Research labs repair their own equipment to save money

  • Article by: REBECCA HARRINGTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2014 - 8:29 PM

Dwindling funding has driven researchers to squeeze as much life out of equipment as they can.

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Ben Erickson, a researcher at the St. Anthony Falls Lab, looked over an experiment that is designed to simulate the slow sinking of New Orleans.

Photo: Glenn Stubbe •gstubbe@startribune.com,

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When the gas chromatograph spectrophotometer broke late last summer, it was Grant Wallace’s job to fix it.

The instrument, which the University of Minnesota graduate student is using to measure the tiny products of pesticide reactions, is more than 10 years old, and its manufacturer no longer offers repair services.

With the help of a local technician, Wallace has figured out what’s wrong with the costly lab device. But he’s still trying to track down the part he needs — all the while losing valuable time for his research.

Scientists like Wallace, facing a stubborn squeeze on federal research funding, have found that repairing their own lab equipment is one creative way to make grant money last.

Overall federal R & D funding has stagnated for several years; at the U, for example, the across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester last year resulted in a $56 million loss in grant money compared with the previous year.

As a result, the so-called “DIY” lab equipment movement is growing at universities across the country, with resources like Tekla Labs at the University of California, Berkley now offering instrument repair instructions and free plans online.

Civil Engineering Prof. Bill Arnold, who runs the lab where Wallace works, said many funders expect university researchers to have labs already set up with the essential equipment when they apply for grants, so money increasingly isn’t allocated for new purchases or repair.

Since many researchers are scientifically minded, Arnold said, they’re fairly adept at fixing equipment with a little practice.

“Once you get over the fear of breaking something,” he said, “most people working in the lab have the ability to take things apart and tinker with them.”

Arnold’s lab produced influential research showing that triclosan, a common antibiotic ingredient, is accumulating in Minnesota lakes, which prompted state agencies to phase out purchasing products containing the chemical last year.

Yet for Arnold, having outside companies repair lab equipment is too expensive. When something breaks, he said, he and the graduate students in his lab find the service manual on the Internet and then start to tinker.

Replacement parts

First, they find how much the company charges for replacement parts. If that’s too expensive, they’ll see if they can find cheaper ones at local shops or on the Internet.

Arnold said DIY repairs save his lab about $20,000 a year in not paying for service contracts.

With large instruments in Arnold’s lab costing $20,000 to $100,000, it’s preferable to repair them, but tracking down a replacement part can take a week from researching.

“We’re certainly saving hard cash, but whether we’re saving time is another story,” he said. “And it’s difficult because grad student time also costs money.”

Back to basics

When water mechanics researchers around the world need affordable measurement systems, they call senior research associate Christopher Ellis at the U’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.

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  • Erik Steen, applied engineering researcher at the St. Anthony Falls Lab, worked on an instrumentation cart he designed and built for precision data collection of topographical experiments.

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