How to Ensure Proper Maintenance of Refrigerators and Freezers

Refrigerator and freezer maintenance is an ongoing issue

By Mike May, PhD

The equipment in nearly every lab includes an appliance to keep things cool. That almost always includes a refrigerator, probably one with a freezer section. Many labs also use dedicated freezers that can keep samples even colder. If there’s one key characteristic that unifies this disparate collection of cooling devices, it’s that they all need maintenance.

In fact, the need for more maintenance in lab refrigerators and freezers might be an epidemic. When asked which maintenance for lab refrigerators and freezers is neglected most often, Allison Paradise, CEO at My Green Lab (Los Gatos, CA), says, “All maintenance is neglected.” Although she says that with a smile, she means it.

Much of that maintenance depends on getting off to the right start. Paul Foote, energy efficiency/ conservation specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), says labs should “properly install the unit for good ventilation and cool operating temperature.” Then, all along the way, he recommends “managing the samples and keeping the unit clean inside and out.”

For the most part, maintaining a fridge or freezer is not difficult. It’s just a hassle and not always convenient. Plus, few labs make it a priority, but more should.

Caring for the coils

“Lab freezers should be regularly maintained by vacuuming the outer condenser coils,” Paradise explains. How do you know when it’s time to vacuum the condenser coils? It is probably now. A somewhat more scientific answer is that the coils should be free of dust and anything else that blocks the intended heat exchange.

So, why do so many coils look so filthy? “Very few labs vacuum the condenser coils, as most don’t know that this is something they are supposed to do,” Paradise says.

And when it comes to refrigeration, that coil cleaning is really all you need to do. As a University of California (UC) HVAC technician says, “For the refrigerator, not much is needed in terms of maintenance except making sure that the condenser coils are clean.” With dirty coils, a cooling unit just won’t work as designed. “When the coils are full of dust and grime, it costs energy and reduces [the] life of the unit,” says Brian Jacobson, assistant director of the food and bioprocessing pilot plant at UIUC. So, a little cleaning goes a long way in a lab’s cooling needs now and over time.

Don’t delay defrosting

Some scientists, says Paradise, believe a buildup of ice in a freezer is good, providing insulation. It’s not good. “Freezers run most efficiently in the absence of ice buildup,” she says.

The UC HVAC tech notes, “For a -20° C freezer, just make sure that there is no more than one-quarter inch of ice buildup.” For more than that, he recommends a 24-hour shutdown for defrosting and making sure that everything is dry before a restart.

A -80° C freezer takes more maintenance. In addition to defrosting, the filter media should be removed and washed every three months. When the UC HVAC tech looks at those freezers, he finds that “the filter is usually completely plugged, and there is so much ice buildup that it is difficult to close the door.” As he says, “There should only be frost on the inner door, and it needs to be scraped off every few days.”

Service the seals

In terms of a part going bad in a fridge or freezer, the most likely candidate is the door seal. Along the life of a fridge or freezer seal, any ice should be removed, but gently. In many labs, says Paradise, no one worries about a seal until it fails.

As Jennifer Pfister of the chemical imaging and structures laboratory at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at UIUC tells us, “We recently had the rubber gaskets replaced on one of our freezers.” She adds, “Frost accumulation caused the previous gaskets to warp; when closed, the freezer wasn’t getting a good seal.”

Lengthening the life

If reading this makes you think about taking better care of the fridges and freezers in your lab, there are several things you can do. “Set up a maintenance plan that incorporates maintenance and upkeep, sample management, and space management,” says Foote.

If you like that idea, but really know that there’s no time to add even one more task to a lab’s schedule, don’t despair. “If you aren’t able to commit to maintaining your freezers, put them on a service contract,” Paradise encourages. “This will ensure that they are properly maintained.”

For labs that want to take care of their own equipment, Foote suggests adding a little fun to freezer maintenance by joining the International Freezer Challenge (www.freezerchallenge.org). As he says, this can get labs and “their colleagues to join in a little competitive excitement!”

In the end

Eventually, a fridge or freezer’s life runs out. More often than people might think, units just get left behind. “So many times,” says Foote, “I see units that seem abandoned, and few [people]—if anyone—know what is inside or why [it is] still there.” In that case, he says, “Make sure to transfer or dispose of samples, and shut down or donate units no longer needed.”

The clutter of unnecessary samples is a big problem. As a lab manager at UIUC, Deborah Katz-Downie says that “key maintenance issues are that people process their unneeded items in the freezer in a timely fashion.” She suggests that “each lab member has their own freezer space so that someone can doublecheck that each lab member is tending their space appropriately.” In some situations, she points out, a logbook can help. It’s not just organization that’s an issue here. Lucienne Burrus, another lab manager at UIUC, says, “It can be hard to maintain temps if the freezer or refrigerator is overcrowded.” To help with that, she says, “I try to have a yearly ‘empty out the freezers and refrigerator lab event’ to help get rid of unnecessary items.”

With just a little effort, all cooling units could run more efficiently and last longer.

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Developing Women Leaders

Published: March 11, 2019

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