Modular Utilities Add Flexibility, Reduce Cost of Science Facilities

Case studies demonstrate economic and performance benefits of modular utilities over central systems.
Published 2-21-2012
  • Ductless Filtered Fume Hoods

    In a cost comparison conducted by Butler University looking at the installation of 26 traditional chemical fume hoods and 26 ductless fume hoods in a teaching lab, the required ductwork and controls for filtered hoods were expected to cost only $50,000, as opposed to the more than $130,000 required for traditional centralized fume hoods, with zero upgrades needed to the building mechanicals and minimal ongoing maintenance.

  • Distributed Modular and Point of Use Water

    Modular water systems centralized for each floor of a 15 story health sciences facility turned out to be the most cost effective solution over a five year period, costing $50,000 less than a centralized system while still allowing for more long term flexibility and easier maintenance because sanitization, modification, and repair procedures can be conducted on each floor individually without closing down the whole building. A study showed that smaller point of use water systems—where reverse osmosis units are stored under cabinets or above benches—allow for much greater flexibility and improved space efficiency, but come with a slight cost premium.

  • Modular Vacuum

    Modular systems, like VACUU·LAN® networks, allow for vacuum to be provided only where, when, and how it’s needed, without overbuilding central utilities. This makes them a cost-effective, flexible, and sustainable option for many science facilities. They also make it easier to isolate different uses for chemistry, biology, and BSL applications.

Installing modular utilities in science facilities promises to eliminate many of the space programming challenges and costs associated with fixed central utilities. In many situations, modular utilities can lower capital costs, greatly reduce installation and operating costs, shorten construction schedules, improve fit with technical requirements, and allow space to be more easily adapted to meet the ongoing needs of evolving interdisciplinary science.

“In earlier times, research space was fixed because science was largely fixed, so rigid utilities were not a problem. We’ve moved into a world where the inflexibility of fixed utility systems has started to be an impediment to science. Research priorities now change quickly due to both rapid technology advancements and changes in funding. Under these rapidly evolving circumstances, it’s important that today’s science buildings be designed to adapt quickly and cost effectively to changing research needs,” says Peter Coffey of VACUUBRAND, INC., a manufacturer of modular laboratory vacuum systems.

Besides their contribution to long-term adaptability, modular utilities can also offer significant reductions in energy use, operating costs, and maintenance over time. They can even provide technical performance advantages for research over the life of a building.

Three modular technologies that have traditionally been provided as fixed, central systems illustrate the possibilities. These technologies include local vacuum networks, modular reverse osmosis water systems; and ductless chemical fume hoods.

Localized Vacuum

Multidisciplinary research and teaching universities are ideal candidates for modular vacuum systems, in which a small, powerful, in-lab pump provides vacuum to several vacuum users at once. In addition to needing to serve multiple scientific disciplines with different utility demands, these facilities must also provide support for both teaching and research laboratories, many of which have competing vacuum requirements.

The one-size-fits-all nature of a standard central vacuum system—where pumps are housed in the basement or in a penthouse and plumbed with hard piping throughout the entire building—is costly and inflexible. Plus, the different scientific demands for vacuum by biologists and chemists can inadvertently pit scientists against one another. Biologists, who tend to need modest vacuum intermittently can create performance issues for chemists on the same central vacuum system. Every time a valve is opened or closed in the biology labs, it creates a pressure spike on the central system that can impact the work of chemists who need deeper, consistent vacuum.

Research and teaching universities can overcome the challenges of central vacuum in a multidisciplinary setting by installing a modular system, where the pumps are located below fume hoods or casework and plumbed locally only to the locations where vacuum is needed.

“This local vacuum network design allows the laboratories to have different networks that are plumbed with different vacuum capacity, but separated. So the biologists are on one set of networks and the chemists are on another set of networks, with the result being that you can not only isolate the various scientific disciplines from one another, but you can also isolate the teaching from the research,” says Coffey.

Other advantages of modular vacuum systems include the economic and environmental benefits of right sizing utilities based on actual needs.

“Since the vacuum is generated on demand by small, local pumps—instead of large pumps running 24/7 like many central systems—you can realize energy savings that approach 90 percent compared with central system. Also, with central systems, you need to build in all of the capacity that you can imagine you might ever need and then operate it for the life of the building. With a local vacuum network, you can put in what you need now and when those needs change, you can quickly adapt,” says Coffey.

Modular vacuum systems are also ideal for BSL-3 labs that need to be isolated from a central utility.

“Our conclusion from recent projects is that prime opportunities for local vacuum networks include buildings where lab space is being renovated and it is simply not possible to consider central vacuum; multidisciplinary situations where vacuum needs vary throughout the entire building; and facilities where lab or project isolation is critical to ensuring researcher safety or protecting the science,” says Coffey.

Ductless Fume Hoods

Chemical fume hoods that are ducted to the atmosphere have earned a reputation for being the largest energy consumer in science and technology facilities. This is because a typical six-foot fume hood consumes about the same amount of energy in a year as three average sized American homes. Most of this energy consumption is associated with supply and exhaust air fans, chillers, and boiler plants.

By contrast, newly developed ductless filtered fume hoods are being shown to eliminate multiple layers of installation complexity and significantly reduce energy consumption over the full lifecycle of a research building. 

“Ductless fume hoods eliminate the costs of installing ductwork and fittings, air valves, flow monitors, duct risers, air handlers, and large exhaust fans. Because they’re not connected to a building’s mechanical infrastructure, they can be easily relocated to a different lab space. And since there’s no duct involved, they can also be made height-adjustable,” says Karl Aveard of Erlab Green Fume Hood Technologies.

Recently, Butler University, in Indianapolis, Ind., conducted a cost comparison looking at the installation of 26 traditional fume hoods versus 26 ductless chemical fume hoods in a teaching lab where the three main project objectives were to improve indoor air quality; modernize existing labs; and reduce operating costs.

While the 26 ductless units cost a total of $572,000, as compared to the $208,000 for traditional hoods, the analysis revealed that the additional required ductwork and controls for the ductless filtered hoods cost only $50,000, as opposed to $130,000 for traditional hoods. Additionally, the modular filtered option required zero upgrades to be made to the building mechanicals, where a traditional system would have required more than $350,000 in building upgrades.

Another big difference was identified in the ongoing energy savings.  Ductless fume hoods were projected to result in an energy savings of more than $108,000 annually over traditional ducted solutions—a significant figure when multiplied by the entire lifecycle. Additionally, they represent a huge reduction in ongoing operating costs because, except for changing filters, they require minimal maintenance.

“Since filtered ductless fume hoods satisfy multiple criteria within the USGBC and the LEED rating system by reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions, they are also the more environmentally friendly option,” says Aveard.

Modular Point-of-Use Water

In a comparison of the total cost of ownership for three different water systems—central, modular centralized by individual floor, and modular point-of-use—distributing purified water in a health sciences research facility, the most cost-effective  solution turned out to be a modular system that is distributed separately to each floor.

The cost of ownership over five years for a traditional central water system—calculating initial installation, as well as ongoing electric, water, and maintenance costs—in a 15-story research building with eight floors of mixed research space containing 10 labs per floor and 80 sinks would come out to more than $750,000.

By contrast, a series of modular distribution systems centralized for each floor would cost approximately $700,000, while still allowing for more long term flexibility and easier maintenance because sanitization, modification, and repair procedures can be conducted to each system individually. Since modular systems distributed by floor are plumbed with low volume, chemical-resistant lines that are simple to install, they’re much more flexible than central systems with hard piping. 

While the smaller point-of-use modular systems were shown to cost the most, totaling more than $870,000, they bring the value-added benefits of improved space efficiency and much greater long term building flexibility.

“When you look at it in terms of the flexibility, obviously the most flexible systems are going to be the small point of use systems, with central being the least flexible. Modular systems distributed by floor can be advantageous in research buildings where each floor has its own discipline. In this model, if the genetics laboratory needs to sanitize their system, researchers can still go to another floor to draw water because you are not shutting down the entire building,” says Wayne Darsa of Siemens Water Technologies Business. 

Knowing When to Go Modular 

By contributing to the adaptability of research buildings, modular utilities can also increase the sustainable use of resources. Owners can optimize and right-size utilities to current technical needs, and still preserve the ability to adapt as needs change. The question comes down to knowing when to choose modular over central. 

According to Coffey, modular utilities often make sense in interdisciplinary research and teaching facilities that place a high priority on being flexible and sustainable, and where utility needs vary throughout the building. Another consideration is: are whole-building utilities viable for your project?

“In situations where they’re not, such as staged renovations, it’s good to know you have options,” says Coffey.

Where central utilities are feasible, consider the space demands. Modular utilities can often provide important space savings in addition to the opportunity for savings in capital, energy and maintenance costs.

“With central ducted fume hoods, it’s important to consider the amount of space required for moving all that air through the space between floors. The same thing can be said for the space demands for plumbing runs for central water and vacuum utilities,” Coffey says.

And often, it comes down to whether or not local utilities will advance the research being done.

“Even if capital costs are comparable between central and modular approaches, modular utilities may actually enhance the science in these buildings by supporting more effectively the type of research that is being done in each laboratory,” says Coffey.

By Johnathon Allen

This report is based on a forum led by Coffey at the Tradeline International Conference on College & University Science Facilities, 2011