Used equipment choices

April 1, 2010

oes your laboratory need to learn how to do more with
less? One way to spare the capital equipment budget is to consider buying
used laboratory equipment. There are several purchasing options listed here
in order of decreasing cost:

If the price is low enough,
it might be worthwhile
to purchase two instruments,
using one for spare parts.
—Amadeo J. Pesce, PhD

  • refurbished with
    warranty, full support, and training;
  • used with limited
    warranty; and
  • “as is” with no

To determine which option may be right for your lab, ask

  • Is the equipment under consideration going to be a
    primary analyzer or a backup?
  • Will the instrument become obsolete within the
    expensed period?
  • Will the manufacturer support the equipment with
    service, support, and reagents for the near future?
  • Can you protect against the potential for downtime
    due to breakdowns by purchasing a service contract or by having a second
  • What type of service contract can you obtain?
  • What is the cost of a service contract on a used
    instrument compared with a new instrument?
  • Is the maintenance contract from a third-party or
    directly from a vendor?
Refurbished with warranty, training

We have had good experience with a full-service
refurbished instrument. Thermo-Fisher offers used Olympus equipment serviced
by an independent refurbishing company. A reagent-rental contract is
offered. They do, however, allow us to use the instruments with other
reagents. The purchaser is bound to a minimum monthly arrangement. In our
case, we were careful to get a second price for any reagent use over the
minimum. The Olympus machine came complete with a distilled water supply
(Siemens). The used-equipment vendor provides complete service. In addition,
Thermo Fisher provided the needed set-up expertise and validation of all the
reagents. Of course, we checked to be certain the reagents were reliable by
examining the College of American Pathologists’ surveys, which can give an
indication of reagent/instrument quality. The limitation of this arrangement
is a five-year agreement may be required.

Another option is to purchase refurbished equipment from
the original manufacturer. Once, we purchased a refurbished model at a
significant savings; but since the company had no refurbished units in
stock, it shipped us a brand new one at the refurbished price.

Used equipment with warranty

Purchasing used equipment with a warranty can be more
cost effective than the previously described method of acquisition. The
questions that have to be answered include those listed above in addition to
the following:

  • Will the
    instrument become obsolete in the expensed period?

Consider how long that particular model has been in
service. If the design is only a couple of years old, then obsolescence is
unlikely. Often instruments are expensed over at least five years. It takes
several years for the instruments to be placed in the market. If there are
no rapid advances in the field, estimate the life at about a 10-year minimum
from the time it was introduced. Support should be available over this

Consider how many units have been placed in service and
its service record. Many small companies support instruments orphaned by
their manufacturers. Similarly, determine if there are second-source reagent

  • How to protect against breakdown?

If it is to be a primary instrument, try to get some idea
of instrument reliability. First, get an estimate of the cost of a current
service contract. If it is too expensive, it may be because either the
instrument is unreliable or replacement parts are expensive. Second, obtain
a premium service contract with service promised in as little as four hours.
Third, if you are conservative, buy it only if you already have a primary
instrument and want to use this acquisition as backup.

  • How will you
    obtain training on the instrument?

The seller may offer training. Be sure to ask. Often, the
original manufacturer will offer training but at a steep price. Get some
quotes before making your final decision. Alternatively, you could hire a
staff member who has experience operating the instrument and can teach

Purchasing used or “as is”

Buying used equipment from auction sites such as DoveBid
( or eBay ( offers a major
incentive in terms of prices as low as 1% to 5% of the price of new models.
You may have to wait weeks or months before a desired item is available at
these low prices. Since there is usually no return policy when buying from
an auction, make sure you are comfortable with what you are purchasing. Make
sure the equipment is in good shape and has no liens against it
(particularly important in bankruptcy sales). If possible, take possession
of the equipment before making payment.

The auction route of acquisition has several caveats. For
example, in one case, the successful bidder of a centrifugal vacuum drying
device found that the vacuum pumps ($20,000 on a new machine) had been
removed sometime between the sale and when the equipment was shipped. In
another case, the equipment was sold without the “dongle,” a device which
authenticates the instrument. In this case, without the dongle, the software
would run only in a restricted mode or not at all. Dongles are used by
vendors as a method of copy protection because they are harder to replicate.
The price of the replacement dongle exceeded the bid price.

Also, when purchasing equipment “as is,” consider bidding
on equipment that has been popular but also check the Internet to determine
if parts are available.

If purchasing instruments (including automated pipettors)
from this type of source, the buyer should have people available who can
service the equipment, a source of spare parts, and either staff familiar
with the equipment or a method of training them. If the price is low enough,
it might be worthwhile to purchase two instruments, using one for spare
parts. The buyer also may need to engage the services of a programmer to
customize the instrument to perform the needed tasks and to interface with
the laboratory information system, if necessary.

Consider technological change

When considering used instruments, you must also evaluate
whether or not that technology has been superseded. Gas chromatography mass
spectroscopy (GCMS) is a case in point. For more than 30 years, GCMS has
been the analytical method of choice for forensic and some clinical
applications. High-quality refurbished instruments with warranties are on
the market from reliable vendors at 50% to 70% of new-instrument cost.
Recent advances have made liquid chromatography tandem mass spectroscopy, or
LC-MSMS, instruments suitable for the clinical laboratory. These newer
instruments have shorter analytical run times, require less sample
preparation, and can analyze many more compounds in a single run with more
specificity. An analysis which calculates cost per final clinical analyte
result may well show this newer technology can perform these measurements at
half or less of the cost when compared to the older the older GCMS method.

The final cost of employing used equipment is validation.
This can involve a significant amount of lab and IT staff labor. This cost
must also be considered in any analysis. If there is no time available, then
it may not be possible to buy equipment without the full support of analyte
validation and training.

Use of old equipment:

The need for backup occurs for a variety of reasons. In
one situation, we were forced to reinstate older glucose meters when the
Food and Drug Administration recalled newer equipment. In another situation,
we were forced to reinstate an older urinalysis instrument when the newer
equipment broke down.

Consider whether or not old equipment can be used as a
backup when there is no ready alternative for obtaining needed STAT results
such as potassium. Backup equipment must be maintained in such a state that
it can be brought up quickly. This means performing ongoing maintenance,
correlations, and quality control.

Any lab that needs to keep an eye on the budget can
research, comparison shop for costs, including warranties, training and
service, and validation in order to find appropriate used equipment that
will service their clients well. While risks of “as-is” finds or
obsolescence do exist, careful preparation and shopping can save today’s

Amadeo J. Pesce, PhD, D(ABCC),
is currently engaged at high-technology specialty Millennium Laboratories in
San Diego, which focuses on serving pain physicians.

Ed Tirakis, MHSA,
, is
administrative director of Knox Community Hospital Laboratory in Mount
Vernon, OH.