The Low Down on Ultralow Temperature Freezers

Ultralow temperature freezers aren’t just for lifesaving vaccines; they’re a common piece of equipment in most research labs. Endocrine News offers up a few tips on how to decide which ULT freezer is right for your laboratory.

 

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the application came with a major stipulation: the vaccine needed to be stored in ultra-cold temperatures until thawing just before use — meaning, freezing temperatures between -40° and -80°C (-40°F to 123°F). The news set off immediate industry and media buzz about the technology of ultralow temperature (ULT) freezers.

While ULT freezers are common equipment in life sciences and clinical labs to safely store a variety of critical medical products and samples, these freezers are rarely, if ever, found in small clinics and pharmacies. State health agencies and hospitals anxious to provide the vaccine to their communities pushed the demand high for the special freezers and sparked a global purchase rush that backlogged the supply chain for several weeks.

Good news came in late February, however, when the FDA approved Pfizer’s request for a change in policy that allowed its vaccine to be transported and stored in normal freezers for up to two weeks. This change made it easier for rural areas of the country and smaller clinics with limited resources to maintain the vaccine, making it more widely available to residents around the country.

Since this flurry of activity has put ULT freezers in the spotlight, Lab Notes explored some key points one should consider if in the market for the equipment, according to a recent six-part series in Lab Manager:

Size and Capacity

There are two basic types of ULT freezers — upright and chest freezers. When considering your required freezer size, think of the number of sample boxes and racks you need to store. The larger the freezer volume, the costlier it is to operate. Upright freezers tend be more popular because they take up less floor space in the lab, but many units can create height and mobility challenges for some staff members to access samples.

Cost

The equipment is pricey. A brand-new freezer can range between $12,000 and $40,000, depending on the unit’s size and dimensions and what options are included, reports Lab Manager. If you are open to owning a used unit, they can be found much cheaper.

Temperature Control

How fast does the ULT freezer temperature recover to its -80°C after warm air rushes in when someone opens the door? This is critical to consider when keeping precious samples protected. ULT freezers with multiple inner doors for different storage shelves instead of a single inner door for the entire freezer are optimal. This way, only the temperature of the shelf needed is affected when a door is opened, and it consumes less energy to resume to the freezer’s inside temperature.

Noise Level

Because of the intensive fan-cooling needed, ULT freezers can be loud in the lab and a definite distraction for researchers hard at work. The freezers are available in different noise levels but be aware that larger freezers produce more noise as they need to be cooled down more substantially to provide uniform temperature.

Check the manufacturer’s information for the machine’s decibel levels, which can range from less than 50 decibels to above 70. For comparison, a normal conversation and background music produces an average 60 decibels, while a vacuum cleaner averages 70 decibels.

Monitoring Systems

While all ULT freezers have built-in monitoring system, Lab Manager recommends upgrading to more advanced systems offered by the unit’s manufacturer or a third-party company. Look for a system that offers cloud accessibility via smartphone or other remote devices for automatic temperature monitoring. If the freezer door is left opened, for instance, the monitoring system sounds alarms and sends the user a text or email alert.

Maintenance

Finally, ULTs tend to last about 10 years if maintained properly, so it is important to follow a few important steps to keep the freezer functioning well as long as possible:

  • Read and follow the user manual
  • Clean filters, vents, and fans regularly
  • Remove frost from gaskets and shelves
  • Defrost or de-ice the freezer at least once a year (ice buildup can stop the door from closing properly and can damage the door latch and door alignment)

But if following a regular maintenance schedule proves too time-consuming for lab managers, experts advise purchasing a service plan from the company.

 

Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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