The Challenges of Lab Relocation

If you thought moving your home was stressful, wait until you have to move your lab! We share some tips from someone who has been there, moved that!

Moving companies may be the only ones who like moving. The packing, unpacking, and setting up in a new place can give anyone months-long anxiety.

When the move in question is a laboratory filled with extremely costly equipment and years of research data, a relocation can be exponentially more stressful. The good news, however, is that with careful planning and the support of a dedicated team, principal investigators (PIs), and lab managers can successfully meet the challenge of moving to a new institution with as minimal disruption as possible.

A Job for Experts

One of the most challenging aspects of orchestrating a lab move is first simply figuring out what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Because each laboratory move is unique — involving different staff, institutions, and instruments — even speaking with colleagues who have previously moved is unlikely to reveal all the issues that can arise.

With so many things that can go wrong, something as important as an office relocation should not be left to chance. Hiring an expert relocation company is usually the first step in the process after a move is confirmed.

“Typically, there are companies that move labs. However, they are additional considerations that are associated with lab moves, including biohazard, chemical safety, and delicate expensive equipment,” says Glenn Rowe, PhD, of the Division of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Rowe knows the trials of relocating all too well. He has helped set up three labs during his more than 20 years of academic research, including his own lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in November 2014.

Companies that specialize in lab moves can suggest the best way to transport different pieces of equipment and research materials (for instance, using overnight air or generator trucks). They can determine whether the move will require special equipment such as cranes. But as Rowe points out, a single moving company may not be able to handle the entire move alone.

“Some of [the lab materials] have specific state requirements and federal requirements, especially when crossing state lines,” he says.

State and federal regulations require specific packaging, labeling, and permits for hazardous chemicals and infectious agents. If your chosen mover doesn’t have the experience or necessary permits to move materials such as animals or hazardous cargo, they should be able to coordinate with a third-party shipper.

The relocation company will also need to fully understand the environment of the lab you are moving into early in the process, according Lab Manager:

  • Are the proper mechanical and electrical systems in place?
  • Has the IT department set up computer and printer connections?
  • Can your cryogenic freezer (loaded with years of research specimen) be plugged in as soon as the movers arrive at the new space?
  • Are water and gas connected?

“Ideally, you have a lab manager in the origin location who can help coordinate and someone at the destination location who can help, too, but the real logistics really fall on the PI and his people,” Rowe says.

A List of To-Dos

In addition to the physical task of packing and moving the lab, a PI has a host of other challenges to consider, including:

  • Minimizing the lab’s “down time” between the move: “Figuring out where stuff is best suited in the new space takes some time,” Rowe advises. “Downtime can be anywhere from three months to a year before you’re back to being fully functional.” Depending on the stage of the PI and/or the size of the lab, working on unfinished papers and grants are good things to do during that period, he adds.
  • Moving your people: Postdocs and lab technicians have to make a difficult decision whether to stay at the original institution or move with the lab. It’s important to have one-on-one conversations with each person about their specific options and how your move affects their future educational and career plans.

Rowe’s final words of advice for managers planning for an upcoming move?

“Have a plan in place. Don’t ignore the small stuff and be realistic. Moves are not easy and anything can go wrong.”

Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News and writes Laboratory Notes.


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