Kevin Rosenblatt, MD, PhD, knew he had a problem; he just wasn’t sure exactly what it was. The assistant professor of pathology, associate director of the Translational Pathology Division, and director of the Clinical Proteomics Program at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center in Dallas, continued to watch as the new mass spectrometer in his laboratory broke down over and over again. This problem, he realized, was costing the facility close to half a million dollars per year, when the original cost of the piece of equipment was $350,000. What was going on?

The culprit, it turns out, was the electricity. The mass spectrometer was not receiving uninterrupted, “clean” power, and was therefore shutting down. It is a problem all too many laboratories run into—and it is almost always a surprise, says Ray Hecker, vice president of Franek Technologies, a Tustin, Calif-based company that provides power-protection systems for laboratory instrumentation.

 Ray Hecker

“When people look at the air, they can tell when it’s dirty. You can taste it, you can smell it, and you can almost feel it,” Hecker says. “You can look at water and see it’s dirty, and you can know that you’re not going to drink dirty water. The thing about power is that generally people can’t visualize what bad power looks like. They can only see results when something goes bad. So that’s the area we take care of.”

Rosenblatt’s lesson in the power of, well, power, is one that ended up saving him a great deal of money and productivity time. It has made him completely reconsider the energy coursing into the lab’s instrumentation. And it is information that he is more than happy to share with other laboratories in need of electrical purification.

Power Plays
Franek has handled laboratory power issues for years. “We specialize in instrumentation-grade laboratory power-protection systems or uninterruptible power systems (UPSs),” Hecker says, explaining that the company’s solutions differ greatly from computer backup applications. “You need a much, much higher-quality level for laboratory instrumentation, so that’s what we do.”

The company has focused on this industry niche for 20 of the 30 years it      has been around. Franek now has an application database of 1,500 engineered power solutions for equipment from 80 different manufacturers. “What we’ve done is try to make it really easy for the laboratorian to go and get an application when they need it,” he says. “If you have an XYZ12345 [machine], most likely you’ll find [an application for it] on our Web site, and it’s been pre-engineered and certified.”

This way, a person in a laboratory can go either directly to Franek, or, more frequently, to the equipment manufacturer and say, “My equipment is doing this. Do you have a solution?” Most often, Franek will have provided a similar solution to another laboratory and can easily help them. “This is great, because lab specialists don’t always know a lot about power-protection devices,” Hecker says. “Laboratorians know their instruments and they know their science, but when it comes to which plug goes into which wall, and how, they need to communicate with the electrical or maintenance engineers in the facility.”

Rosenblatt’s laboratory was a prime candidate for these kinds of power solutions from the beginning. Recruited from the National Institutes of Health more than 2 years ago, Rosenblatt was asked by UTSW to set up the translational program for the medical center. This type of laboratory, which takes basic research and translates it for human studies and diagnostics, uses a great deal of advanced equipment, including robots. “There are four of us in a relatively small lab,” he says, “It just shows the power of using automation. People are often impressed by the amount of work we’re able to produce and how many different things we’re involved in. We collaborate with a lot of different groups and generate a lot of different data for different projects.”

Based on the amount of work performed, “you might think we have 12 people in our lab, but because we automate almost every one of our protocols, it’s like having several more researchers than we do,” Rosenblatt says. Also, because of this automation, “we can do very mundane repetitive and time-consuming things … and get a lot of data in a relatively short amount of time.”

All of this work requires a great deal of equipment, and the mass spectrometer is a major requirement. “Mass spectrometry is a great way to measure very accurately the mass of proteins and even some of their modifications—cleavage activation, for example,” Rosenblatt says. “And these instruments are very expensive. Mass spectrometers can run from $100,000, to several hundred thousand dollars, to $1 million.”

The equipment itself is “robust to a degree,” but when it started shutting down frequently, “either the entire lab or a whole part of the lab was basically shut down until it could be fixed again. So it’s very important to protect the equipment.” However, Rosenblatt couldn’t know how exactly to protect the equipment until he learned more about the electricity serving it.

Getting Electrical
According to Hecker, when the mass spectrometer began to shut down, Rosenblatt quickly learned the true cost of ownership of the equipment. “The instrument only cost about $350,000, but when you put in the cost of the kits, calibration, instrument repairs, and the labor that’s involved … the [cost] got extremely high.”

Rosenblatt first had the field service engineer from the mass spectrometer’s manufacturer look at the problem, and they were “tearing their hair out trying to figure out why they were losing power supplies, why the instrument would go down,” Hecker says.

When the engineers eventually looked at the incoming power, they learned it had the problem of “harmonics.” To explain this condition, Hecker suggests you “imagine a person jumping on a trampoline,” he says. “They can do whatever tricks they want while they are the only person jumping on it. But get two or three people on the trampoline at the same time, and you just try to do your trick. Forget it; you get bounced all over the place.

“What happens with harmonics is the electricity gets distorted. It’s not smooth, it’s choppy; and you can get big spikes and surges. That was taking some of [Rosenblatt’s] power-supply equipment down, and it was affecting his reportable results at the same time,” Hecker says.

The engineer learned that a laboratory at the medical center City of Hope, located in Duarte, Calif, had had a very similar situation, and it used a Franek solution to solve the problem. Franek was asked to submit a proposal for a similar solution to help the laboratory at UTSW.

Rosenblatt says he talked to a few candidates, but many didn’t have a solution for such a large piece of equipment. And since the mass-spectrometer manufacturer had recommended Franek, he decided to go with the company’s UPS solution. “We looked into it, and we thought for the cost and the specs on their UPS, it was worth it,” he says.

A year later, Rosenblatt says the equipment has had virtually no problems. “We’ve had minor things that were maintenance issues, but we haven’t had any of the same problems we were having before,” he says. Before the solution, they “literally were having components go down; in one case, it was repeatedly over a 2-month period. And we haven’t had that problem since, and we’ve been running the machine sometimes 12 to 16 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week. We’ve done that for weeks and months at a time, because we’re running so many samples. And that was proof enough for me that there was adequate protection.”

In the first 6 months that the lab owned the mass spectrometer, Rosenblatt says, one component alone had to be replaced four times. Since the power-protection system was introduced, the component hasn’t required replacement at all.

But the truly amazing part, Hecker says, was the huge return on investment Rosenblatt received. “It was a half-million dollars of first-year downtime that just went away.”

Working the Circuits
Hecker says that what the Franek UPS device does for electricity is equivalent to the way water is cleaned for a laboratory. “With water, you can filter it, or you can even go to a higher level and go to a distillation process,” he says. “What we do to electricity is equivalent to the distillation process. We are regenerating the electrical power … so the instrument is getting nothing but the good stuff all the time.”

The Franek equipment, he says, is known for its “plug-and-play” designs that don’t require a lot of installation work. He also prides the company on its focus on the importance of electricity. “What we know is that to get a really good result without having errors and corrupt data, you need to have clean power,” he says. “And the more digital equipment that’s floating around the lab, the more there’s the potential for contamination of power.”

For his part, Rosenblatt was surprised at how much of a role electricity plays in the life of a piece of equipment. He says he was pretty skeptical at first. “When you consider the machine is worth $350,000, spending $6,000 to protect it doesn’t seem like a lot of money,” he says. “But $6,000 is a lot of money to a research laboratory. You could buy a lot of other things for that. So I wondered if we really needed this, but in retrospect, it was protection of a very expensive investment.”

Now that he’s seen the results of the Franek device, Rosenblatt says he’s decided to protect a lot of the laboratory’s other equipment in a similar way. “Looking back over a year, we’ve bought many of these types of devices and protected other pieces of equipment around the lab,” he says. “And now I believe that if you’re going to spend money on this kind of laboratory instrumentation, you need to invest in it. The protective device is a fraction of the cost of the instrument itself, and you need to spend some more money in order to protect it because it’s just too much money to waste. We want to get at least 3 to 5 years’ work out of these things before we even think about replacing them.”

Rosenblatt says he would definitely recommend power-protection devices for any lab. “I think a lab with this kind of equipment—and many labs are going to have at least one or two pieces of high-voltage, expensive equipment—needs to look into these kinds of protective devices. In my view, it’s a must right now for us. But it’s a serious consideration for any laboratory.”

Rosenblatt confirms that having power protection can also improve the work of a laboratory. Clearly, if a major piece of equipment is no longer going down, that helps the lab a great deal. “I can tell you that when a workhorse machine like the mass spectrometer that drives so many projects is down, you can’t do anything,” he says. “I know labs that have had problems with mass spectrometers that were down literally 20% per month, and you can’t do anything. The UPS device has definitely improved our work efficiency.”

And even though he’s used other companies for smaller pieces of equipment, Rosenblatt says it was his experience with Franek that made him want to protect every other piece of equipment in the lab. “It changed my view about investing that kind of money,” he adds.

Hecker knows that it’s an uphill battle getting the word out on the importance of power protection, but he’s going to keep trying. “You see advertisements for tires in the newspaper every weekend, but you don’t think about tires until you get a flat,” he explains. “Our products are like that. As long as the lights are on and things seem to be running OK, people don’t think about electricity. But when things start to go bad, then it gets real expensive. That’s when you start looking for a solution.”

Sara Schmelling is a contributing writer for Clinical Lab Products.