Installing New Lab Instruments

Tips to ensure a smooth setup process

Gail Dutton

Adding equipment or setting up a brand new lab is exciting and, perhaps, daunting.  Here are tips to help you set up four common lab devices found in life science labs.

First and foremost, whatever the instrument, read the entire owner’s manual. It provides detailed information specific to your instrument’s brand and model, so it’s worth reading thoroughly. Interesting snippets of information are often tucked away in the seemingly routine safety notes and warnings. Remember to keep the instrument's packaging in case the instruments need to be moved later.

Be sure to be onsite in case the manufacturer’s installers have questions, and to be trained—along with lab personnel—on the operation of your new equipment. IT personnel may also be needed to provide occasional cables, to ensure that devices can connect to the network, and that the network is operating properly.

A stereo microscope

Sometimes described as the workhorse of the life science lab, a stereo microscope is used for observing and documenting samples. It has a wide range of accessories and options, including light- or dark-field bases, illuminators, multiple objectives, graticules for counting and measuring length, and photo and video capabilities.

Depending on the purchase agreement, either you or the manufacturer’s representative may assemble the microscope. Then it’s time to set it up. Here, we’ll focus only on the basic, visual elements of the instrument.

  • First, set the interpupillary distance. Look into the eyepieces. Holding them with both hands, push them together or separate them until you see a circular image. Bring your eyes toward the eyepieces until you can see the complete image field. Then you can begin to adjust the focus, accounting for whether you wear glasses.
  • Adjust the eyecups. Rotate the eyecups counterclockwise, pulling the eyepiece toward you if you don’t wear glasses, or pushing it away from you if you do. This adjusts the viewing distance. 
  • Adjust each eyepiece for each eye. Set the integrated dioptric correction (where available) to “0.” Close one eye. With the other, look through the eyepiece and adjust the diopter setting until the image is sharp. Then repeat the process for your other eye and eyepiece. Expect to do this each time you change magnification unless your microscope is parfocally matched.
  • Fine-tune the focus drive, if needed. Adjust the resistance on the coarse and fine controls of the focus drive by turning the outer drive knobs until reaching your optimal resistance.
  • Adjust zoom levels from continuous to ratchet, if desired. The ratcheting feature may be disabled to allow a smooth zoom, or enabled to allow measurements and photos to be reproduced more accurately, typically by pushing a button at the top or bottom of the zoom knob.
  • Add and adjust accessories according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

A CO2 water jacket incubator

This is used to prepare and cultivate cell and tissue cultures, and allows precise control of physiological ambient conditions.

  • Install the incubator on a firm, level surface away from doors, windows, and heating or air conditioning vents, with ample space for electrical plugs and gas hookups (nitrogen and/or mixed process gas)—about three inches.
  • Check the default settings. The CO2 content may be set to zero percent and the O2 control and monitoring system may be disabled or set to the usual oxygen centration in the air (21 percent).
  • Determine the length of the heat-up cycle.
  • Set the temperature, CO2 value, and O2 value, and know how to save any changes.
  • Fill the water-cooling area with distilled, sterile water, as specified in your user manual.
  • Read the auto-start routine, if available, to learn how that affects temperature, CO2 and O2 parameters. Running auto-start may take five to 10 hours, depending on conditions and machines. Be sure water is in the instrument, samples are removed, applicable gas valves are opened, and that the workspace only consists of ambient air.
  • Adjust other settings. Depending on the model, you should be able to adjust other settings, such as the keypad lock code, data and time, contrast, key tones, interface, language, and reminder intervals, and even the communications speed (baud rate) with the USB interface.
  • Calibrate readings for the air temperature, CO2, O2, and relative humidity once the machine is stabilized—typically after 12 hours. Before calibration, ensure your reference instruments are accurate.
  • Configure the incubator for any custom settings specific to your lab.

Polymerase chain reactor (PCR)

A PCR machine makes millions of copies of a DNA target or gene using a DNA template, a polymerase enzyme, primers, nucleotides, and buffer. Variances in any of those elements can skew outcomes. Design them for each individual experiment. For initial setup, however:

  • Review the manufacturer’s site preparation guidance and safety information. Situate the device far removed from strong electromagnetic radiation, vibrations (such as those caused by centrifuges, pumps, or compressors), ventilation, or direct sunlight.
  • Install an uninterruptible power supply with a surge protector.
  • Have IT open the necessary ports (listed in the user manual) to enable the laptop to discover and communicate with the PRC machine.
  • Unpack the PCR, never tipping it on end. This could damage the hardware and electronics.
  • Immediately unpack and store reagents that accompany the instrument.
  • Run a series of example experiments detailed in the “Getting Started” manual, such as standard curve, comparative CT, multiplex, and genotyping. Typically, step-by-step instructions are provided.

Centrifuge

A centrifuge separates liquids containing components that have different densities, such as blood or urine. After unpacking the instrument, wait at least four hours so it can reach room temperature. This time allows any condensation that may have formed to evaporate. When installing:

  • Leave 30 cm clearance around the instrument to ensure airflow
  • Position it away from heating sources or direct sunlight.
  • Ensure the voltage and frequency of the main power supply match the requirements of the centrifuge
  • Plug in the centrifuge and switch it on. The standby light should activate.
  • Go to the main menu. Select settings, language, and choose the language. Some units want confirmation after each step. Press the back arrow to return to the main menu.
  • Set the date and time, following the same steps. Notice whether the device automatically adjusts for daylight savings time.
  • Insert the rotor. On swing-bucket rotors, first remove the buckets. (Watch your fingers.) Use both hands to lift the rotor cross. If your model comes with a special rotor insertion or removal tool, use it.
  • Place the rotor on the motor shaft and use the rotor key that accompanies the instrument to tighten the rotor nut (clockwise)
  • Wait a few moments for the instrument to detect the rotor and to set the maximum speed, if your model has an automatic rotor detection feature. If this rotor exceeds the speed of a previous rotor on that device, expect a note to appear specifying the new maximum speed. You can either adjust the speed or restart the centrifuge.
  • To manually initiate rotor detection, turn the rotor counterclockwise, by hand.
  • Check the g-force (rcf) and speed (rpm) of the rotor.
  • Follow the normal guidelines for use, taking care to balance the load within the centrifuge to avoid damaging the instrument.

This step-by-step guidance offers the basic installation processes for common life science lab instruments. Technicians are often available to address any questions or troubleshoot issues.