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Maintenance Matters: CO2 Incubators

CO2 incubators are the heart of cell-based work in many labs. When they stop, work in the lab stops. Yet, these units are often ignored—until disaster strikes.

Rachel Muenz

Rachel Muenz, managing editor for G2 Intelligence, can be reached at

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Disinfection and cleaning are the keys to happy cells

“As long as the incubator’s running smoothly, it’s kind of the end of the sentence—you put your cells in there and that’s that,” says Mary Kay Bates of Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA). “Suddenly, when the incubator has a problem, everything stops because everything depends on the cells growing and if the cells aren’t growing, then you can’t do much else until you get that fixed. That’s where routine maintenance of the incubator is really so important.”

Not doing regular maintenance can also turn a high-quality incubator into a bargain one, according to Uwe Ross, president of BINDER Inc. (Bohemia, NY).

“People do all kinds of research before buying a CO2 incubator, but they could have bought the cheapest piece of garbage because that’s what they have now,” Ross says of what can happen when users don’t look after their incubators.

Linda CO2 Video

Luckily, a few key maintenance tasks can keep CO2 incubators running smoothly. Ross says two main ones are calibrating the unit at least once each year and making sure the door is closed. Half of incubator problems are caused by the door not closing correctly. To those, Bates adds users should make sure they change the water completely at least once a week and that they clean and disinfect the unit regularly, as both of these steps will help prevent contamination. Researchers should also take extra time to take a close look at their cells since any signs that cells aren’t healthy could be signals that something is wrong with the incubator, she adds.

Bates says that one common mistake users make is to use highly pure water rather than sterile, distilled water.

Water types such as deonized or highly pure Type I “have few ions so they will actually pull ions from the materials in the incubator like the stainless steel and, over time, that will cause corrosion,” she explains.

Using bleach to clean and disinfect incubators is another mistake.

“Bleach can also corrode incubator components but, more than that, the fumes can make the cells sick, so we recommend only a quaternary ammonium disinfectant,” Bates explains. To those issues, Ross adds that many users forget to change the HEPA filters on incubators that use them.

“People forget the next step,” he says. “It’s not as if particulates go through the filters and are gone—they’re still there.” Ross says that filters should be changed every six months or so and adds that a good way to avoid cross-contamination is to change the filters and clean the incubator between experiments.

Incubator placement is also important. Ross says users should avoid placing the incubator in a sunny window or near an A/C vent and make sure the surface the incubator rests on is kept clean to avoid contamination issues.

Users need to perform regular maintenance themselves to keep their incubators operating properly, but, depending on the applications, a service plan can help.

Ross says that often users are concerned with the added costs associated with getting a service plan, but bigger problems and costs are incurred if, for example, the unit’s sensors aren’t working properly.

“How much is it worth for what you’re doing?” Ross asks users, adding that most people see maintenance as something to be done after the incubator breaks. However, if the unit isn’t calibrated or serviced regularly, the incubator isn’t providing ideal conditions and any experiment results will be inaccurate. “It’s not about a breakdown; it’s about how reliable your research is.”

Be sure to check back with our Maintenance Matters column next month, as we share tips on how to best look after your pipettes.

Other Considerations

  • A handheld infrared (IR) CO2 tester is usually a good thing to have for incubator maintenance, though these testers must be calibrated once a year and some of the newer incubators have IR CO2 sensors that are more accurate than handheld IR sensors
  • User’s manuals, sales teams, application notes, and the manufacturer are all good resources to consult about incubator maintenance
  • Things to look for in your cells: Do the membranes look nice and tight? Are they peeling up at all? Are there vacuoles in the cytoplasm? Do you see crystals around the nuclear membrane? All of those are signs that something’s not right with the growth conditions and you may want to check the incubator