effort among the owner, architect, engineer and contractor. Architects and engineers will help their clients see the whole picture of the lab. They ask how owners intend to use the lab vacuum and represent that information on drawings or in a digital building model, ensuring the vacuum pumps and piping are coordinated with the lab casework and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing equipment and utilities.

Ensuring success

Since research and development labs are often a company’s breadwinners, their systems must operate effectively and efficiently. Getting there is a team effort. Owners should work closely with their design and construction partners to determine which type of system will support their existing and anticipated needs while ensuring the labs are functional and comfortable workplaces for employees. By approaching the project holistically, owners will be prepared to elevate their contributions to medicine and science.

This article was originally published in the Colorado Real Estate Journal's July 2023 issue of Health Care, Senior & Life Sciences Quarterly.

Michael Jelinek, RA, NCARB
Senior Project Architect : Associate

Michael Jelinek, RA, NCARB, is a Senior Project Architect and Associate with EUA working in the Madison office. Michael is a part of the Learning + Science + Technology studios.

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