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What Universities Get Wrong About Their Lab Autoclave

Photo of a busy building in the evening

University facility managers often contact us with an odd request: They need an affordable, efficient lab autoclave for a research facility—but they say that autoclave will need to run nearly constantly during the workday, all year round. While 24/7/365 operation is totally normal throughput for a medical-grade autoclave in a busy hospital, in our years working with research labs and universities, we’ve rarely had a university customer run more than a cycle or two each day.

What’s going on? Is there a sudden boom in extreme destruction testing at universities?

Labs are Awful at Estimating Autoclave Usage

In 2015 the Center for Energy Efficient Laboratories released the results of their survey of lab equipment usage at California research institutions. Most of the research labs surveyed reported using their autoclaves between one and three hours each day (i.e., running one to two cycles). Another thirty percent claimed they used their autoclave between four and seven hours each day (i.e., the autoclaves often ran for the full working day). That’s heavy use!

But that study found that these same research institutes had a tendency to inflate numbers when it came to autoclaves: For example, they overstated the number of physical autoclaves they had by around 30 percent. One research university reported that they had 224 autoclaves on campus, but an actual unit-by-unit check found only 167 units. $1.7 million worth of autoclaves had vanished!

Getting an Accurate Estimate of Lab Autoclave Usage

Two years ago the University of California, Riverside (UCR) began tracking their autoclave usage—on a day-by-day, cycle-by-cycle basis—using an automated monitoring system (and made some disconcerting discoveries about their resource consumption). When they started actually verifiably counting lab autoclave cycles—as opposed to asking for estimates from staff—they found that across their campus’ 37 autoclaves, no lab ever ran more than seven cycles per day, and few came anywhere close. On average, UCR’s autoclaves ran only a single cycle every two days. It wasn’t unusual for autoclaves in working labs to sit entirely idle for weeks.

A Quick Tip for Facility Managers

The fact of the matter is that the only autoclaves built to run all day, every day are medical-grade steam sterilizers. These are very expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate, and use enormous amounts of water and electricity. Meanwhile, an efficient, affordable research-grade autoclave will easily handle up to five cycles each day, and save you a bundle (both at the initial purchase and in lifetime utilities and maintenance costs).

If a lab says they’re running more than a cycle or two every day, take a few minutes to check their existing unit’s cycle counter (almost every modern autoclave has one). Confirm they actually need a 900-pound beast of an autoclave before you go and start pricing them out.

[Photo credit: Juhan Sonin, CC BY 2.0]