PDC Spotlight: Laboratory Ventilation Systems

Laboratories are designed to achieve an effective, safe, efficient, and sustainable environment for research and production — which requires a rigorous process based on resources available, researchers’ needs, and hazards. There’s no question about how incredibly important it is to create a safe lab environment, but what are the fundamentals of lab design and ventilation? 

We’re excited to have Mr. Thomas Smith and Mr. Mahdi Fahim join us in Minneapolis this year, leading “PDC 104: Design, Select, Operate, and Manage Laboratory Ventilation Systems.” We had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Smith, who has been involved with American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) for nearly 30 years and has participated on numerous committees, including serving as the last chairman of the AIHA Z9 Committee on Ventilation Standards for Safety and Health. 

AIHA: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Smith: I’ve been married to my best friend, Curly, for 23 years. We live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and have three outstanding children named Walker, Weezie and Aniver. I started my career in 1985 as a student in a Federal Stay in School Program assigned to the Environmental Health and Safety Office at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. It was a truly great and life-changing experience. While employed at NIEHS, I received my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University and a graduate degree in industrial hygiene from the University of North Carolina. My job at NIEHS included testing laboratory fume hoods and investigating how to use ventilation systems to protect people from exposure to airborne hazards. My master’s thesis involved a design and performance analysis of laboratory fume hoods.  

After leaving the institute, I founded Exposure Control Technologies Inc., where I have served as the president and CEO for the past 25 years. In 2015, I was inducted into the NCSU Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Hall of Fame (for reasons that are still not fully understood). In 2018, I transformed ECT Inc. to a new company called 3Flow that has a broader mission and is dedicated to ensuring safety, reducing waste, and enabling facilities to achieve sustainable labs and critical workspace environments. We service research and health care organizations throughout North America.

AIHA: You’ve been an integral part of the AIHA community for the past few decades, but you’ve also been involved with other organizations

Smith: During my career, I have also served as a liaison, member, and chairman of other committees for standards-setting organizations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE); Scientific Equipment and Furniture Association (SEFA); International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL); and the American Chemical Society (ACS). Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by and work with many American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), AIHA, and ASHRAE superstars. One such opportunity includes working with my PDC 104 co-instructor, Mahdi Fahim. For approximately 10 years, Mahdi and I have taught variations of this course and focused the information on testing and managing performance of fume hoods and lab ventilation systems. We constantly strive to make the course relevant and high value. We update the course every year based on attendee feedback and try to incorporate the latest and greatest information from the industry to keep it relevant and up to date.

AIHA: What’s the biggest challenge in designing laboratory ventilation systems? How has this changed over the past decade?

Smith: From my experience, the greatest challenge in designing and operating lab ventilation systems is fourfold: assessing risk of exposure to airborne hazards and translating the demand for ventilation to design and operational specifications; identifying and managing change in highly dynamic lab and critical workspaces; incorporating new technologies and maintaining high-performance systems; and finding people skilled in both industrial hygiene and ventilation engineering who are competent to design, build, commission, manage, and maintain high-performance, airflow control systems. 

I believe facilities struggle to achieve and maintain safe, energy-efficient, and sustainable airflow control systems. This failure can impact safety, energy consumption, research success, recruitment of talent, and long-term sustainability. Executives often fail to recognize the importance of proper design and operation of the airflow control systems. They are imperative to protecting the health and safety of people and providing workplace environments that promote success and meet the mission of the organization.  

AIHA: What’s something that excites you about our industry in the upcoming year? 

Smith: In my opinion, we are entering a very exciting time for our industry. We have never before been so capable of incorporating new and advanced analytical tools to evaluate the potential for exposure, monitor workplace environments, and control operation of airflow control systems that continuously modulate airflow to meet the ever-changing demand for ventilation.  

In addition, we have recently formed a new initiative through the AIHA Lab Health and Safety Committee to provide guidelines for assessing risk to airborne hazards, we are working with ASHRAE to develop new environmentally friendly methods of testing fume hoods and we are working with Department of Energy (DOE) to roll out a national Smart Labs program based on the success at the University of California – Irvine. The Smart Labs program has been very successful in many facilities. It enables a systematic process to upgrade airflow control systems; train people; and provide safe, efficient and sustainable facilities.

Berrak Sarikaya is a natural conversation driver with an undeniable belief in the power of community. A proven content strategist and speaker, she resides in Seattle, WA. Follow her on Twitter.​
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