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Putting Steam-Jacketed Autoclaves to the Test at University of Alabama at Birmingham

autoclave testing lab

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, there are hundreds of autoclaves on campus. Until a few years ago, all but two were steam jacketed. Nick Ciancio, UofA-B’s sustainability coordinator and founder of their Green Labs program says: 

“I don’t have to tell you just how resource intensive steam jacketed autoclaves are. Some autoclaves can use as much electricity as 50 homes in a year. When UC-Riverside did their metering project, they found that some jacketed autoclaves use upwards of 3000 gallons of water in a day. Tremendously resource intensive.”

Imagining New Ways of Sterilizing in Research Labs

Steam-jacketed autoclaves are so resource intensive that, even in the face of institutional inertia and preferences for shared autoclaves to be available 24/7/365, the likelihood that their autoclaves were unnecessarily wasteful had been on UofA’s radar for some time. But when COVID caused the University to shift to staggered hours for social distancing, Nick realized they had an opportunity to imagine a new way to handle lab sterilization.

With hours staggered for social distancing, there were regular shifts—no more autoclaving on a whim. Surveys informed UofA’s decisions about scheduling access to resources and revealed that, by cycling through active floors, they could shut down almost half the autoclaves in a given building at any given time without reducing access, functionality, or use.

Nick and the facilities team braced for complications these changes would bring. But none came. There were so few complaints (none!) that the building manager thought the partial shutdown hadn’t even happened yet. “After that,” Nick says, “we thought, okay, we haven’t gotten any complaints and this is half of the autoclaves. What if we did all the autoclaves in this building?”

When that went smoothly, Nick went a step further: “We’re saving steam, …resources. What if we don’t even need steam jackets?”

They’d assumed they needed the high throughput a steam jacketed autoclave offered. Surveys and log books surprised them again: the average campus autoclave only ran three to four cycles per day.

Mission Accepted   

When Nick took his findings to the main purchaser of autoclaves on campus with the idea of increasing the number of non-steam jacketed autoclaves on campus, they were skeptical. Could switching from jacketed to non-jacketed autoclaves actually garner real savings beyond what they get from water misers and other water-saving features on their existing steam jacketed sterilizers? Before they made a change, they wanted to quantify how much water and energy they could actually save if they switched. 

This autumn Nick and his team set out to quantify the savings. They designed a study, closing a bank of steam-jacketed and non-jacketed autoclaves and taking those units offline for everything but their own study. UofA’s Environmental Health and Safety team would use these to run a set of the most common cycles used in UofA labs (as established from survey data). Nick’s team would meter every cycle and load type for each style and size of autoclave.

Priorclave is pleased to see more universities collecting hard data and using those to drive their lab decisions. We look forward to sharing UofA’s findings later this year.