Interview with an Autoclave Supplier

(Bernie Youngblood founded Priorclave North America in 2011, and served as PNA president from until 2016. In his many years working closely with research labs, Bernie had become acutely aware of the many pitfalls awaiting non-medical customers looking to purchase autoclaves. His goal with PNA was to provide researchers, educators, and innovators a steam autoclave supplier that specialized in custom solutions for non-medical applications. )

Q: You’ve spoken at length about how it’s actually a lot trickier to buy a single benchtop autoclave for a university lab than it is to buy a large sterilizer for a major metropolitan hospital. How is that?

A:  Because of the way the market for autoclaves has developed, people–both autoclave suppliers and the folks who’ll be using that autoclave every day–can make terrible decisions when they outfit a laboratory.

Medical Autoclave Suppliers Dominate The Industry

Q: How do you mean?

A: In the beginning steam autoclaves were mostly medical devices, largely used in hospital settings. Hospitals are 24/7 operations, and they run their sterilizers back to back and around the clock. Most of these loads consist of biomedical waste–every scrap of gauze and every sponge. Modern hospitals generate a mind-boggling amount of biomedical waste, and any pause between loads is going to create unacceptable backlogs. But these are also huge facilities; any single expense, even if it’s pricey in absolute terms, tends to disappear into the budget.

Modern steam autoclaves, for the most part, were designed for this setting: They stay hot 24/7, because they expect to run loads 24/7. Because they run loads 24/7, they’re draining hot condensate 24/7, which means they need a 24/7 bleed of cold water mixing in with that boiling condensate, lest they melt the building’s waste-water plumbing. In many installations each autoclave has its own independent steam generator to keep things cooking around the clock.

Big Medical Autoclave Suppliers Think One Size Fits All

Q: How does this become a problem?

A: Well, the problem isn’t the medical-grade autoclave–those are great machines for medical settings. But the thing is, autoclave suppliers aren’t just working with hospitals any more. Universities, start-ups, research labs–they’re all using steam autoclaves now, and not just for bio-tech: Steam autoclaves are used to cure construction materials or test how they’ll deteriorate over time. They’re used in microbreweries and dairy operations. Heck, in some restaurants specializing in the sort of cooking you read about in WIRED magazine–“molecular gastronomy” and the like–they’re even used in preparing food. These folks don’t have billion dollar annual operating budgets, and they don’t need an autoclave that’s hot 24/7. They really don’t need an autoclave that’s constantly flushing water down the drain, or is outfitted with is own dedicated boiler–that also runs 24/7, sucking up kilowatts–when they’re only looking to run a few cycles per day or week! If that lab has to wait an extra ten minutes for the autoclave to warm up, no big deal.

So, that’s where the problem arises: These facilities need autoclaves, but medical-grade autoclaves are an awful investment for them.

But the thing is, if you’re a big sterilizer supplier whose bread and butter, for decades and decades, has been selling ultra-high-performance devices to hospitals and medical centers, you can’t just flip a switch when a research lab manager gives you a call. You sell medical-grade units built from the ground up to run around the clock every day of the year, including Christmas and New Years. Is that sterilizer supplier going to think to ask: “Do you really need 24/7 independent steam generation? Do you really need to run back-to-back cycles with minimum downtime? Do you really need a service contract?”

That’s the thing that drives me nuts: If you don’t get the right product to begin with, you end up in a “service relationship” with your autoclave supplier– spending more on maintenance then you did to purchase the machine. It drives me nuts to see labs making these terrible investments.