Laboratories are mini-ecosystems of people, devices, equipment and facilities that need to work together seamlessly. Planning the equipment you’ll need ahead of time can deliver enormous savings in lab construction and operational costs, writes Karam Bell, technical and applications team leader at Thermo Fisher Scientific ANZ.
Designing a functional laboratory means mapping out the equipment, its placement and the workflow of the users well in advance. It can be helpful to understand the typical equipment that is standard for most labs, and plan enough spaces and infrastructure to support it. Let’s take a look at the kind of equipment most labs typically use, and talk a bit more about what they need to keep them (and their users) working smoothly.
Every lab needs some sort of cold storage, and selecting the right fridge or freezer is an important aspect in modern lab management. If you’re replacing old equipment or setting up a new facility, there are a few considerations that can help you determine which fridge or freezer will be your lab’s new best friend.
First up, you’ll need to figure out the temperature range you’ll need, which depends on the kind of work the lab will be doing. General-purpose laboratory refrigerator temperatures range from 0 to 10°C, while freezers can range from 0 to -30°C. Ultra low temperature freezers (ULTs) range from -40°C to -86°C, while cryogenic freezers can go as low as -125°C.
You’ll also need to estimate how much capacity you’ll need. It’s a good idea to plan for the future, and possibly invest in bigger cold storage capacity than you might initially need. Don’t forget to take ventilation into account. Some types of fridges or freezers may need more room at the back or the top to function properly, which can be a problem if there’s not enough space available. A good supplier will be able to help you decide on the right model and placement for your specific needs.
Chemical cabinets and biosafety
Fume hoods are essential when working with chemicals, and Biological Safety Cabinets (BSCs) protect workers, the environment and processes involving cells or biological tissues. Users often have a large choice when selecting a safety cabinet and it's easy to be confused by the variety of features and design styles available. The selection criteria is based on the agents used inside the cabinet, biosafety level, and the need to recirculate or safely vent chemical fumes. They come in a huge range of form factors and types, so it can be useful to get an expert’s advice on which ones would work best for your lab.
Water supply for lab work
Did you know it takes 3 litres of water to make 1 litre of deionised (DI) water? Single-pass cooling systems can easily lead to a single lab using almost 50,000 litres of water over the course of a year. Even an autoclave can use as much as 200 litres of water per cycle, even more if it's more than 10 years old.
Large labs such as university research buildings often need large water purification units to produce and store RO, DI or Type III water, which then needs to be piped to various stations throughout the building without contamination. However, in some cases, smaller units – some portable and benchtop in size – might be a better way to deliver the water at the necessary purity level directly to individual stations.
Some benchtop units can even deliver Type I ultrapure water directly from tap water. When choosing a water system for your laboratory, you need to be sure of the volume and quality of water the lab work will require. Other important considerations include filter costs, ease of use, available water storage and system space.
The basic energy challenge in lab design is the high cost of conditioning the large volume of ventilation air to meet safety requirements and building codes. One way to address this is to place large, heat-generating and moisture-producing equipment in one place, so you can use energy-friendly local cooling such as fan coil units to cool that space specifically, rather than relying on more power-hungry central air conditioning spread across the building.
Laboratories may also have unusually high plug loads – the energy demands of computers, servers, centrifuges and spectroscopes can be considerable. However, since lab equipment tends to be used intermittently, the load on the power infrastructure can be spread out.
Autoclaves and sterilisers
Autoclaves are basically used for two main purposes – either to steam-sterilise media, instruments or lab equipment, or inactivate biological waste materials. Sizing an autoclave depends on your daily sterilisation load requirements. It can be tempting to oversize your autoclave, thinking that it’ll be good to have extra capacity in case the workload grows. But this has a huge effect on the piping, spacing and footprint of the device. Additionally, the supporting infrastructure (plumbing, drainage, water supply, power needs, etc.) will probably grow more expensive as well. Also, a bigger autoclave will be more difficult to move, and over the lifespan of the building, it might need to be moved several times for repairs, maintenance or replacement. Just as important, can you spare the extra space? Luckily, you can get some highly efficient and compact autoclaves that might be ideal for your workload. Most autoclave suppliers will be happy to carry out a site survey as part of the purchase process, and it’s definitely a good idea to consult them. It can save considerable costs in delivery, installation and operational costs.
Designing a lab with ergonomics in mind can improve employee comfort, productivity and job satisfaction while lowering chances for occupational injuries. Many researchers spend more than half their day working on a computer on a lab bench. Most of these lab benches are too high, and can lead to a lot of aching wrists, backs and necks with prolonged use. Things like overhead storage may seem like a great idea at first, but if it's to store something heavy or something a lab user has to repeatedly reach for, you’ll quickly be getting a lot of complaints of aching shoulders or even back injuries.
A reputable lab supplier will also offer lab design services that include ergonomics, and it’s a wise choice to include it in your lab planning. By thinking about workplace health and safety as you design your lab, you can potentially save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.