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How to Organize Your Lab Freezer to Prevent Lost Samples

In October, 2019, researchers in California were scrambling to protect important lab samples after the power utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, announced planned rolling blackouts on hot and windy days that could cause damage to electric lines and an increased risk of wildfire. UC Berkeley researchers were among those looking to connect critical equipment such as lab freezers to back up power supplies or to find alternative locations for samples that require specific temperatures to remain viable. 

Emergency preparedness at research facilities is one reason why an organized lab freezer is crucial. Besides the preservation of hours and even years of scientific work, there are many other reasons to keep your lab freezer organized, and some of those reasons may mean the difference between life and death. Lost lab samples at hospitals have resulted in misdiagnoses, subjecting patients to repeat lab work to replace lost samples, and even unnecessary surgery due to mix-ups. So how do you keep your lab freezer organized? Read on for tips.

The Power of the Label

As mentioned by BitesizeBio, every unlabeled sample is a lost sample. While labeling systems may vary some from lab to lab, what system your lab ultimately decides to use for labeling isn’t as important as the notion of having a system that everyone who uses the freezer knows and complies with. The Research and Data Integrity program at Columbia University notes that properly labeled specimens reduce the risk of loss or damage to samples, the risk of contamination, and the risk of injury to oneself and others. Additionally, labels preserve the integrity of your research and help maintain a clean and organized working environment. At minimum, the labels should contain the following information:

  • Name or initials of the researcher

  • The notebook code

  • The date the sample was prepared

  • Identification of the sample, which may include its chemical structure, identification number, or sample name

  • Any solvents or substrates that the sample is in or on

The university offers the following tips for sample labeling:

  • Never write on the container with marker or wax pencil. Instead, use an adhesive label with non-bleed ink or use a computer printer to print the information on an adhesive label.

  • If you write the label by hand, be sure that your handwriting is legible, not only to you but to everyone in the lab.

  • Use clear tape to protect the label and ensure that the label is an appropriate size so that it does not obscure the contents inside.

  • Be sure that the adhesive you use is acceptable for the storage conditions. Adhesive labels used in lab freezers should be approved for use in extremely cold temperatures.

What’s the Code? Check the Notebook

Hand in hand with a labeling system is a lab notebook that provides the codes you may use to identify the contents of the label as well as where specific samples are stored. BitesizeBio recommends including a brief summary of each experiment that involves stored samples, including the number of samples, who ran the experiment, and the location of the samples. Do note: If your lab uses a barcoding system, the “notebook” may be a software program. Whether the notebook is handwritten or computerized, however, it is only as good as the dedication of each researcher to keep it maintained. 

Containing the Container Factor

Choose the appropriate container for storage. Some considerations when deciding what type of container you need include:

  • Are the contents volatile? If so, they need a container that is tightly sealed to avoid risk of spillage that can damage other samples or cause personal injury. Inert containers and caps may be necessary, as well.

  • Are the contents light-sensitive? If so, they will require an amber vial or tin foil wrapping with a label applied outside of the foil.

  • How long will the sample be stored? A short-term storage may allow for the use of disposable plastic containers. However, consider using Pyrex containers for samples that will be stored long term.

  • Consider boxes with dividers to provide a long term solution for storing vials in an organized fashion that prevents them from becoming lost under layers of permafrost.

What’s on the Shelf?

Another organizational technique is to arrange samples by shelf, with specific shelves devoted to specific sample types, or having each researcher use designated space on an assigned shelf. The lab notebook would then contain information by-the-shelf in the event of questions or spoiled samples. Researchers will also save time and decrease the potential for lost samples by knowing exactly which shelf their work is located on.

An important aspect to shelf organization is how stored items impact the ability of air to flow through the freezer. Air flow impacts the life expectancy of your lab freezer, which in turn impacts the viability of your stored samples.

Time to Dispose

A freezer filled with expired or unneeded samples is one that doesn’t have enough space for everyone’s work. Columbia University offers the following guidance on the proper time to dispose of samples:

  • The samples cannot be re-used.

  • The samples are contaminated.

  • The samples are expired.

  • The project is complete and the samples are no longer necessary.

Knowing when to dispose of a sample is another important component of your label or your lab notebook. Expiration dates should be included in your sample information, as well as notations on whether you can re-use the sample, and the date of the project’s completion.

Let Us Help

As noted, organization of your lab freezer is important for a number of reasons. Selecting the appropriate lab or medical freezer for your facility is also important. American Biotech Supply provides a variety of lab freezers to suit the specific needs of research and medical facilities, including ultra low temperature options, freezers with auto or manual defrost, undercounter or countertop options for facilities with limited space, chest-style freezers, and side-by-side or stackable freezer and refrigerator combination units. Check out one of our most popular units here. Not sure what you need? Our experienced staff is more than happy to discuss options that may work in your situation. Contact us for more information.

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