Air Quality in the Lab: External Factors, Internal Challenges, All-encompassing Solutions

For some people, there’s nothing like fresh mountain air. For others, nothing beats breathing deeply in a clean ocean breeze.

But in today’s clinical lab, mountain air or an ocean breeze might not be so fresh and so clean as the air quality in a lab is held to some of the strictest controls on the planet.

In this white paper, we’ll dig into a few factors around lab air quality: internal factors you can most often control—and external factors which you most often can not—particle counting, sensors, and the tools and techniques clinical lab managers are using to monitor and maintain proper air quality within their labs.

To preserve the integrity of the projects, processes, and products being worked on in the lab, it’s important to identify, analyze, and manage external and internal factors that can affect the internal air quality.

download white paper air quality in the lab

External and Internal Events Impacting Air Quality

By definition, external events are outside your control. However, anticipating them, responding to them, and putting SOPs and tools in place to prevent them from impacting your lab is very much in your control.

Many people tend toward the catastrophic when attempting to anticipate external events that will impact air quality in their labs: e.g., wildfires or weather events that wreak unstoppable destruction, fill the skies with smoke, etc. But even minor external events — such as nearby construction — can have a major impact on a lab’s air quality.

Internal events can also be broken into the same categories. There are the obvious quasi-catastrophic events that can occur (such as a burst pipe or a building fire), but it’s often everyday internal events that do the most consistent damage to air quality (such as a little too much perfume worn by a lab tech, pet dander in clothing, etc.).

We’ll address the more predictable and more easily manageable internal events before digging into the less predictable, but nonetheless (mostly) manageable external events that can impact air quality.


Internal Factors Impacting Air Quality 

A key thing to keep in mind: Internal factors are conditions created within the lab; they are within your control. Once internal factors are identified and analyzed, they can be addressed to greatly improve air quality (a la, the preceding Drucker quote).

Eliminating factors begins with an understanding of what introduces them in the first place, namely the air flow in your lab:

  • Does it pass through doorways and/or windows, or is it always piped in?
  • Is there an air filtration system in place? Is it up-to-date? Are its findings validated as accurate?
  • What are the protocols for people entering and leaving the lab?
  • What are the protocols as far as attire, deodorant, perfume, and other employee behaviors that could impact air quality?
  • Are there gaps in, for example, the ceiling’s sprinkler system that may be conduits for “bad air?”
  • Do you have sensors in place throughout the lab to ensure air quality is as required?


Many modern labs have climate-controlled environments, and that typically means HVAC systems. But HVACs are often a culprit, too, as a faulty or poorly installed HVAC system (or any piece therein) can create a gaping hole through which VOCs (volatile organic compounds) can enter a lab.

But once you recognize that the HVAC system is in fact part of your lab, rather than something outside it, you can put systems and sensors in place to ensure optimal air quality.

For example, regarding staff. You can have systems/SOPs in place to help ensure staff clothing and accessories will not easily impact air quality: e.g., requiring lab coats, minimizing/eliminating the use of perfumes, etc. But you should also have sensors in place to capture and analyze most every air particle staff may be trailing.

The point is, manage your environment. Door sensors can be installed to record when and how long a door has been opened. SOPs can be implemented to identify how long is too long, as it pertains to a possible impact on air quality. Particle counters (more on these below) can monitor air particle counts and alert you to when they exceed your standards.

Learn more about environmental monitoring in our eBook: The Environmental Monitoring Handbook.


External Factors Impacting Air Quality

external factors affecting air qualityOf course, a wildfire 100 miles away — even 1,000 miles away — can impact your lab’s air quality. And there’s no SOP you can put in place that will stop that fire from starting or stop that smoky air from reaching your front door. Minimizing its impact on your facility’s air quality can be as simple as replacing air filters more frequently during this time.

But there are other external events you may not have considered that could do just as much, if not more, damage. There’s the aforementioned nearby construction, but let’s turn our attention to an even more subtle “threat,” your colleagues in other parts of the building.

The finance people could determine that keeping the HVAC system running at top speed at night, on weekends, during certain seasons, simply costs too much, and have it dialed down or even shut-off. Overnight, air quality can be impacted and projects destroyed… by well-intentioned colleagues.

It’s not just people, either: it’s sometimes machinery. Every device you bring into a lab usually operates very differently (even the same kinds of devices, but made by different manufacturers). There are variations that may seem trivial on the surface, but you must understand each device’s unique “machine fingerprints” to better control processes and add more stability to lab equipment and your overall science.

SOPs can make a big difference, here, ensuring, for example, that HVAC system adjustments must be cleared with the lab manager beforehand. Sensors, filters, and technologies, however, are the bedrock of a reliable air quality assurance plan.

Learn more about events impacting internal air quality in “What’s your IAQ IQ?“.


An Air Quality Assurance Plan

It begins with knowing, and that means sensors. Sensors on doors, HVAC systems, storage units, and more, empower a lab manager to be constantly and consistently informed on air quality in the lab. Identifying your parameters for air quality—and having SOPs in place for when air quality fails, as well as staff trained in those SOPs—is more than half the battle. You can’t take action if you’re not first getting insight.

Samples, instruments, and products can be highly sensitive to the air quality, and with sensors being able to detect air particles as small as 2 nm — that’s 2 nanometers, each equal to one billionth of a meter, or 0.000000001 meters: i.e., can’t be seen with the naked eye — sensors are an essential part of any lab. But they’re just step one.

Next is collecting and analyzing the insights collected by sensors across the lab, and that means a centralized monitoring system that captures all sensor data, that has your lab’s unique variables programmed in, and that has the capability to remotely alert key stakeholders, or otherwise take action when required.

This system should also be capable of generating reports that capture every key parameter from every component in your overall lab processes: equipment, entryways, even furniture. Reporting from a monitoring system connected to every sensor in your lab and, ideally, the business systems and technology platforms outside it is the difference-maker between creating successful SOPs and ineffectual ones.

The data from your sensors and reporting will also help fuel choices you make in preventing an adverse impact on air quality, such as what kinds of filtration systems you may need to use, where they should be placed, etc.

Reliable filters like high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters greatly reduce the amounts of particles entering a lab and help maintain air quality — no matter where those particles may have originated (a wildfire two states over, or an office two doors down). Additionally, a lab monitoring system can collect data from your filters and indicate when they may need to be cleaned or replaced (rather than relying on an old-fashioned maintenance schedule).

With proper ventilation and filtration technology, you can essentially prevent the outside from coming in. Your monitoring system will report with time/date stamps, helping you connect air quality patterns to internal actions and external factors, and empowering you with the data you need to make changes.


How Important is Particle Counting in Air Quality?

The case for sensors should be clear: no sensors, no data; no data, no means to improve. But what about particle counting and particle counters? What’s best for a clean room’s air quality?

Particle counting is, of course, a key feature of air quality monitoring in cleanrooms and laboratories across a range of science and technology disciplines — any cleanroom where there are products or processes that are in any way sensitive to environmental contamination.

Even harmless particles (i.e., non-VOC) can create hazards simply by clogging sensitive machinery. Which makes monitoring not just the volume, but the SIZE, of critical importance. Fortunately, for every kind of air particulate, there’s a tool for counting.

Particle counters include:

  • Aerosol particle counters… can detect particles 50 nm and larger. They detect particles by deflecting light on them, making particles optically detected (which can then be reported on).
  • Condensation particle counters… go further, and can detect particles as small as 2 nm. They expose aerosol particles to supersaturated vapor, which condenses onto the particles, allowing them to grow to sizes at which they can then be optically detected.

Particles can be identified as viable (live microorganism) or non-viable (non-living) — with both states capable of being identified and reported on via filters, sensors, and an overarching monitoring system. Viable particles — such as bacteria, fungi, and fungal spores — vary in size from 0.2 to 30 micrometers and, if left in the lab, they will continue to grow in size. Not good.

Non-viable particles, on the other hand, range from 0.5 to 5 micrometers and sometimes serve as a host for viable particles to grow on. Unmonitored, non-viable particles will continue to allow viable particles to proliferate. Also… not good.


Fighting Persistent Particles with Full-on Filtration

Filtration systems can help reduce the flow of unwanted particles into your lab. To prevent particle spikes, various filters exist to clean up a facility’s internal air. These filters include O3, UV, HEPA, and carbon filters:

  • O3 filters help regulate oxygen levels
  • UV filters are essential when samples are light-sensitive
  • HEPA filters prevent particles from entering the lab
  • Carbon filters absorb both strong odors and harmful gases from the air 

And while some of those elements being filtered by the preceding can have a negligible impact on lab processes, VOC particles are always bad news, which makes VOC sensors a must, as they detect both the presence and volume of VOC particles.

With VOC sensors set up before and after a filter (highly recommended), it becomes easy to identify when a filter needs replacing (based on how many particles are getting through). VOC sensors should run 24/7 in order to detect whenever air quality drops to critical levels. Combined with a real-time monitoring solution, these sensors can then also alert a lab manager or other stakeholder to what may very well be invisible, but nonetheless a mission-critical, issue.

Learn more about facility monitoring in our eBook: The Life Science Facility Monitoring Handbook.


Seeing the Unseen, Measuring the Unknown, Protecting the Science

Air quality is critical and, in most every case, unseen and unknowable without the right tools in place. To ensure proper air quality in a lab requires an air quality monitoring system that is reliable, sends remote alerts and updates, and is in sync with other facility systems. Sensors, filters, reporting—these lay the groundwork to ensuring stability in the lab.

XiltriX offers lab monitoring solutions that are custom to each client, adhering to tactical needs in the here and now, and ensuring strategic success down the road. Hardware, software, reporting, training… XiltriX will deliver an air quality monitoring solution that is, in essence, airtight. 

To learn more about how XiltriX can ensure your lab’s critical assets and equipment are protected 24/7/365, schedule a free lab consultation with one of our experts

Schedule Call