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The Benefits and Drawbacks of Used ULT Freezers

The decision to buy a used ULT freezer should be weighed against your budget, the value of your samples, and urgency

Holden Galusha

Deciding between a new piece of lab equipment versus a used unit can be challenging. This is especially true for storage equipment like ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers, which store large amounts of valuable samples and run 24/7. While the decision ultimately hinges on your needs, budget, and the value of your samples, here are some benefits and drawbacks to consider before buying a used ULT freezer:

Benefits

Save money

Saving money is one of the most common reasons why people buy pre-owned equipment. Freezers are especially well-suited for buying pre-owned because they are simple devices compared to other types of lab equipment where software or analysis capabilities may become obsolete, for example. As long as it gets sufficiently cold and holds at that temperature, the freezer will meet your needs.

On the used equipment market, it’s common for freezers to be less than half the original retail cost of the unit. If a used freezer is backed by a warranty and has been tested to reach its minimum specified temperature (or at least a temperature sufficient for the buyer’s application), you can often be as confident buying that unit as you would a brand-new one.

Additionally, by going the pre-owned route you can save money with another tactic: negotiation.

Room for negotiation

Most used equipment vendors are open to negotiating price and other terms of a sale. The value of a used model is subjective; typically there are multiple vendors selling identical units and vying to undercut each other’s prices. Additionally, many sellers are more interested in flipping a product quickly than hanging onto an item indefinitely waiting for a buyer to purchase the item at full listing price. Inventory turnover is key to the success of these businesses.

Use this information to your advantage. Do not hesitate to submit a counteroffer to the seller of a ULT freezer you’d like to purchase simply by sending them an email or giving them a phone call. In fact, some popular marketplaces for lab equipment have counteroffer functionality built in. Negotiation is expected in the used equipment market.

You don’t have to negotiate only in terms of price. For instance, you could offer to pay list price in exchange for other bonuses, like additional storage racks or an extended warranty.

Circumvent long lead times

In December 2020, demand for ULT freezers skyrocketed when the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. Manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand and lead times for ULT freezers lengthened to six weeks or more.

Some of the most valuable information you may be able to obtain from the reseller is the freezer's maintenance log.

Used lab equipment vendors stepped in, offering tested and warranty backed ULT freezers available immediately. Buyers flocked to these resellers and were able to acquire ULT freezers in a matter of days, not weeks.

While the rush for COVID-19 vaccinations is mostly over and demand for ULT freezers has receded, there will inevitably be future events that will cause demand to spike again. In these cases, going the pre-owned route can be a great way to skip the line.

Keep freezers out of landfills

In one sense, buying a used ULT freezer is environmentally friendly. You are preventing it from being thrown in a landfill, where its refrigerants may leach into the earth and non-biodegradable parts like insulation and plastic are left to rot. If sustainability is a priority, buying pre-owned freezers is a cost-effective way to be more environmentally friendly.

However, there is also an environmental drawback to buying a used ULT freezer: poor power efficiency.

Drawbacks

Power inefficiency

Consuming 10 to 20 times the energy of a household freezer, the average ULT freezer consumes huge amounts of electricity. Most ULT freezers use a dual-stage cascade refrigeration system, which is essentially two whole refrigeration loops joined by a heat exchanger. Such a schema is very power-intensive. While many advancements have been made—such as the introduction of Stirling engine-powered ULT freezers that use less than half the energy of a dual-stage cascade freezer—these innovations have yet to trickle down to the used equipment market in a significant capacity. The majority of used ULT freezers for sale are still employing legacy cascade systems. Because these freezers are so inefficient, they are not cheap to run. If you want to save on energy costs, you may want to consider buying a new ULT freezer.

Not as sophisticated as newer models

ULT freezers have advanced in more aspects than just power efficiency. Current-generation units often have touchscreen controls with advanced performance, monitoring, and data visualization options. Some can connect to Wi-Fi networks and interface with a LIMS for streamlined data backup. Meanwhile, many pre-owned ULT freezers available for sale have only rudimentary alarms and paper temperature chart recorders. While these simpler models are sufficient for many labs, you may want to opt for a new model if you will be storing rare, high-value, or critical samples. In such cases, you’ll want as much data on the samples and their environment as possible.

Potential unknown variables with used freezers

The listings for used ULT freezers are often lacking detail. Unless it’s a larger, established vendor, descriptions may not contain much more than “working and tested to cool,” or something equally vague. In other cases, the testing information will be complete, but it won’t be clear if essential accessories like shelves or racks are included. If there’s any ambiguity in a listing, contact the seller and ask them for clarification. If the seller cannot provide proof that the freezer reaches manufacturer specifications, such as a photo of the screen or chart recorder, avoid them.

Some of the most valuable information you may be able to obtain from the reseller is the freezer’s maintenance log. If you review the log and see that repairs became more frequent as time wore on, it is a good sign that the freezer doesn’t have much life left.

Purchasing a pre-owned ULT freezer can be a great way to stretch your budget. However, you need to weigh the decision against the types of samples you have, how critical or rare the samples are, and the sophistication of data logging/visualization that you feel comfortable with.