ACS Resources

Planning for an Environmental Chamber

Answers to Your Frequently Asked Questions

Environmental Chamber Safety

What are the risks when running internal combustion engines inside an environmental chamber?

When internal combustion engines operate within an environmental chamber, harmful and explosive gases and vapors may accumulate inside the chamber. Therefore, it is essential to equip the chamber with a gas detection system that can identify such conditions. Carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust and hydrocarbons from fuel sources such as gasoline, natural gas, or propane are typical gases that need to be detected.

The gas detectors used within the environmental chamber must be rated for the extreme temperatures present during the test.

What are the potential risks to personnel working with environmental testing chambers?

Environmental chambers can have temperatures well outside a human’s comfort range. The doors of the chamber must be designed in a manner that allows rapid and easy evacuation, in case of an emergency, to prevent any potential harm to individuals.

Personnel who spend time in the chamber must be shielded from extreme temperatures. In cold chambers, where temperatures may plummet to -40°F, exposed skin can suffer severe frostbite in mere minutes. Hot chambers may be arid, causing sweat to evaporate instantly, leading to dehydration and heat exhaustion. To mitigate these hazards, it is essential for personnel to wear appropriate protective clothing, and limitations on exposure must be enforced.

What kind of fire suppression systems are suitable for environmental chambers?

Water is the most common fire suppression method used in the industry, but traditional wet sprinkler systems are not suitable for environmental testing chambers.

In cold chambers, the water in the sprinkler pipe can freeze. Instead, a “preaction” system must be installed outside of the cold chamber. A sensor inside the chamber detects the presence of smoke, heat, or flame, which then triggers the preaction system to open the valve on fire protection piping and release the water into the chamber.

For some applications in hot chambers, the temperature may be near or above the release point of the commonly used sprinkler heads, which makes them ineffective. In such scenarios, fire systems in hot chambers require special sprinkler heads with elevated trip temperatures.

Budget Considerations

What are the main cost drivers for building an environmental chamber?

The cost of building an environmental chamber is primarily driven by its size and temperature requirements. If you want to test multiple units at the same time, it may be more cost-effective to invest in a larger chamber. Cold chambers are generally more expensive than hot chambers. Cooling the chamber to extremely low temperatures, like -40°F/-40°C, requires additional facility accommodations, like insulation, warming freezing air before it exhausts from the chamber, or protection to keep the floor from freezing.

What is the expected life span of an environmental chamber?

The expected lifespan of an environmental chamber depends on its intended use and the level of design protection. If the chamber is designed for a particular unit under test, its lifespan will likely be shorter than a chamber built with design protection. You can extend the lifespan of an environmental chamber by over-sizing the chamber in terms of physical size and heating/cooling capacity. Over-sizing will allow you to use the climatic testing chamber for larger test articles or change testing requirements in the future. These design specifications add cost but could extend the life of the chamber. A well-maintained environmental chamber should easily last for 10-20 years.

What is the low-hanging fruit to cut out of the budget for an environmental chamber?

The first area to consider is whether you can limit the scope of the test applications of the environmental chamber. The upfront cost will be lower, but the overall utilization and ROI on the environmental chamber will also be lower.

Keep in mind, even if you can narrow the scope of test applications, the chamber still needs to meet your business goals and specifications. If there are non-negotiable elements that must be included, you may need to ask for a bigger budget.

After that, the easiest areas for cost-cutting are removing any peripheral design elements that aren’t necessary for the chamber’s primary function, such as adding new storage or office space near the chamber. By focusing on the essential elements and avoiding extraneous additions, you can save money without compromising the chamber’s primary function.