To Centralize or Not To Centralize?
The question of limited access or general access to laboratory goods and services applies to a range of instruments, utilities, and competencies. These questions take on added significance for midsized or larger labs.
Whether to employ central washing stations or point-of-use washers located under a lab bench or in a corner is also something that has to be addressed with regards to laboratory glassware washers. The former provide an economy of scale and are popular with lab workers who, almost universally, hate to “wash the dishes.”
The downside for central washing stations is that glassware tends to disappear over time, due to breakage and operator error. Nobody cares if they lose a beaker or Erlenmeyer flask. The problem arises with specialty glassware such as distillation heads or Soxhlet extractors, or custom-blown glassware, which is expensive and can take days and many dollars to replace.
Jenny Sprung, a product manager at Labconco (Kansas City, MO), notes that washing stations can take many hours or days to return glassware. “Central glassware washing is great in principle, but if you rely on it and the person in charge of collecting glassware and running the washer is out, you can have a very long wait.”
Point-of-use washers provide a level of control that central stations do not.
Workers can, for example, set the machine to run overnight and then return to a fresh set of sparkling glassware the next day. And, at the very least, if that $500 condenser is reduced to sand because it banged around inside the washer, they’ll know who to blame.
Two other situations suggest the superiority of point-of-use washing. Laboratories handling diluted, highly sensitive samples, or whose analytic methods are extremely sensitive, might not tolerate residues left behind by cleaning products — whether they be detergents or chemical agents. Biological or forensic analysis that looks for needles in haystacks immediately comes to mind. It should be noted, however, that leading machine manufacturers claim that their washers leave behind as close to zero residue as possible.
Radioisotopes are rarely used for analysis these days, but if your lab employs them, you might consider keeping associated glassware away from any washers to avoid permanently contaminating the machine and cross-contaminating subsequent loads. At Brookhaven National Laboratory, where I worked in the 1980s, we cleaned glassware contaminated with isotopes in a dedicated nitric acid bath.
Hand washing might make economic sense for very “clean” workflows that include foods and beverages, but it too has drawbacks. As Ms. Sprung points out, acidic and alkaline baths must be properly neutralized or appropriately discarded as waste, while hand-washers tend to over-apply cleaning agents and almost always leave residues. Finally, glassware that is manually dried might require an extra autoclaving step for sterilization.
What to look for
“To determine the best option for your lab, you need to carefully analyze these factors, plus the ongoing cost of hand washing vs. the acquisition of a glassware washer that will last years after the initial purchase,” Ms. Sprung tells Lab Manager Magazine.
Mike Henley, general manager at LANCER (Winter Springs, FL), adds local, factory-trained service, and maintenance agreements to the list of desirables for a lab washer. He says that remote diagnostics are more frequently used today as a means of documenting outages and alarms, to prevent service calls in some cases, and to maintain the life of the machine and reduce downtime.
“The choice also depends on building design and [how much users need to] minimize the consumption of water and electric utilities,” says Mr. Henley. Washers take up space that could be occupied by more critical equipment, whereas glassware washing is a support activity that in some cases could be consolidated to save space as well as electricity and water.
“It depends on the application as well. Some glassware needs to be treated in a special manner. For example, when a caustic or acidic rinse is needed to remove detergent residues and neutralize the glass surface.” In many such cases, Mr. Henley notes that before purchasing a washer, customers will send LANCER a load of glassware for a test clean, just to be sure the beakers and flasks come back clean and residue-free. Miele, the German parent company of Miele USA (Princeton, NJ) is known in its native country principally as a manufacturer of home appliances. In competing within this marketplace, the company has instituted numerous “green” initiatives, both in the manufacture of its goods and in its operations. Miele regularly publishes a sustainability report on its operations and has won awards for its efforts.
The same philosophy applies to its laboratory glassware washers. “We live in a disposable world, but these days, with restricted budgets, people are taking a much harder look at products like washers,” says Thomas Hoerner of Miele Professional (Princeton, NJ). “The current sentiment is that if we’re going to spend the money, and if we really need it, we’d better make sure the equipment fits all our organization’s criteria.”
This sentiment holds for all business expenses, Mr. Hoerner explains, from major capital expenditures to cars, computers, and lab equipment. For washers, a typical wish list might include a long service life, recyclability, and operating sustainability in terms of water usage, water wastage, detergent use, and energy-efficient drying.
A washer’s water usage is a particularly critical factor in selecting a lab model. Many municipalities monitor sewage, or apply a charge for it based on water intake. For some industries, effluent must meet strict criteria for release into waterways or even waste treatment plants. A well-designed lab washer can potentially save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year in electricity and water, generating a full ROI in five years.
Mr. Hoerner uses a consumer analogy to make his point. “A top-loading washing machine uses 50 gallons of water and a cup of detergent vs. six gallons and two tablespoons of detergent for a front-loader. The same type of design considerations are occurring in the laboratory market.”
For aditional resources on lab washers, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit www.labmanager.com/washers.