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The Insider's Buying Guide for an Auto-Defrost Medical Freezer

  • by Richard Clubb
  • Jun 1, 2020, 10:36 AM

The Insider's Buying Guide for an Auto-Defrost Medical Freezer

Every year, healthcare institutions suffer significant financial losses because of wasted vaccines. Temperature excursions damage some doses; improper storage conditions ruin others. These issues decrease vaccine potency. Medical providers lose money when they must replace this lost inventory or ask their patients to return for revaccination.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finalized standards to prevent these issues. In 2019, the federal agency released its Vaccine Storage and Handling Toolkit. The manual teaches providers how to safely store vaccines. It also provides resources, recommendations, and standards that organizations should follow when storing frozen vaccines like Varicella and Zoster.

The CDC recommends that providers use frost-free, auto-defrost medical freezers to protect vaccine potency. Does your healthcare or research institution regularly handle frozen biologics? You'll need a high-quality, reliable storage area to protect your investment.  In today's guide, you'll learn how to select the best auto-defrost medical freezer for your needs.

What is a Medical Freezer?

Before selecting your auto-defrost models, you'll find out why medical freezers why researchers and medical professionals prefer medical freezers.

Studies show that medical freezers meet the highest recommended federal safety standards to protect sensitive biological materials.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refers to medical freezers as refrigeration cabinets that can store volatile reagents and biological specimens. They are also known as laboratory-grade freezers (LGF).

Manufacturers design these purpose-built units to safely store biologics and vaccines. These medical freezers require a significant upfront investment; however, they save facilities money over time. First, they prevent the loss of sensitive biological materials due to out-of-range readings called temperature excursions. Additionally, pharmaceutical-grade units reduce the chance for revaccination when patients inadvertently receive compromised vaccines.

Purpose-built units must meet strict safety standards, unlike domestic model freezers. Unlike domestic models, they maintain a consistent, accurate temperature range. Medical freezers rapidly reach cold temperatures that ensure the viability of laboratory and medical samples.

Laboratory-grade freezers are also more reliable and durable than domestic freezers. They have microprocessor-based temperature controls with digital temperature sensors (thermocouple, resistance temperature detector [RTD], or a thermistor).  Additionally, some models have a fan-forced air circulation system and powerful fans that promote uniform temperature readings and fast recovery when excursion events take place.

Facilities should avoid using combination refrigerator/freezer units. The CDC only recommends stand-alone, laboratory-grade models to store certain vaccines and biologic materials. Researchers have discovered that stand-alone units maintain the required temperature ranges better than combination ones. The CDC forbids the use of dormitory-style combo refrigerator/freezer units under any circumstances.

Pharmacies, hospitals, and medical clinics use medical freezers for the following purposes, including:

  • Medications that need a consistent temperature range
  • Frozen vaccines require cold temperatures to stay viable
  • Volatile chemicals (which may become dangerous when stored in out-of-range conditions.)
  • Blood, plasma, bone marrow, and biologics
  • Research samples (tissue and cells).

 Reminder: You should never freeze vaccines that require refrigeration.

The Advantages of Using a Medical Freezer

These units maintain consistent temperature ranges throughout the year, unlike household freezers models. Scientific studies have shown that domestic freezer units can't maintain a reliable range, especially during defrost cycles. These include both temporary and long-term storage situations.

Your laboratory-grade freezer should store only vaccines, medicines, and other biologics. The unit must be large enough to hold inventory during the busiest time of year without crowding. Additionally, you should have enough room to store water bottles inside to stabilize temperatures, just in case the power goes out.

Healthcare facilities that routinely use vaccines and biologics should follow the CDC-recommended temperature range. Your medical freezer should be between -50°C and -15°C (-58°F and  +5°F). Your purpose-built unit should be set at the factory-set or mid-point temperatures to decrease the chance of temperature excursions.

Most laboratory-grade thermostats show levels of coldness rather than the actual readings. The best way to assess the temperature of the vaccine storage area is to use temperature monitoring devices.

If you have a stand-alone freezer, you must regularly defrost it and have a second storage unit available to maintain the right temperature setting for vaccines during defrosting. The CDC recommends using medical freezers with frost-free and automatic defrost cycles.

What are the Differences Between Manual-Defrost and Auto-Defrost Medical Freezers?

There are two basic types of laboratory-grade freezers: manual-defrost and auto-defrost. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that vaccine providers use a laboratory-grade freezer with a frost-free, automatic defrost cycle. There are significant differences between manual-defrost and auto-defrost models.

Manual-Defrost Models

Manual-defrost medical freezers work similarly to the refrigerators. These models cool storage areas by using refrigerant. They rely on an internal temperature differential instead of fans to circulate air inside the unit. Researchers prefer to use these units for experiments that use open-air containers since manual-defrost models don't have fans that will dry out their contents.

Unfortunately, manual-defrost models require significant maintenance. You'll need to regularly defrost these units when frost to remove ice buildup on their interior walls. When defrosting, facilities should place biologics within an alternate freezer that has reached the set temperature range. After the process, make sure the unit returns to the correct temperature setting before placing these items back inside. 

In summary, manual-defrost models:

  • Allow users to have full control over the defrost cycle.
  • Use less power than auto-defrost models
  • Have a constant internal temperature
  • Must be manually defrosted. Place contents should inside another temperature-controlled unit during the defrost process.

Auto-Defrost Models

The CDC recommends the use of auto-defrost medical freezers to protect vaccines at extremely cold temperatures. These models use heat to remove from their condenser coils.

During the defrosting process, the temperature temporarily rises inside of the freezer. Keep the freezer compartment full of ice packs or water bottles to minimize these temperature spikes. These models have features that allow users to control the defrost cycles.

Auto-defrost medical models have several advantages compared to manual defrost that include:

  • Require less maintenance compared to manual models
  • Provide uniform internal temperatures
  • Some disadvantages include more power consumption and less control over the defrost cycle. Their internal air circulation can also dry out contents in open containers.

Choose the Best Auto-Defrost Model for Your Medical Facility

Your facility should choose an auto-defrost freezer that will meet your facility's operational needs. Each model should meet the recommended federal requirements to house vaccines, samples, and biological materials.

Next, you'll need to find the right size model for your healthcare clinic or research facility. Identify a room within your building to place your new laboratory-grade freezers. This room should be a low-traffic, well-ventilated spot with enough space for your unit. Take measurements of the space you intend to use.  A professional can help with this. Your medical freezer model should fit comfortably into the area you select.

Here are several types of auto-defrost freezers you should consider:

  • Upright Medical Freezers – These medical freezers are the most popular ones used by hospitals, clinics, and research facilities. They come in different sizes, including countertop and large-capacity models. American Biotech sells several upright, auto-defrost models that comply with CDC recommendations.
  • Under-counter Medical Freezers – Laboratories use smaller, under-counter models to optimize space. They have forward-facing vents that encourage ventilation. Under-counter models have a higher upfront price because most models require professional installation. ABC has several great under-counter freezers that optimize space.
  • Ultra-Low Temperature Medical Freezers - These models produce consistent, ultra-low temperatures. They reach temperatures as low as -85°F or -86°F. These freezers are ideal for clinics and research institutions that must store volatile chemicals. Unfortunately, these models require enormous energy to maintain these temperatures. They result in higher energy bills.
  • Chest Medical Freezers – These large, top-opening freezers look like a chest. They have enormous storage space but don't allow for an easy organization like upright models due, because they don't have shelving. They can house larger medical samples and supplies. Although they don't have the same shelving options, they have other options found in medical freezers, including alarm systems to notify facilities when a door is open.

Cost Considerations

Most organizations, especially research facilities, have to consider price when purchasing a new auto-defrost freezer model. Sometimes, they will choose a laboratory-grade freezer based on cost, rather than their needs.

Although it's tempting, your facility shouldn't cut corners when it comes to your auto-defrost medical freezer. When purchasing an auto-defrost model, consider your facility's potential to expand.

Don't opt for a smaller-size medical freezer to save money, especially if your institution may grow.  Yes, buying a small one will initially save you money. If your needs change, your organization will need to buy a larger-capacity model that costs you more money. Only choose an auto-defrost medical freezer that will meet your current and expected needs.

Consider an Energy-Efficient Auto-Defrost Model

Some models require a great deal of energy to cool medical freezers to required temperature settings. You should search for an energy-efficient model if you need to conserve power and save some money.

In 2017, the EPA released its criteria for energy-efficient laboratory-grade freezer models. In its finalized standards, the agency recommended that:

  • Energy-Star medical freezers maintain a temperature range between -40 °C and 0 ° C (-40 ° F and 32 °F).
  • Ultra-low temperature models should sustain a range between -70°C and -80°C (-94°F and -112°F).

Select Models with Temperature Monitoring Devices

Auto-defrost medical freezers should have a temperature monitoring device (TMD). This equipment provides an accurate temperature history and logs actual vaccine temperatures. It is less expensive to invest in a reliable TMD, so you don't waste vaccines due to excursion events.

The CDC recommends that medical facilities use a TMD called a digital data logger (DDL). It differs from minimum/maximum thermometers that only show the coldest and warmest temperatures that a purpose-built unit reaches. These devices provide accurate storage unit temperature information. It will provide information about how long a unit may stay outside of recommended temperature ranges (temperature excursion).  DDLs also provide comprehensive data about the temperatures recorded at preset intervals.

Additional Features to Consider

Here are additional features that you should consider when selecting an auto-defrost model:

  • Temperature Alarm – These devices will alert your staff if someone accidentally leaves a door open, or when your freezer rises above the required temperature range. This feature can prevent your samples or vaccines from losing their potency.
  • Glass doors – These freezers allow you to see your biologic products and see what it contains without having to open the door.
  • Locks – This mechanism prevents non-authorized individuals from accessing the contents inside your medical freezer.

Selecting the right features for your medical freezer will ensure your biologic samples remain safe and viable.

Are you searching for a reliable, auto-defrost freezer for your medical facility? American Biotech Supply has several models that are perfect for your hospital, clinic, or research facility. Contact us today to learn more about our wide selection of laboratory-grade freezers.

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