Nobody likes doing dishes, and that goes double for lab workers. Glassware washing machines are more than convenience appliances: They ensure consistent cleaning of critical labware, free up technician time for more value-added work, and provide assurance and validation in regulated industries. With the possible exception of organic chemistry labs, most labs today rely on washers. “Generally, the more critical the research, the more likely it will employ an automated washing process,” observes Ken Austin, who manages Miele Professional’s (Princeton, NJ) laboratory division. Miele sells under-counter in-lab washers and much larger units for central wash areas servicing many labs.
Washers have become part of the official paper trail for regulated industries like pharmaceuticals and biotech and for environmental testing and forensics, which provide testimony for lawsuits and criminal trials. “A validated washer combined with SOPs provides a more consistent, traceable result than hand washing,” Austin adds.
What it takes
Efficient cleaning is a function of cycle time, wash temperature, mechanical action, and cleaning agents. The ideal combination is high water throughput at relatively gentle spray pressure, sufficiently high temperature, a spray pattern that reaches the entire wash load, and selection of cleaning agents suitable for the task.
Because of the heavy demands placed on cleanliness and the unusual form figures of labware, unmodified homemarket dishwashers are not suitable for laboratory use. For example, the pump in a high-end under-counter glassware washer is rated at a minimum of 100 gallons per minute, comcompared with 25 to 30 gallons per minute on a home washer. Cycling time for lab units is longer; holders and baskets are customized for lab equipment; and the final rinse uses heated, recirculated, deionized water instead of tap water. Some lab-designed machines employ bottom-heating for drying, as do kitchen units, but high-end washers employ forced HEPA-filtered air.
A low-end lab market does exist for home dishwashers retrofitted with a deionized water inlet for the final rinse and/or longer cycling capability. Yet even modified household units do not last in a lab environment, Austin warns. “Three-hour lab wash cycles impose stresses that a kitchen washer was not designed for. Many kitchen models lack a pump powerful enough to provide effective wash coverage; others with more robust pumps cause glassware to launch and break.”
Deciding on a washer
Inputs affecting purchase decisions for lab washers include type of labware and residues being cleaned, throughput (pieces per day), and current wash methods. At the very least, buyers should consider how to exploit the full volume of the washing chamber through racks and compartments suitable for their labware.
Labs operating in regulated industries, or those that come in contact with the legal system, should consider automated controls that verify and validate cleaning cycles, from initial wash through drying. The ultimate machines of this type are validated to pharmaceutical Good Manufacturing Practices.
The key for vendors is to demonstrate value. “If we can demonstrate enhanced safety and cost savings through reduced labor or lower consumption of water and cleaning chemicals, up-front cost becomes less of an issue,” says Austin. Other selling points include service and support and the ability to validate cleaning.
Austin observes that high school and community college labs are a growing segment of glassware washer purchasers. “It seems that some of the labs that traditionally used hand washing are interested in machine washing.” Another trend is the use of individual lab washers in facilities where a cenAustin observes that high school and community college labs are a growing segment of glassware washer purchasers. “It seems that some of the labs that traditionally used hand washing are interested in machine washing.” Another trend is the use of individual lab washers in facilities where a central wash room had been the norm. The interplay between centralized and individual lab washing involves the general aversion to washing glassware. But central washers often do not thoroughly clean items, and breakage is higher than when scientists wash their own. “Researchers don’t trust the wash room, and wind up cleaning their critical pieces anyway.”
Increasingly, lab managers and facility designers are specifying lab washers based on environmental and ergonomic factors. “Purchasers are interested in how the machine coordinates with the building, the lab, and an organization’s ‘green’ strategies,” says Mike Henley, general manager at Lancer (Winter Springs, FL). Utilization of water, energy, and cleaners and wastewater disposal are important factors that affect operating cost. “Purchasers have moved beyond up-front cost and are beginning to take these other issues into account.” Utilization of lab space and human resources also factor into purchase decisions. Research space is expensive, and so are salary and upkeep of personnel. “They don’t come to work to wash glassware,” Henley notes.
Angelo DePalma holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry. You can reach him at angelo@ adepalma.com.
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