In the past, conducting medical and biopharmaceutical research required a great deal of time, effort, intellectual capital and energy. Operating a single ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezer could consume as much electricity as an entire U.S. household used in a year, for instance. And while running, this laboratory refrigeration equipment will emit heat, increasing the load on HVAC systems and their energy consumption. When you are evaluating a cold storage solution’s energy usage, you also need to think about the energy costs associated with removing the heat it generates so that you can maintain a comfortable work environment. In fact, as much as 80% of a research facility’s HVAC energy usage can be attributed to removing heat generated by laboratory-grade refrigerators and freezers.
The tide is now turning. In the face of growing interest in sustainability among consumers and members of the scientific community alike, industry-leading cold storage manufacturers are engineering new solutions that can reliably meet performance benchmarks while consuming far less energy than yesterday’s ULT and laboratory-grade freezers. As consumer sentiment shifts, regulators step up their efforts to protect the planet, and the state of the art for refrigeration technology continues to advance, the incentives to update outdated equipment with new models that can meet evolving efficiency standards will only become greater.
“As recently as five years ago, environmental concerns were rarely among the top five factors influencing laboratories’ procurement decisions,” says Joe LaPorte, chief innovation officer at PHC Corporation of North America. “Today, major pharmaceutical companies are including sustainability in their mission statements, consumers are asking more questions about the products they buy, and more and more organizations are publicizing their efforts to reach net zero. There’s greater interest in energy efficiency from all quarters.”
Leveling up EPA standards: How ENERGY STAR is changing
The need for clear benchmarks that make it easy for stakeholders in research institutions to compare laboratory cold storage solutions like high-performance refrigerators and ULT freezers is pressing. Growing numbers of organizations in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors are pursuing LEED certification for their facilities, in order to demonstrate their commitment to environmental and social responsibility. Incorporating ENERGY STAR®-certified products and appliances into laboratories is a step towards LEED certification.
However, the ENERGY STAR standard for laboratory equipment is different from—and relatively less stringent than—what’s applied to consumer products. In fact, the majority of laboratory-grade refrigerators and freezers currently on the market qualify for ENERGY STAR certification, even though the differences between the energy usage of the most- and least-efficient products are enormous. The least efficient ENERGY STAR-certified ULT freezer uses more than three times as much energy as the most efficient model.
But this is about to change. In the EPA’s first revision of the ENERGY STAR standard for laboratory-grade refrigerators and freezers since it was initially published in 2015, the agency proposes to make the criteria for earning ENERGY STAR certification more stringent. If the current draft of version 2.0 of the standard is finalized, only 20% of the products that now qualify for ENERGY STAR certification will still meet the standard.
Forward-thinking labs and research institutions looking to acquire ENERGY STAR-certifiable cold storage equipment in the coming years would be wise to consider products that are considerably more efficient than today’s minimums.
No more trade-offs
It used to be the case that the most energy-efficient products were rarely the best performing, but this is no longer true. New ULT freezers feature highly energy-efficient natural refrigerants along with inverter compressor technologies that can reduce power consumption by 30% or more over previous models—all without compromising temperature recovery speed or other measures of performance.
This means that, if stakeholders choose the right cold storage products, members of the scientific community can have confidence that their new ULT freezers can protect key samples from temperature fluctuations—or thawing—over time while also reducing energy consumption and lowering power costs. This can have a significant impact on the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the freezer or refrigerator over its full lifecycle. It’s a win for everyone: both the planet and the organization’s budget stand to benefit.
“Today’s biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies keep striving to become better corporate citizens,” says LaPorte. “Their efforts to reduce energy consumption and increase sustainability are increasingly recognized by consumers who care about the future of our planet.”
Enhancing sustainability across the entire research lifecycle
Replacing outdated cold storage solutions with newer, more energy-efficient models isn’t the only way to enhance sustainability in biomedical research. It’s possible to make improvements by modernizing technologies used in cell culturing as well.
Incubators are available that don’t rely on disposable HEPA filters, instead utilizing a high-temperature decontamination cycle that can be repeated without productizing biomedical waste that needs to be incinerated or transported to a landfill. This benefit is especially important for investigations that incorporate human tissue samples, since incubators have to be decontaminated far more frequently than was the case in the past. As regenerative medicine comes to occupy a more prominent place within the research landscape, the need for sustainable methods of decontaminating incubators will only become more and more important.
Why asking the right questions of laboratory equipment manufacturers matters
Healthcare research institutions that want to make the most of these emerging technologies will need to ask the right questions of vendors during the procurement process, though. “Participating in the ENERGY STAR program is voluntary for laboratory equipment manufacturers,” LaPorte explains. “Unfortunately, that means it’s possible to game the system. Stakeholders should ensure that the products they’re considering were tested exactly as they’ll be used, not with key features turned off, or optional accessories added.”
Equipment manufacturers aren’t required to publish their ENERGY STAR test results, but anyone can ask for them while comparing products. How open and transparent a manufacturer is willing to be can tell you a great deal—the kind of information that goes beyond mere product specs. When products are tested by an independent entity like Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL), buyers can be confident that results are being shared in a way that’s comprehensive and trustworthy.
In today’s laboratory equipment landscape, asking about energy consumption and sustainability will not only allow your facility to save money, but will also make it possible to meet consumers’ and citizens’ rising expectations. And it’ll prepare you for future regulatory mandates as well.
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