For many years the laboratory autoclave has been an essential item in any laboratory where microbiology work is carried out. However, spiralling amounts of justifiable but suffocating regulations over the last 25-30 years have changed the way they are specified, installed and used.
All of this makes buying, specifying, installing and running a laboratory autoclave more difficult than it used to be. Gone are the days when you could look through a catalogue to pick one out and once it was delivered, plug it in with a bucket behind to catch the drips, or a pipe running into the nearest drain or through the wall, set it to 15 minutes at 121oC and empty it out again once there was no pressure inside.
The addition of safety systems such as thermal or cooling locks, and the increased requirement to ensure that the load is sterilised so as to meet various laboratory quality standards has extended cycle times dramatically.
This has led to the development of accessories and systems becoming available on laboratory autoclaves to assist in optimising their performance for particular load types. Vacuum air removal, venting systems and accelerated cooling options are now more commonplace than before, and as in all walks of life, microprocessor control is everywhere. The vacuum and free-steaming systems fitted to many laboratory autoclaves to improve performance, along with increasing concern about what is carried over in the exhaust steam from autoclaves, have also led to the formulation of standards and regulations, requiring most of them to be connected to sealed and vented drains.
Microprocessor control systems can be a nightmare to the technophobes amongst us, so it is important to consider who is likely to be using the equipment and how often the settings may need to be changed. Some systems are as easy to set up as the timer and temperature gauges on "older" autoclaves, whereas others require a manual and passwords to make even a small adjustment to the set time or temperature. Both are equally valid but they must be applied in the right environment.
For instance a level of security in setting the autoclave that is essential in a hospital or pharmaceutical production facility with fixed and validated cycles and with non-technical operators, would be extremely frustrating to experienced laboratory scientists wishing to run a variety of sterilising cycles.
It is also worthwhile taking into consideration the lifetime costs of the equipment when deciding what to buy. These would include factors such as electricity or steam used, the cost of water for cooling systems and vacuum pumps, if applicable, and also the cost of servicing and maintaining the autoclave.
Generally speaking the more complex the equipment is the more maintenance and parts that will be required. As a general rule of thumb, the more moving parts the more things there are to go wrong, especially over the lifetime of the autoclave. In many cases it might pay to "keep it simple" as much as possible.
As always when specifying or purchasing an expensive and complicated piece of equipment it is essential to be able to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers. It is important to think about what you are going to put into the autoclave to make sure that the autoclave that you buy has the right specification to process it effectively and efficiently, especially if you are going to have to prove this to a certifying body later on.
The questions and comparisons in this downloadable document may help you in making your decision. They are not intended to give a full explanation of all the issues and technicalities but they should help you in narrowing down your choices a little. With this information you should at least be armed with some informed questions to ask of prospective suppliers and manufacturers.
Click here to download: An Informal Guide to Laboratory Autoclave Purchasing, with some Advice and Suggestions from Priorclave Ltd.