When is “old” TOO old?

It is no secret that, like cars, used laboratory equipment can be had at a lower price than factory mint equipment. And like the car market, there are some pitfalls you should be aware of. We will seek to identify these pitfalls and help you avoid making any potentially high cost purchasing missteps. 

Steps to determine if the equipment in your lab is “TOO OLD.”
1. Inventory: Understand what capital equipment resides in your lab. Next time you walk through your lab, take time to look over the capital equipment (safety enclosures, freeze dryers, glassware washers, fume hoods, biological safety cabinets [BSCs], HPLC/UPLC, glove boxes, incubators, freezers, ovens, etc.) and take inventory. Take note of manufacturers’ names, serial numbers and model numbers. If you can’t readily identify the date of manufacture, contact the appropriate company. They should be able to provide you with build dates.
2. Status: Determine the operational status of the equipment. What is the preventative maintenance schedule on the product? How often is it used on a daily, weekly, monthly, or annual basis?
3. Service schedule: How often and how much is the equipment costing you to service? When was the last time your product was serviced? What was done and how much did that service cost?
4. Obsolescence: Determine if the equipment is obsolete. Use the factors gathered above to make the tough decisions.
  • Manufacturer’s recommendations: Manufacturers keep track of model designs, model generations, technological changes, standard updates, and replacement part availability. A manufacturer can recommend decommissioning equipment due to the age of the equipment. Safety equipment such as chemical fume hoods and biological safety cabinets should strictly follow industry and manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Equipment operational status: If preventative maintenance is performed too frequently (causing inefficiency), and the unit is critical to daily or weekly operations, then it may be time to replace or upgrade it.
  • Service life: If any piece of equipment is down for service more than it is operational, or if the last or upcoming service will require a large expenditure for service cost and down-time, then you may do well to look for a replacement. Also, when the unit fails and the repair requires replacement or service of critical instrumentation or component parts, be prepared to pull out the checkbook. Use the money you save on not doing those repairs to invest in a new shiny piece of equipment.
5. It's just so old! There really is no such thing as a “classic” when it comes to laboratory equipment. They're just plain OLD. 
Example: Biological safety cabinets and fume hoods are relatively simple—few have moving mechanical parts and thus are likely to have long service lives. It is not uncommon to find active, operational fume hoods in laboratories that date to the 1960’s. We’ve seen some good condition hoods that were built in the 1940’s! HOWEVER, the first standardized test method for chemical containment in fume hoods (ASHRAE 110) didn’t come until 1985. Since 1985, standards for safety have made leaps and bounds. A fume hood built as early as 1990 may still be safe, but may, and most likely, isn't up to today’s standards! Just because it works doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be replaced.
Other reasons: Being up-to-date on safety standards is an easy and obvious reason to update older equipment. Other reasons include technology gaps, process improvement, and resource (energy & water) efficiencies.
Most of you have had to deal with at least one of these old pieces of equipment. That old “rust bucket” is, for whatever reason, still running day in and day out. Yet it isn’t just the already owned, installed and operational product that is of concern in today’s laboratory. It is that NEW aftermarket, gently used, overstocked, and inventoried equipment that your purchasing agent is bidding on. You sent in the request for a new piece of equipment and it is in the agent's and your company’s best interests to find it for the best dollar, maximizing your ROI. Unfortunately, the purchasing agen may not be accustomed to buying laboratory equipment and may not know what to look for. 
Here are some pointers for determining if that used product you're considering should be passed over for new.
- Too good to be true: It is an age-old adage for a reason, folks! If it is a relatively newer piece of equipment and it is selling for pennies on the dollar next to a brand new unit of the same make or model, the safe bet is to walk away. Get a guarantee that the product is operational; and if it arrives in anything other than at least acceptable condition, get your money back.
Check with your manufacturer: The manufacturer (if still around) should be able to provide historical documentation such as product literature, operation and maintenance manuals, and installation instructions that would be original with the previous generation product and determine if replacement parts are still available. Be wary of any new literature on old equipment, equipment made by a manufacturer that is no longer in business, or equipment that is no longer made by that manufacturer.
- One owner: As a good general rule, if the product has changed hands a few times, its next stop should be the recycling bin (and I don’t mean your laboratory).
- Previous owner's application: This is especially important when looking at safety enclosures or equipment that may have handled hazardous materials. Most manufacturers refuse return of such items for obvious reasons. If in the market for this kind of equipment and you move forward with the purchase, make sure to get a detailed service history record and some sort of certificate of decontamination that denotes date, method, and signatures of the decontamination person(s) responsible. 
Costing analysis: Pull out your slide-rule and hold on to your pocket protector, I see math in your future.
  • Purchase price: Do some window-shopping and compare the used product to that of a new one. Use this opportunity to become familiar with the different manufacturers and retailers. Yes, most likely the used will be cheaper than the new. DO NOT STOP HERE!
  • Amortization: How many years of operation will a new product give you over the used one?
  • Life cost analysis: How much energy, water or air does the old piece of equipment consume in a year vs. a new one? What is the dollar pay back? What is the time pay back? Can buying new, though more expensive up front, save you time and/or money in your processes? 
  • Service: What kind of service is required to keep the product operational and how much does it cost?
If your numbers don’t add up, move on! Make an educated decision that takes the full life of the equipment into account, not just the up-front cost. It could end up costing you much more in the end, and NOT just in cash.
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