May 5, 2022
By Maureen McMahon
The University of the Chicago Physical Sciences Division has expanded a program dedicated to addressing energy use reduction throughout all facilities that have chemical fume hoods.
The first week undergraduate chemistry students enter the lab has common touchpoints: an eagerness for doing higher level experiments and a host of safety demonstrations, including one on “using the hood.” Using the chemical fume hood properly is critical not only for safety but also for saving energy.
The hood is essentially a four to eight-foot metal encasement with a shatterproof glass partition, or sash, that slides down to just above the hands that are doing a chemical experiment. It protects the users’ faces, and in the case of a major pressurization caused by an experiment, protects the rest of the lab if something pops or explodes.
In buildings like the University of Chicago’s Searle Chemistry Laboratory and Gordon Center for Integrative Sciences, powerful variable blowers in the hood create airflow to push and pull chemical hazards and fumes away from the user, up into the ventilation system and out the building.
Most hoods in PSD have blowers that slow down when the user lowers the sash between uses. Much like shutting the windows before leaving the house, teaching assistants train their students to “shut the sash” when they are done with their experiment.
It’s simple enough, but the behavior of lowering the sash after the experiment ends, and especially when the lab closes for the night, has proven to be a tipping point on energy usage that has launched a major culture shift in the PSD.
Many laboratories have environmental controls within a small range for heating, cooling, and humidity that demand much from the HVAC system to remain stable. Meanwhile, a variable fume hood left open works hard to pull that treated air out of the building, making for an expensive loop.
You would think sash lowering should be automated, and it can be, though “researchers can find it irksome when an automated sash closes during an experiment when their hands are full,” said PSD laboratory safety specialist Ian Hoppie.
In an inventory of the biggest “energy hogs” in their domain, the PSD facilities team began to take notice, especially since this is a challenge across approximately 300 hoods.
“If you leave a fume hood open all day, it wastes as much energy as is needed to power three and half small houses for that day. That’s a tremendous amount of energy that cannot be recirculated into the building,” said Jim Passolano, the director of design and construction of research facilities for the Physical Sciences Division.
Passolano has become the chief investigator and champion for a major cultural shift. He originated an awareness campaign in 2017 to educate students and researchers on the environmental impact of sash behavior. This winter, the information campaign he named “Shut the Sash” upgraded to a quarterly incentive program intended to motivate students.
Passolano and his group began reviewing all buildings with a sustainability lens in 2017, in response to the dean’s priorities and student concerns for a greener campus.
What really struck him was touring Hinds, which is home to the Department of the Geophysical Sciences where all the classes and big discussions about climate change occur.
“We walked through that building and it’s all incandescent light bulbs and fluorescent light bulbs. It’s the place where we talk about climate change the most! It was just totally embarrassing,” Passolano said. He and the chair of the department at the time, Fred Ciesla, found the funds to upgrade all the lights.
That same year Ryan Hoff and Adam D’Ambrosio of the Sustainability Group for Facilities Services approached Passolano to identify the building that uses the most energy in the PSD. It was Searle, which contains the majority of chemistry labs.
Their goal was to bring the building back to its original design level that gave it a LEED Silver Award, and maintain it. “We determined the two best ways to reduce energy consumption were recommissioning the building infrastructure with projects large and small to update the HVAC, lighting, and controls—and changing sash behavior,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many millions of dollars we have spent, and plan to spend, in Searle, Hinds, and Gordon Center on reducing energy usage that have a tremendous return on investment per capital expenditure,” he said.
While infrastructure improvements were fungible, influencing a cultural shift proved an imperfect science. Passolano said they had to get into the mind of a scientist. If they were going to promote a dramatic change, they should use their most powerful tool: data.
“We already had infrastructure in Searle where we could monitor the sash position, tell if the sash was open or closed, 24-hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “So we started monitoring the sash position and accumulated just an overwhelming amount of data.”
The data revealed a lot of the sashes were being left open more than fifty percent of the time during the day and night.
Additionally, sashes were reporting they were open all day when they were shut. “What that identified was that the controls in the sensors in the fume hood were not operating properly, which is a big safety issue,” he said.
Ian Hoppie has the intensive duty of checking the velocity of airflow is up to standard in every hood, and was enlisted to help Passolano with the restorations. “I’m looking for good housekeeping,” Hoppie said. “I troubleshoot the sensors with facilities and place position stickers on hoods reminding users to lower the sash. I also tell each lab’s designated safety contact that ‘Shut the Sash’ is not just about safety, it’s green.”
To manage the data, the sustainability group recruited graduate students to build reports. They identified which sashes were being left open more than fifty percent of the time and graphed it for the Chairman of the Department of Chemistry, Viresh Rawal.
“Viresh took the initiative to post these graphs all through Searle and raised the awareness of the students and the faculty,” Passolano said. “Students are looking at this graph and thinking, ‘Holy cow, here’s my lab and my sash is open all the time!’ It wasn’t trying to embarrass people, but it’s in your face, here you go. Scientists like to have data and here’s the data. It’s powerful.”
He was right. Quarterly reports showed a dramatic change in culture. Over the course of two years, there was a reduction of almost fifty percent of sashes being open.
“Then the pandemic hit,” he said. “Labs were doing less experiments, so sashes were closed. The students who had reformed were off campus, and when they came back and were joined by new students in 2021—ones we hadn’t influenced with our data—the numbers slipped.”
Passolano was motivated to formalize an incentive program similar to the one that had improved scores on lab safety evaluations. The labs that win “most improved” every quarter would get tried and true grad student incentives: pizza parties and donut days.
“We need to encourage the students to do more. Let the students know that we see them as part of the team and as an integral part of this program. It is very important to them. And it’s very important to President Alivisatos. On his listening tour, many students told him improving sustainability should be a priority. They need to know they are making an impact,” he said.
With Searle, the implementation of energy savings projects, Shut the Sash, and recommissioning, the building is now operating to the parameters for LEED Silver status. “This is a very significant achievement given the functionality of the building: wet chemistry. We are doing the same review in Gordon Center and Eckhardt Research Complex. Regardless of cost savings, it is the right thing to do,” said Passolano.
“I am greatly appreciative of the support I get from the dean, all the way down to the Chairs, the departments, the building managers, the students, the PIs, facility services. This is not just one person or one small crew. It’s a community impact. It’s really changed the culture.”
For additional reading on campus sustainability progress, check out the new UChicago 2022-2030 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan.