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Steam Autoclave Maintenance Best Practices with Instructional Support Technician Kelly McVey

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Constant low-level neglect puts a lot of unnecessary strain on your autoclave over time. Meanwhile, even a very low level of maintenance, when consistent, can increase up-times and massively reduce annoyance.

Kelly McVey is an Instructional Support Technician for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at California State University, Fullerton. There, she’s responsible for testing, minor to moderate repair, and maintenance of precision (and perhaps not-so-precision) equipment shared by hundreds of users.

“Every instrument is its own beast,” McVey notes. “They all have their own little quirks.”

But even more numerous than the quirks and peccadillos of the equipment itself is that of the users. Like any shared resource, there is a tragedy in these commons:

“It’s like the dishwasher or microwave in a shared break-room,” McVey points out. “You don’t think about making sure that it’s clean, you just use it.”

In her experience, it all boils down to a few simple rules. “If you have condensation in the bottom of your removable tray, dump it out. If you had a spill of agar or anything that gels, let it cool and then scrape it off into the biohazard trash bin. But people being what they are, they don’t always do that.”

We’ve been told that Priorclave’s comprehensive Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Bi-annual Maintenance Routine can seem a little daunting. McVey reassures users:

“I’ve found that these are really easy to work with. A Priorclave is easy to keep clean, as long as we keep up with it. Just like the break-room microwave, if you let it sit it can be a chore.”

McVey’s Basic Steam Autoclave Maintenance plan

McVey’s preferred steam autoclave cleaning regimen is a straightforward five-step monthly procedure. Set aside 30 minutes each month to do the following:

  1. drain the autoclave completely
  2. wipe it down
  3. let it dry enough to check that it isn’t scaled
  4. handle scale (if present) using the descaling agent approved by your service techs or facilities manager—No harsh detergents, bleach, abrasive cleansers, steel wool, or abrasive scouring pads!  
  5. refill the autoclave

Of course, that 30-minute cleaning will be a much shorter 30 minutes if every autoclave user cleans up any spill immediately. The Fullerton approach is a good model here as well:

  1. Wait until the autoclave and load have cooled to room temperature
  2. Clean the tray
    • For non-agar spills contained in a metal tray: Take the tray to the nearest utility sink and clean it using normal household dishwashing liquid (e.g., Dawn) and a non-abrasive scrubby (e.g., a blue Scotch-Brite non-scratch scouring pad). No harsh detergents, bleach, abrasive cleansers, steel wool, or abrasive scouring pads!  
    • For agar spills: Allow the spill to solidify and scrape it into an appropriate trash bin (in most labs this should be disposed of as biological waste). Then clean the tray as with non-agar spills
  3. Give the tray a final rinse the with deionized or softened water (to avoid scale build up)
  4. Spill escape the tray? Flag the unit as out-of-order (Fullerton has handy “Autoclave Out of Order” signs for this purpose), press the Emergency Stop button to lock the autoclave out of operation, and report the problem to your lab technicians.