8 Questions to Ask When Designing a Cleanroom Ceiling System

Apr 24 2024

Designing a cleanroom ceiling system is a critical aspect of creating a controlled environment that meets specific cleanliness and safety standards. The ceiling system plays a significant role in maintaining cleanliness, controlling airflow, and ensuring the overall functionality of the cleanroom, while meeting construction requirements that minimize cost, ease of installation, and timely start-up. As you begin designing your cleanroom ceiling system, here are 8 questions to consider for cleanroom end-users, architectural engineers, and general contractors.

1. What type of ceiling system best fits the space and requirements?

There are various types of cleanroom ceiling systems, including stick-built and modular systems. When selecting the right ceiling grid for your space, consider factors such as ease of maintenance, installation flexibility needed, and long-term adaptability when choosing the appropriate ceiling system for your cleanroom.

“With a modular grid, the ceilings are pre-built and integrated with wiring, lighting, and fire protection ready to be lifted in place,” said Zareer Cursetjee, director of engineering R&D at Nortek CleanSpace. “In instances where retrofitting is needed, a stick-built solution can provide more flexibility and adaptability to existing spaces. All stick-built solutions are not the same. Ask about installation requirements and the support structure required for hanging. With solutions that leverage less hangers to install, customers can expect a quicker, less labor-intensive installation.”

2. Does the site accommodate onsite assembly or is offsite manufacturing (OSM) needed?

Depending on if your cleanroom is a new space or being retrofitted into an existing space, and what other construction is taking place at the same time, you may not have space or time for onsite assembly.

“When looking for a partner, be sure to ask about flexibility for installation,” said John Hobson, director of national sales for Nortek CleanSpace. “With a hybrid construction model, a partner should be able to deliver the ceiling grid completely built, semi-built, or ready to be built on site.”

3. What structural capabilities are needed for the ceiling grid?

There are three primary structural components to consider for a ceiling grid:

  • What structure is above the cleanroom that needs to be supported?
  • What hangs below the ceiling – automatic material handling system (AMHS load)?
  • Does the ceiling grid need to be walkable?

Regular maintenance, inspections, and housing air handlers and fall protection require easy access to the ceiling plenum. Ask about the ceiling system’s design for accessibility, which can make access more convenient and reduce downtime during maintenance activities.

“Not only is walkability of a ceiling grid important, but understanding the different walkable components that are available, such as blanks, return air grills, light troffers, and fan filter units are important to the performance of the ceiling grid,” said Cursetjee.

For the semi-conductor industry, ceilings often need to integrate load requirements of automated material handling systems (AMHS). Identifying these requirements and the capabilities of a cleanroom partner will ensure that your design supports all essential elements.

4. How will lighting and utilities be integrated?

Cleanroom ceiling systems often need to accommodate lighting, HEPA filters, sprinklers, and other utilities. Inquire about how the ceiling system will integrate these components, while maintaining the required level of cleanliness. Proper integration is essential to avoid compromising the cleanroom’s functionality or contaminating the environment.

“As the industry continues to shift to LED lighting, inquire about the lighting options, as well as the spectrum of light,” said Cursetjee. “For instance, areas in semi-conductor cleanrooms may require amber lighting for the process. A simple shift to LED options not only meets regulatory shifts, but also provide energy efficiency opportunities.”

Placement of lighting and wiring in the ceiling grid can also impact the performance of the cleanroom.

“Ask if partners can accommodate flush mounting the lights,” said Cursetjee. “A small change in flush mounting has a big impact on the laminar air flow and reducing turbulence, which creates a smoother air flow in the cleanroom especially in areas with high filter coverage requirements.”

5. Do your manufacturing processes require specialty coding?

Ceiling system materials vary in terms of durability, chemical resistance, and cleanability. Ask about the materials available for the ceiling panels, grid structure, and any additional components.

“The type of product is important, especially for cleanrooms in semi-conductors and biopharmaceutical industries,” said Cursetjee. “With products that feature powder coated aluminum, it not only increases durability but also prevents off gassing which can impact the process that is taking place in the cleanroom.”

6. Can the ceiling system adapt to future changes?

As demand for cleanroom production continues to increase, future expansion of an existing cleanroom may be required. Ask how easily the chosen ceiling system can adapt to these changes, without requiring extensive modifications or replacements.

“In instances of expansion or retrofitting, a stick-built ceiling grid can integrate with the existing structure, even if it is a modular ceiling,” said Cursetjee. “Not all partners have the knowledge to connect the varying ceiling grid structures together so look for a partner that not only manufactures both types of ceiling grid but has the expertise.”

7. Do you have experience with building information modeling (BIM)?

When it comes to designing your cleanroom, architects commonly use a platform for BIM called Revit. Collaboration between your cleanroom manufacturer and architect and mechanical and electrical disciplines ensures that the space is designed correctly and eliminates future hurdles.

“When a cleanroom manufacturer not only understands BIM tools but has a team of engineers trained to draw the ceiling system in the platform, the project will have more refined designs that integrate into the space seamlessly,” said Cursetjee. “This additional design expertise can be critical to keeping projects on time and budgets.”

8. How do I understand the total cost of ceiling systems?

A key starting point is coordinating the design work and cost of design services of the ceiling system, such as BIM services. Within the design, evaluation of loading requirements is important to determine the type of ceiling system needed, which can be pre-assembled modules or stick-built ceiling pieces. Based on the ceiling type, labor costs will vary. For example, ceiling modules are commonly pre-assembled offsite, ready to lift in place, and often have components like lighting and fire protection already integrated. Whereas stick-built ceilings will be partially or completely assembled onsite and then accessories are added. While ceiling cost per square foot will vary in this comparison, they are affected significantly with the cost of labor and schedule timing.

For any ceiling system, materials of construction will affect cost. Steel, stainless steel, and aluminum are the most used materials. Material selection is determined by the application and level of sanitary requirements. Once installed, cleanroom ceiling systems play a critical ongoing role in proper air delivery, air quality and process control. The right products and partners can help ensure a return on investment with decreased operation costs, increased productivity, and reliability.

Designing a cleanroom ceiling system involves a complex balance of technical considerations to ensure optimal cleanliness, functionality, and compliance with industry standards. By asking these essential questions and collaborating closely with cleanroom design experts, you can create a ceiling system that aligns with your cleanroom’s classification requirements, contributes to effective contamination control, and maintains a controlled environment for your specific application.