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Product Focus: Biological Safety Cabinets

Safety and energy efficiency matter the most

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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Biological safety cabinets show up in more places than ever. In addition, this equipment comes with an increasing number of improvements and options. The question is, if you buy a new biological safety cabinet (BSC), what benefits will you gain?

BSCs vary depending on where you buy them. “A company in, say, Europe that wants to sell a cabinet in the United States might need to make a completely different cabinet to meet the US standards,” says Dave Phillips, technical applications specialist at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA). “We make our cabinets in three locations around the world to meet the US, Chinese, and European standards.” In the next decade or so, Phillips expects the different standards groups to get together on one set of rules. To economize on cabinets, hopefully these standards groups will harmonize the standards better than pharmaceutical regulators have.

Beyond global differences in BSCs, they are being used in new ways. “There’s a trend toward biological safety cabinets being adapted for use in other disciplines, [such as] animal husbandry and vivariums,” says Brian Raymond, sales and marketing manager at Microzone (Ottawa, Canada). Manufacturers might not recertify BSCs when modified for a new application and therefore might not meet the NSF international standards in these particular cases.

Time for the junkyard?

If you expect your BSC to last forever, you’re not alone. As Phillips says, “I started in 1981 with cabinets, and we thought they’d last forever.” He adds, “The NSF standard now says the life of a cabinet is fifteen years, and most customers probably think it’s fifteen to twenty years.”

The first indication that a BSC should be replaced comes during an annual certification. “If a customer maintained a cabinet and had it certified once a year as we recommend, that’s the best way to keep track of how it’s performing,” Raymond says. “As age increases, parts become less available.” Nonetheless, Microzone still supports its first generation of BSCs, which were produced in the early 1990s. “But it’s getting more difficult to source the parts that are starting to fail,” Raymond says.

Still, more than one lab has a twenty-year-old BSC that works great. “The ‘cost’ of an old cabinet is losing out on advancements,” says Phillips. “A cabinet coming off the line today consumes onequarter of the electricity of an older cabinet. Plus, the filters last at least ten percent longer, and there’s probably a higher level of protection because the cabinet was tested more rigorously.” He laughs as he adds, “It’s like an old Volkswagen; it works fine, but there are no airbags.”

Jennifer Branum, an associate biosafety officer at the University of Virginia, says, “If a BSC is past the lifetime support of a company and no additional parts can be ordered, then the user should begin looking into replacing the BSC.” She adds, “The features that matter most for me when shopping for a new BSC are energy efficiency of the motor, quietness of the motor, and ergonomics of the BSC as well as the company’s quality.”

Jean Fallacara, president and CEO of Z-SC1 Biomedical (Westmount, Canada), notes that many customers would agree with Branum. “Customers don’t want fancy stuff, but they want something very efficient in terms of energy,” Fallacara says.

Raising your return

Some of the benefits of an updated BSC remain to be seen. Filters make a prime example. “We used to think that filters lasted five to seven years,” says Phillips, “but the data says that is way too conservative.” He points out that data from a large facility—with more than 1,000 BSCs—showed that only 3 percent of them needed a filter change at the annual certification. Those BSCs might get worked harder than most, so they might need filter changes more than the majority of cabinets do. So maybe the filters can go a decade. “We need a better handle on that data,” Phillips says. Some BSCs now include indicators that keep track of the filter’s condition. As the filter gets more loaded, some BSCs increase the blower speed to maintain the necessary airflow.

The motors on modern BSCs also add to the return on an investment. Motors on older BSCs might have lasted 15,000 to 30,000 hours. “Today’s most common DC [direct current] motor lasts 50,000 hours, and ours last over 100,000,” Phillips says. “So motors are lasting much longer than they used to.”

To get even more efficiency, some BSCs can run at lower blower speeds. “Instead of a motor turning at X rpms,” Fallacara says, “if it can run 70 percent lower and maintain efficiency and safety, that’s the perfect world.” So more efficient motors and more advanced controls reduce BSC energy use.

In some cases, the return on updating a BSC comes from unexpected places, such as improved ergonomics. For example, Raymond says, “We offer forearm supports mounted on the outside of the containment zone, thereby preventing contact with potentially contaminated surfaces within the work volume.” He adds, “Modern hoods offer more flexibility in regard to work surface height adjustment.”

Fallacara adds, “We even provide a remote control to open and close the window so that the user doesn’t have to make too many movements.”

So if your BSC is reaching the end of its life, the replacement can bring a range of benefits to your lab and lab workers. A new BSC will be easier and safer to work in, all while using less energy.

For additional resources on Biological Safety Cabinets, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit