Maintenance Matters! The importance of keeping your equipment in tip-top shape

The power of prevention is of particular importance when it comes to the maintenance of laboratory equipment. Lab materials and analytes can vary greatly, meaning that your precious laboratory equipment may encounter all types of sticky, toxic, hot, cold, acidic, and potentially hazardous matter. Without proper maintenance, it is likely that your equipment and results will suffer. In this blog post, I shall offer some tips and advice to ensure your lab equipment remains in tip-top shape for years to come, saving you money and helping the environment at the same time. What’s not to like? Ready to extend the life of your gear? If so, then read on.

In my last blog post , I talked about the importance of keeping things running as long as possible and the problems of a pervasive throw-away culture. Technological advancements, such as the developments in battery performance that I spoke about will help products last longer. However, in this blog, I would like to discuss preventative maintenance to ensure your equipment lasts as long as possible. There have been many discussions recently regarding this topic due to environmental concerns and the need to cut costs. Many countries have now passed ‘right to repair’ laws in a bid to give consumers and independent repair shops the ability to maintain equipment without facing unnecessary restrictions from manufacturers. Such laws empower consumers to make decisions regarding the longevity of their possessions rather than being forced to rely on expensive and often limited authorized service providers. ‘Right to repair’ laws have the potential to reduce waste dramatically and save people money; they may even lead to technological innovation as companies are encouraged to make products that are easier to repair, ultimately leading to more sustainable and durable products. It should be mentioned that some things should obviously not be attempted due to the potential danger or risk involved, but with due diligence and a bit of research, you should be able to find out what is possible to do yourself.

One of the first things I think about when it comes to maintenance is cleaning, which is why I have previously mentioned its importance in my blog posts. Check out these links, where I offer cleaning tips and advice for vacuum pumps , heating baths , and glassware . All these tips are essential for ensuring the longevity and performance of your gear. Regarding laboratory equipment performance, reproducibility is often needed, which requires the equipment to perform consistently. When parts begin to wear, consistency will be affected, and performance will drop. Lab equipment contains several perishable parts that need replacing, no matter how clean you keep your gear. Like tires on a car or batteries in your devices, there will come a time when certain items must be replaced.

Sometimes it is hard to gauge when certain items should be replaced. Following the manufacturer’s recommendations is a good idea, but there are other signs that parts may need replacing. In my blog about performing leak tests on a rotavapor, I talk about how worn parts can cause leaks. Any perishable material, such as rubber, will need replacement at some point. On a vacuum pump , worn seals and O-rings will cause vacuum levels to falter, and overall performance will degrade. If perishable parts are not replaced, an instrument’s lifetime will be shortened. Once you have determined whether parts need replacing, it is a good idea to see if a DIY kit is available to give you the correct parts and tools required for the job. If a DIY kit exists, you can also rest assured that the job is safe to perform yourself.

To offer a practical example, I will explain how to replace the perishable parts of a rotavapor vacuum pump – a procedure I have performed numerous times during my professional career as a chemist. It is essential to have a tight seal on a vacuum pump to ensure its integrity. Membranes, check valves, O-rings, seals, and tubing will all need replacing in time. Before starting the job, check that you have all the necessary tools and parts to complete the replacement, and make sure you have read the instructions unless you are well-versed in the procedure. It is a good idea to check YouTube for a tutorial video. I have fixed numerous things based on videos I have found on YouTube that I wouldn’t have attempted otherwise. Fixing many things is just a matter of having the right tools, knowledge, and a bit of patience.

You will need access to the pump’s inner workings to replace the membranes, check valves, O-rings, and seals on a vacuum pump. This will involve removing the torx (or similar) screws holding the panel in place. Be sure to use the correct torx wrench for the screws, as using the wrong size will likely damage or strip the screws – having a DIY kit helps here, as the correct sizes will be included. The membrane will likely be behind a cover that will also have its own screws. Accessing this cover may involve removing some of the tubes from the pump . It is a good point to mention that it is worth keeping track of any parts you remove and the order in which you remove them, as this will help when it comes to reassembly. When performing maintenance tasks for the first time, I often record the procedure or take pictures of each step. Taking a picture of parts before and after removing them can help get the orientation of parts correct when reassembling. Once you have gained access to the membrane, a special tool is required to loosen the membrane, which can then be unscrewed and replaced – the same tool is used to tighten the new membrane in place. You can now easily access the check valve, O-rings, and seals in the connecting pieces and replace them if needed. Pay special attention when installing the check valves to get the correct orientation. Once the check valves, O-rings, and seals have been replaced – it is simply a matter of following the steps backward to put everything back together.

A tip for when you are removing lots of screws in order – you may find many different-sized screws used for different components, and you’ll need to ensure the right ones are used during reassembly. Again, I find that it helps to take pictures – or number the screws and label the part they are associated with. It helps to have some little pots to hold the screws as they are easy to misplace – or you can even get yourself a magnetic screw pad – these are often marked with a grid so that you can separate all the different screws and even order them.

Some people are nervous about replacing or fixing things themselves, but I say go for it. Often older items will have run out of warranty, and sometimes ‘right to repair’ laws may be applicable. A number of repair cafés have also opened recently where hobbyists or retired people (like me) with numerous skills will repair things for free or for a small fee – far cheaper and environmentally conscious than buying new. I hope this brief tutorial and advice will help you breathe new life into old equipment or keep your new equipment lasting long into the future.

Till next time,

The Signature of Bart Denoulet at Bart's Blog