The proverbial “ounce of prevention” goes a long way toward preventing serious GC downtime. Keeping up with routine maintenance is the secret to ensuring that scheduled maintenance downtime occurs on the lab’s terms, not by fickle fate. The major instrument makers, says Thermo Fisher’s Eric Phillips, make a big deal about what his company calls “robustness”—the length of time between cleanings—which “has a tremendous impact on productivity. Nobody wants an instrument to go down because of maintenance or contamination at inopportune times.”
The hierarchy of service support begins with the OEM and proceeds through a large national third-party service organization, local service engineering firms, and mom-and-pop shops. The OEM is always the first line of defense for service, but many customers are dissatisfied with OEM response time or pricing. Larger vendors such as PerkinElmer provide service techs who handle their competitors as well as their own chromatographs. Through the firm’s OneSource service, PerkinElmer instrument specialists work full-time on-site, available to problem-solve most instrument issues. For instruments for which they lack expertise, they arrange for service by either the original vendor or a third-party service provider.
Injection port maintenance is one of the simplest services users can perform. Almost any operator can change the septum. A bit more skill is required to service the port liner or clean out the port itself.
“There’s a fuzzy line between user-serviceable fixes and calling for service,” notes Brian Lewandowski, implementation specialist at PerkinElmer (Waltham, MA). “It depends on the user’s comfort level for carrying out specific maintenance tasks. The button-pushers will call a technician at the drop of a hat. Those who have been around chromatography for a while lean toward solving problems themselves.” A service visit takes at least 24 hours; user-initiated service is much faster and far less costly when hourly rate and lack of productivity are factored in.
Injection port maintenance is one of the keys to keeping columns in good operating order. The other—although not strictly maintenance—is exercising care in sample preparation. All columns eventually degrade. Aside from adding a guard column and snipping off a foot or so, little can be done to “service” a column. This was as true in the days of quarter-inch packed columns as it is today with 0.1 mm capillaries
While columns cannot be fixed, users can follow a few recommendations to improve their longevity and performance. “It comes down to how the column is stored, how it’s handled while in the GC, its temperature experience, and what’s shot through it,” Lewandowski advises. “It’s normally not the analyte of interest that causes column problems, but the matrix, such as sludge in petroleum products, or water, that cause column problems.”
Although some users can swap out a circuit board or major component, hardware failure and electronics glitches almost always require service engineers. Some instruments, such as the Agilent 5890, are no longer supported by the manufacturer and can be serviced only by third-party service organizations. Because tens of thousands of 5890s are still in service, a few users have learned to service them, provided they can find spare parts. The same cannot be said for very recent instrument releases.