Buying used or refurbished lab equipment is a great way to save money on advanced laboratory instrumentation. Savings of 40% to 60% are common compared to purchasing the same equipment new. Some people may be tentative about buying pre-owned equipment, afraid that they will get a lemon. So, we want to address some of the most common misunderstandings. Let’s take a look.
Myth #1: Refurbished Lab Equipment and Used Lab Equipment Is All the Same Old Stuff
Many people use the terms “used” and “refurbished” interchangeably. “Used”, “pre-owned”, “as-is”, and “secondhand” mean someone else owned the equipment before you. It says nothing about the condition of the equipment. “Refurbished” or “reconditioned” lab equipment is also “used” lab equipment. But, it’s used lab equipment that is serviced and tested to meet the manufacturer’s standards. The seller may also offer a warranty or service contract for the equipment.
Understanding the difference between “used” and “refurbished” scientific instruments is important. There are many sellers that sell used equipment. But, there are fewer that invest in the expertise to test, diagnose, and repair sophisticated scientific instrumentation. You may pay a little more for a refurbished lab instrument, but your risk will be much lower.
This doesn’t mean that refurbished equipment is good and used equipment is bad. Be aware of what you’re buying and make sure that you understand the risks. Even refurbished equipment resellers sell some equipment as “used” or “as-is.” Depending on the type of equipment, selling it as used might be very appropriate. Good examples are small equipment like vortexers and water baths. For these types of items, you’ll want to use a reseller that has a good return policy.
Myth #2: Refurbished Lab Equipment Is Not as Good as New Lab Equipment
Lab instrument manufacturers have been making great, reliable equipment for decades. Most equipment has a very long service life, even at high duty cycles. For most applications, even previous instrument versions will meet the lab’s needs, perform well, and last for years. New equipment may offer some advantages, though. Your application might need a particular feature that only the new technology offers. Or, if you’re pushing into new areas of research, then only the newest generation may have the detection limits or capacity that you need. A manufacturer’s new system might only differ minimally from the previous generation.
Myth #3: Service and Support Are Not Available for Refurbished Lab Equipment
This is an important consideration when buying refurbished equipment. You should plan on maintaining your valuable equipment to keep it performing well. Today, labs have many options for servicing their lab equipment. You should consider both regular maintenance and emergency repairs. If you’re working with a reputable, full-service reseller they might offer service for the instruments they sell. Another option is a third-party service company. These are larger firms that compete with equipment manufacturers for service business. They support many types of equipment from different manufacturers and have established themselves as great alternatives. There are also smaller “boutique” service providers and individuals who have struck out on their own.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that manufacturers will not support refurbished instruments. While in some rare cases this is true, manufacturers do understand that once you have one of their instruments, you’re their customer too. They know that if you’re a happy user of their platform, the likelihood of you buying from them in the future is high. For this reason, you can generally get service and support from manufacturers. However, you should do your due diligence in this area. If you’d like support from the manufacturer, it’s best to contact them and make arrangements ahead of time. This will avoid nasty surprises after purchasing the equipment. Keep in mind that there may be some added expenses from the manufacturer. You may need to pay recertification, reinstallation, and/or software license fees.
Myth #4: You Never Know What You’re Getting with Refurbished Lab Equipment. People Only Sell Their Defective Junk Equipment
Dealing with broken lab equipment doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’re not that interested in investing a lot of expensive time and parts to resurrect a junker. Reputable refurbished equipment sellers want to buy and sell the best quality equipment. We love it when instruments, even when heavily used, were well maintained and under service contracts. This is reflected in the value we assign and the amount that we pay you. There are many reasons why a lab chooses to sell equipment, and “broken” makes up a very small part. Here are a few:
The instrument has reached the end of its “financial life” and finance wants it off the books
The objectives of the department or project have changed. That type of lab equipment is no longer needed
A newer version of the lab instrument was purchased and the old one is no longer used
The lab equipment was the “pet project” of an employee that moved on. Remaining colleagues don’t have the interest or expertise to continue its use
The company outsourced the service provided by that instrument
The company restructured the lab due to acquisition or downsizing
The lab moved
The company liquidated the lab’s assets
Myth #5: Refurbished Equipment Is Only for Startups and Academic Labs
Small companies and grant-funded labs may seem like they are perpetually budget constrained. Of course, saving with refurbished lab equipment is a great way to make room in your budget. Being part of a large company doesn’t mean a lab has an unlimited budget. Like the saying, “all politics are local politics”, it also feels like “all budgets are department budgets.” If you have finite funds to accomplish your lab’s goals, then selectively buying refurbished lab equipment can help stretch that budget further and allow you to do more.
If you’re purchasing several new pieces, look at your needs on an instrument by instrument basis. Buying one or more refurbished instruments might allow you to spend more in another area. Or, you may save enough to buy an important instrument sooner, rather than waiting for the next budget cycle.
Myth #6: Refurbished Equipment Sellers Can’t Help Me If I’m Buying New Equipment
There are a couple of ways that refurbished lab equipment sellers can help when you are buying something new. Are you trading up and buying the next generation of an instrument you already have in the lab? If you aren’t going to keep the old instrument, then a refurbished equipment seller may be able to give you a better “trade-in” deal than the manufacturer. Equipment manufacturers don’t like trade-ins. Sometimes they are necessary but tend to offer low or token discounts. Selling the old instrument to a seller may return more to you than the manufacturer’s trade-in discount. This is especially true when the new lab instrument is from a different company. Manufacturers don’t like trade-ins, but they REALLY don’t like trade-ins of their competitor’s instruments. This is a perfect opportunity to sell the equipment to a seller. In fact, this is a great time to look around the lab and see what else you may not be using and sell that too. This is a nice way to extend your budget and do a little lab cleaning as well.
Factors to Consider in Finding the Right Refurbished Lab Equipment Seller
Longevity – How long have they been in business? What do your colleagues know about them?
Expertise – Does the seller have a specialization in the type of equipment that you are purchasing? Do they have the staff with domain knowledge to support that equipment?
Services offered – Do they only buy and sell equipment? Do they test and recondition equipment themselves or use partners? Do they offer other more advanced services, like application development or asset management?
Policies – Do they offer warranties and service contracts? What’s their return policy for used / as-is equipment?
Ask a lot of questions – you want to find a seller that has great customer service. They shouldn’t be afraid to address any topic with you. It should be clear what the seller will provide, and you should understand what you need to arrange for.
It’s no coincidence that this is our business. Of course, Atlantic Lab Equipment would be happy to work with you to buy your surplus lab equipment or provide refurbished equipment. Please feel free to check out what we have to offer:
Your liquid handler is a marvel of modern engineering. These helpful systems can relieve lab employees of most sample processing tasks. Benefits include increased productivity, fewer errors, reduced injuries, and less boredom. This all leads to lower turnover for lab personnel and reduced costs for the lab. These improvements can be so significant that these robots become the focus of the lab. The love is so strong that many labs even give their liquid handlers names and personalities! (At one company, liquid handling systems were named after the divas – Whitney, Celine, Christina, and Brittney! At another, names were Lord of the Rings themed.)
We appreciate these machines for the work and support they offer our laboratories. But, made of metal and plastic, it’s easy to forget they need proper care, much like their human counterparts. We see the same story time after time:
a new robot enters the lab
production ramps up due to the increased capacity
weeks turn into months and everyone is happy
then … the liquid handler performance drops
What can you do to set up your system for success?
Loss of pipetting performance (lower accuracy and precision) is bad enough. But in extreme cases, performance issues can completely shut down a lab. You can avoid this terrible situation. Nobody wants to be “down.” Regular preventative care (by you) and annual service (by the pros) will keep your robot in great shape. Proper care and feeding boil down to a few common-sense tactics:
Establish a maintenance plan (and follow it)
Keep your system clean (inside and out)
Make sure your connections are air-tight
Use the correct / high-quality materials – liquids / reagents, consumables, and parts
Have an annual preventative maintenance service
Care of the liquid system – the heart of the liquid handler
Some very advanced technology goes into modern lab automation systems, including:
Precision motion control
Air and liquid-based dispensing
Liquid level sensing
Device integration and communications
Although, a simple view of a liquid handler is: pumps, moved by motors, connected by tubing to pipette tips. Each of these basic elements has their own potential for failure. Knowledge of how they function will help us prevent problems and keep the system running. Most liquid handling systems have at least two sets of pumps: a fast pump and syringes.
The large volume, fast wash pump
The fast pump also called a wash pump, is for moving large amounts of liquid. The fast pump can be a piston pump, diaphragm pump, or peristaltic pump. The fast/wash pump generally supplies water for washing the system out. These pumps can also supply buffer or other liquids for filling large volumes. This happens with lower precision than syringe pumps, but much faster.
To pass the original manufacturer’s testing, the fast pump must be able to meet a specific flow rate. This is a large volume in a set amount of time; 1600 µL per second for example. In most cases, there is a large margin of safety in this specification. A good pump and tubing should have no problem moving 150% of this required rate. If the source lines become clogged, worn, or leaky, the flow rate can plummet. You can flush the tubing lines with distilled water, and even replace the tubing if it becomes too fouled. You may be able to clean the tubing with a cleaning agent. The manufacturer may have recommendations for solutions and procedures to use for cleaning. But, if the pump is the source of the problem, then replacing the entire pump assembly is more cost effective than repairing it.
The precision pipetting system – syringes
The syringe pumps are for delivering more precise volumes. Syringes are smaller piston pumps that can dispense volumes from <1 µL to 10 mL or so. These pumps are best utilized in steps requiring smaller or more controlled volumes. Also, syringes can aspirate liquid from one container and dispense into another, while fast pumps are usually one-way – only dispensing liquids. The accuracy and precision requirements for syringes depends on their capacity. A smaller syringe, say 500 µL, will have a stricter accuracy and precision specification than a larger syringe, like 10 mL. The manufacturer will factory test the syringes using either colorimetric or gravimetric methods. As with the fast pump unit, it’s most effective to replace the entire syringe if one becomes faulty.
The best maintenance task for fast pumps and syringes is a distilled water system flush. Liberal flushing of the system will rinse away corrosive liquids and solid particles. There is no danger in doing this often. It’s recommended to perform a flush each time the system has completed handling biological fluids or reagents. Also, if the system has been sitting unused for a while, a system flush will help to keep it from deteriorating.
Consistency is key with all maintenance procedures. Many labs create log books to document these steps with signatures, times, and dates. Most active labs will keep the liquid handling robots busy, and regular use is good for these systems. But, intermittent robot users should be extra vigilant about keeping the system clean with regular flushes.
Leaks and Clogs
Obstructions and leaks are the #1 problem to avoid on pipetting systems. Leaks can be problematic because they may not be visible on liquid handlers. We tend to think of leaks as dripping liquid OUT of the system. This can and does happen, but you may be more likely to encounter leaks that let air INTO the system. Leaks and clogs affect the pipetting pressures, which kills accuracy and precision. Manufacturers design their systems to resist leaks and clogs, but they are common.
Leaks – running an (air-)tight ship
While very rare in a properly assembled liquid handler, leaks can happen and are most common at the connections. The pressure inside a system’s tubing changes during operation. This expansion and contraction can loosen connections over time. You should be especially concerned about the “finger-tight” connections between diluters and valves. These can loosen over time. While a puddle is the most obvious sign, visible bubbles in any of the system’s lines is also a good sign that there is a leak. Even tiny leaks can have a large effect on the accuracy and precision of the liquid handler. The pipetting action depends on the liquid column to provide a capillary force. Trace the flow of liquid from the source and look for where the bubbles originate. Then ensure all connections from there are tight. This should fix the problem. But the tubing will need replacement if leaks continue to appear.
Clogs – keeping the openings clear
The likeliest place for a clog to occur is in the smallest openings: a diluter, a syringe, or pipette tip itself. Diluters are valves that switch liquid flow between the pump and the syringes. Regular flushes are your go-to maintenance tactic. But, the next best way to keep these openings clear is to use only approved materials for your system. This includes reagents, systems liquids, consumables, and parts. Using incorrect or low-quality materials can cause buildup in or degradation of the system’s liquid path.
For example, most of the tubing on the liquid handler is durable PVC. This is an excellent tubing material for most applications. But it’s incompatible with certain reagents. For example, using a system liquid like DMSO will quickly degrade the tubing and cause leaks. Planning with a trained application engineer can help reduce the risk of this. In some cases, you can use an alternate tubing material like PEEK, that is resistant to the solvent. In other cases, you can try to avoid contact of the materials with the incompatible parts of the system.
The end of the line – leaks or clogs at the tips
Leaks or clogs will occur with both fixed and disposable tip systems. Fixed, washable tips are often for procedures that call for low volume transfers. Since these tips are thin metal tubes, they can become bent (obstructed) or cracked (leak) if damaged in a crash. Proper software scripting and consideration during protocol development can reduce this risk.
Disposable tips are less likely to clog, but leaks can form if the tips are not seated well on the tip adapter. Improper setup of the system or the use of low-quality tips can cause this leak. Both conditions are preventable. Professional service during installation or maintenance can solve the setup problem. And careful selection and validation of tip vendors will avoid the seating issue.
One other source of leaks is where the fixed tip or disposable tip adapter inserts into the tubing. Both fixed and disposable pipette tips depend on this connection to be air-tight. This is not a common point of failure, but the improper initial setup of the system can cause leakage over time.
The hard(ware) part of the system – easy to maintain
We’ve spent most of the time discussing how to avoid or solve problems with the pipetting part of the system. With good reason, this is the critical part that affects results most. We can’t ignore the rest of the system, though. In general, the liquid handling part of the system is the most error-prone. But, the rest of the system hardware requires some TLC as well to keep it in tip-top shape. Movement is an important part of the system. Most liquid handling robots have arms controlled by motors mounted on wheels/bearings. This arm usually runs along a track or rail covered in lubricating grease. This grease can gather dust and debris which will cause performance issues. If the wheels/bearings become fouled, they could bind or skip and cause motor errors or inaccurate movements. You can care for this yourself, as follows:
wipe away the contaminated residue with an alcohol solution
replace the lubricant with a small amount of clean (manufacturer qualified) grease
The Annual Preventive Maintenance Service
Yearly maintenance by a trained service engineer is important for a healthy liquid handler. A typical annual preventative maintenance (PM) service will include at least the following:
replacement of all the system liquid tubing for syringes and fast wash pumps
inspection/replacement of worn syringes and diluter valves
inspection/replacement of worn pipettes tips and tip adapters
inspection/cleaning/lubrication of moving parts
calibration of movement
PM visits are available as pay-as-you-go services or can be parts of a yearly service contract. Annual service contracts usually also include emergency service coverage. You’ll need to determine the best approach for your lab based on your usage of your lab automation system. If it’s a critical part of keeping your lab running, then you may want to consider a service contract. The cost of lost productivity from downtime can far outweigh the price of a service contract.
Atlantic Lab Equipment is ready to help you find a system that is best suited for your lab’s needs. We can also provide ongoing support for your newest team member! With proper installation and annual maintenance by a service professional, and weekly and monthly maintenance by your lab staff, a liquid handling robot will provide a very real return on investment for many years.
Atlantic Lab Equipment hosted a Donation Day in February. This marks the second year of the company’s give back program. ALE’s Donation Day invites local schools to pick out free, used laboratory equipment. The donations go to small schools and non-profit institutes – usually local high schools and colleges. Some of the most recent beneficiaries include:
Founder and CEO, Victoria Jackson, started Donation Days two years ago after buying a large amount of lab equipment from Dupont. Dupont closed its experimental station in Delaware, selling everything in the labs. “We started Donation Days to clear out some of our smaller lab items, but it has grown into a great way for us to give back to the community,” said Jackson. “We are particularly happy that students in local schools learn from the donated equipment. It would be great if some of those students find their passion and go on to careers in the sciences.” The program is now a regular event at the company. Donation Days occur about three to four times per year at the company’s Salem, MA facilities.
Of course, Atlantic Lab Equipment’s business is selling used and refurbished lab equipment. ALE has an active eBay store – the ALE Outlet – where small lab equipment like these sell at discounted prices. So why donate these items at all? There are a few reasons lab equipment can end up on the donation rack. First, the donated items must be in good working order. But lab items that we have too many of, or are a bit “vintage”, or may have cosmetic blemishes, would be up for donation.
The events are invitation only. Invitees can claim the items in person on the day of the event. It’s first-come, first-served, but there’s usually plenty of useful equipment to go around. Is your school is in the Greater Boston area? Would you like to hear about upcoming Donation Days? If so, contact Atlantic Lab Equipment at email@example.com to apply.