O and M Savings from Lab Utilities

Campus laboratories are equipment intensive, water intensive and energy intensive. It follows, then, that they are also expensive to operate and maintain. With college budgets squeezed, colleges and universities are looking to laboratories as a source of operating efficiency and cost savings.

By some accounts, such as the one in the 2006 issue of Managing Lab Maintenance, O&M budgets are the largest lab expense besides personnel. This is not surprising, since some 40% of campus buildings were constructed during the period of 1960-1975 with post-Sputnik government support for science and technology programs as enrollments spiked with the arrival of the baby boomers. At 50 years old, some of these facilities have already been renovated, but the Sightlines Report from 2015 suggests that 24% have still not been updated.

Budget Pressures

The problem is that as overall campus budges came under pressure following the Great Recession of 2008, operating and maintenance accounts were a major target. Deferred maintenance became a huge problem, with many colleges still struggling to get the O&M line restored to base budgets. The Hechinger report (2016) indicates that colleges and universities incurred a $30 billion shortfall in deferred maintenance in the subsequent years, with the backlog up some 18% since 2007.

Private colleges can’t rely on state funding, even if it were available from states facing general budget shortfalls. Instead, many colleges have addressed the problem with debt financing, or with fees imposed on students in addition to already lofty tuition costs. Yet the spiraling cost of education makes tuition increases or fees to cover facility costs an obstacle to maintaining enrollment. The quandary is significant; without maintenance, the life cycle of already aging facilities will be shortened. Yet the resources simply aren’t there to commit extra funds to compensate for deferred maintenance.

The need to restore O&M budgets occurs as colleges face renewed demands for expanded STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs to meet the current imperatives for a more technically trained workforce. Where will the money come from? How will colleges and universities that are struggling with debt and enrollment obstacles meet the demands for operating and maintenance budgets?

Lab Vacuum System Efficiencies

As one of the major cost centers in college O&M budgets, lab facilities can benefit from modular, adaptable approaches that enhance the academic mission of increased STEM programs while reducing the O&M costs of these programs.

Several examples of lab vacuum systems at public and private universities illustrate how targeted investment in renewal of one lab utility can simultaneously contribute to program objectives, while lowering operating and maintenance costs.

  • York College of Pennsylvania expanded its science programs for nursing and pharmaceutical technology, but the old central vacuum system didn’t have the capacity to support the expanded lab sessions. York was literally forced to cancel some lab sections because of competition for vacuum resources. The college installed local vacuum networks to supplement the central vacuum. The modular local vacuum networks rely on a quiet, in-lab pump to support multiple vacuum users at once and produce vacuum on demand. The approach was so successful that, when office space was subsequently converted to additional labs, local vacuum networks were again part of the utility plan.
  • Purdue University faced extraordinary costs to support the biochemistry building’s lab vacuum system. A steam-driven system put in place decades before was incurring huge water and energy costs, along with service interruptions and substantial maintenance costs. After a thorough study of options, the university replaced the old central system with local vacuum networks, retrofitting 28 labs in 60 days with minimal disruption to active labs. The new vacuum networks significantly improved the quality of the vacuum available to scientists and paid for themselves in one year of utility cost savings. Further, since the local vacuum pumps have exceptionally long service intervals, the maintenance burden of the old system is a thing of the past. (The dry, chemical resistant pumps in the local vacuum networks have a suggested service interval of 15,000 operating hours. Vacuum produced on demand, so the maintenance interval translates into many years of actual operation.)
  • The University of Michigan had installed compressed air-driven vacuum modules in many of its labs because the cost of the local vacuum generators was modest, and the compressed air seemed to be an available resource. In practice, however, the university discovered that the inefficiency of compressed air production led to high energy costs. (The U.S. Department of Energy has called compressed air one of the least efficient means of converting electrical energy to mechanical power.) Based on its experience, the University has been gradually replacing the compressed air vacuum units with local vacuum networks; as individual labs are renovated to accommodate new researchers, the vacuum systems are upgraded. This lab-by-lab approach avoids the challenge of justifying a huge capital project to modernize an entire lab utility at once, while gradually upgrading an entire research building.
  • Johns Hopkins University was relying on tap-water driven vacuum pumps in its chemistry teaching labs. These devices also appear to be a cheap source of in-lab vacuum, but use large volumes of water and contaminate it with lab vapors. The water demands were so great at JHU when multiple labs operated at once that water pressure dropped to the point that the units could not produce vacuum. Making matters worse, the huge volumes of water would occasionally lead to flooding in the labs (and the associated maintenance demands) when drain lines could not handle the simultaneous flows. When JHU built its new undergraduate teaching labs, it also employed the local vacuum network approach, providing reliable lab vacuum and contributing to the University’s sustainability goals by significantly reducing water use.

While all of these examples describe the use of local vacuum networks to replace alternative means of producing lab vacuum, even the simple decision to replace aging oil-sealed vacuum pumps in labs with oil-free, dry vacuum pumps can make significant contribution to reduced maintenance. Dry vacuum pumps, employing diaphragms, valves and tubing consisting of chemical-resistant fluoropolymers, overcome the need for regular oil changes and eliminate the corrosive damage of acid or organic solvent vapors that are sucked into vacuum pumps in the course of routine use. Not only are diaphragm pumps better suited to most lab applications in terms of the vacuum levels produced, they can offer significant maintenance savings compared with oil-sealed pumps.

Maximizing Operating Savings

Achieving all of the benefits of reduced service from dry pumps may require a little homework. Vacuum pumps differ greatly in the service intervals offered because of design differences in the pumps themselves. Even dry pumps that are described as chemical resistant can differ by a factor of three to five in the length of recommended service intervals. This means that, for a similar purchase price, you can lower your long-term vacuum pump maintenance costs by a factor of three to five as well. With dozens or even hundreds of vacuum pumps in the typical lab building, this choice can make a huge difference in long-term maintenance burdens.

When diaphragm pumps are equipped with variable speed motors that respond automatically to user demand, these dry pumps can reduce energy demands for vacuum by 70 percent or more. One study of a California Institute of Technology lab found that vacuum represented about 15% of theplug load in labs. A 70 percent reduction in energy used by these pumps could make a significant contribution to campus energy saving goals. Going beyond in-lab solutions, dry pumping options are also now available to replace oil-and water-sealed central vacuum system pumps when they reach the end of their service lives, provided that the piping network is still intact after years of exposure to corrosive vapors.


Faced with pressure on operating budgets, facility managers can systematically replace energy- and maintenance-intensive laboratory support systems with technology that saves energy and reduces maintenance costs. Some of these technology options can be implemented gradually, even a lab at a time to avoid the delays and impediments of large capital project approvals. Labs normally represent a disproportionate part of campus operating and maintenance costs. With careful planning and adoption of appropriate technologies, they can also be a significant source of savings in these difficult times.

About the Author
Peter Coffey has served since 2009 as Vice President at VACUUBRAND, INC., where he has been working to bring to North America energy and water-saving lab vacuum technology developed by VACUUBRAND of Germany. Coffey holds degrees in biology, natural resources management, and business.