What do squirrels, space travel, and deep-energy retrofits have in common? Hint: it’s about powering down

Over more than 200 years, one Ivy League medical school has launched some of the most important discoveries in history. Now it’s investigating ways to make its campus buildings perform better and use less energy...much like the squirrels they study.


Fun fact: squirrels hibernate.

Okay, not all squirrels. Tree squirrels, such as the ubiquitous gray squirrels we catch dangling upside-down from our bird feeders or entertaining college students, do not hibernate. But ground squirrels do. And it’s these smaller, striped versions of these fuzzy creatures that have caught the attention of scientists at NASA.

Yes, that NASA.

It doesn’t take a giant leap to understand NASA’s interest in hibernating squirrels. For up to seven months a year, the Spermophilus powers down and snores away, requiring no food or water before warmer days awaken their slumber.

Thus, understanding the way squirrels conserve energy and resources through hibernation may one day aid in sending a human to, say, Mars without saddling their spacecraft with large quantities of freeze-dried chicken á la king and powdered Tang.

For research like this to succeed, it is paramount that the research facilities operate smoothly, reliably, and with minimum disruption. 

This is no easy task for an expanding medical school campus, much of which operates around the clock. Over time, additions, renovations, and primary use changes affect building heating, cooling, and ventilation systems needs. And hibernation is not an option.

Right-sizing ventilation on a changing campus

School leadership recognized that meeting its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal required major investments in energy-use reduction—essentially through deep-energy retrofits of existing spaces. Thus, starting in 2014, they partnered with GreenerU to improve their laboratory facilities in ways that corrected many ventilation challenges without compromising the safety or comfort of building users.

The medical school campus consists of 29 buildings and more than 2.7 million square feet of space, nearly a third of which is devoted to laboratories—including the squirrel hibernaculum, a precisely climate-controlled environment replicating the exact conditions where the Spermophilus can snooze away undisturbed.

Most laboratory spaces are typically intensively ventilated for safety. Air changes in labs are necessarily more frequent, and more thorough, than in classrooms or offices due to the exposure of potentially hazardous chemicals.

But there’s a balance. The best approach to ventilating laboratory spaces involves engaging laboratory users, performing a ventilation risk assessment, and adjusting or replacing energy-wasting equipment, as GreenerU has done with Ithaca and Smith Colleges.

One major challenge this client faced was that campus buildings had evolved over time to accommodate different needs. What was a corridor of laboratories 70 years ago may now be offices. Or a new addition to a building has changed the HVAC capacity requirements of the total space.

Thus, many laboratories were ventilated to standards that are not applicable to the current use of the space. Air was being exhausted and replaced with fresh outdoor air (that has to be heated or cooled) at an unsustainable rate.

Slow and steady led to savings

Duct layouts and diffuser selections were modified based on detailed computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis. It took two years to modify duct layouts and optimize contaminant capture. Only then could ventilation rates be safely reduced. We did this all while keeping most laboratory spaces open during the process: corridor by corridor, section by section, new ventilation systems were installed without prolonged disruption to laboratory activities.

Once the ventilation systems are updated and air changes are more appropriately calibrated, GreenerU’s commissioning partner Genesys works to fine-tune and troubleshoot any new equipment and ensure that everything is working properly. That process is ongoing as we continue to make our way down the list of energy-saving opportunities.

Following the ventilation improvements, we performed lighting upgrades, installed variable frequency drives and pipe insulation, and upgraded autoclaves to round out the comprehensive efficiency program.

So far, GreenerU’s work with this client has led to more than $400,000 in annual utility savings and greenhouse gas emissions reductions of more than 2,500 MTCDE per year—equivalent to the total energy of more than 300 homes.

Powering down

We may be a ways off from sending humans, or even arctic ground squirrels, to Mars. Despite scant evidence pointing to the contrary (in the form of teenaged hominids), human beings do not naturally hibernate. 

We are pretty good at powering down and conserving energy when we sleep, though. And so can be the spaces in which we live and work. As containers for people, buildings are a metaphor for living things—they breathe, they consume energy, they perform tasks.

Now these medical school laboratories are consuming far less energy at safe ventilation levels for both humans and squirrels. At this world-class medical school campus, where medical research is yielding exciting results on a regular basis, performing energy-conservation measures without disrupting important research is a giant leap for mankind.

GreenerU has worked closely with this Ivy League medical school for five years and counting, finding substantial energy savings while respecting the integrity of the work being performed in its laboratories. Whether you’re managing medical school buildings, laboratories, or other energy-intensive spaces, we can help you reduce your energy levels with minimal disruption to your efforts. Talk to us!

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