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.

The lab has stable federal funding now, he said, but he remembers more humble beginnings. Ellis started at the lab in 1981 as a graduate student, when he said the shortage of grants required them to be creative.

And he’s kept that mind-set over the years.

When a researcher in the lab recently wanted to model rainwater runoff, Ellis made a trip to Home Depot. Using rice to simulate rain, he picked up a Rubbermaid tote to catch the “rain.” Then he bought some metal for it to land on, a vacuum to clear it off and other materials to make a motor that would serve as the clouds. The whole mechanism cost about $1,500, but was worth more than that in manpower.

But the trade-off is often the increased time and effort it will take researchers to use it.

“Taking older technology, cheaper technology, you’re not going to answer every little question,” he said. But, he added philosophically, “there’s still an infinite number of unanswered questions.”


Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.