The Autoclave: All About Sterilizers

What Is an Autoclave/Sterilizer and How Does It Work?

In 1879, French microbiologist Charles Chamberland developed a unique device that could sterilize all manner of medical instruments, surgical tools, various solid or liquid materials, and more. Chamberland's invention worked by exposing bacteria and other microorganisms to steam and pressure, killing them easily. The device would be named the autoclave, and it would serve as an enclosed alternative to open flaming, a common process of sterilization in which microorganisms on tools and materials were killed by exposure to fire.

Today's sterilizers vary in size and functionality, depending upon the needs of the particular laboratory or medical setting. Some autoclaves are microwave-sized tabletop units while others are large, multi-shelved units (common in hospitals).

Regardless of their size and purpose, all units use the same basic concept of applying pressurized steam over a sufficient period of time. Typically, the utensils to be sterilized are first washed to remove debris, and then placed in the autoclave to kill off any remaining microorganisms so that the tools can be reused without fear of cross-contamination.

The autoclave doesn't produce the same kind of steam that you produce while cooking. A boiler system connected to a treated water supply pure, high-quality steam with an optimal composition of only 3% liquid in the vapor.

If the percentage of liquid drops below 3%, the steam is a dry steam, which drastically reduces the sterilizer's efficiency and can increase the sterilization time significantly. Likewise, a percentage above 3% leads to a wet steam, which will increase the amount of time the tools will need to dry.

Types of Sterilization Cycles: Pre-Vacuum vs. Gravity

When it comes to sterilizing objects with steam, two of the most common types of sterilization cycles are pre-vacuum and gravity. The gravity cycle is the more simplistic of the two, in which gravity is used to draw steam down into the chamber and displace the air inside. Gravity autoclave cycles are commonly used with things like glassware and waste. Pre-vacuum cycles, on the other hand, force the air out of the chamber to create a vacuum environment into which the steam enters. This vacuum assists the steam in penetrating porous items.

The Benefits of Sterilizers/Autoclaves

Cleanliness is an important aspect of healthcare and laboratory workif not the most important. As such, modern autoclave units have a number of key advantages:
  • Provide clean, reusable tools, utensils, glassware, etc.
  • Can destroy tough-to-kill microbes that might otherwise survive, like endospores
  • Protect patients from cross-contamination and infection
  • Improve efficiency of sterilization process (require less energy and time than other methods)
  • Various size and accessory options provide easy sterilization for a large number of utensils of different shapes and materials

In general, the primary benefit of having an autoclave in your lab or medical practice is that the use of appropriate steam and pressure is, at present, the most reliable method of destroying even the toughest of microorganisms.

Selecting an Appropriate Sterilizer for Your Laboratory or Medical Practice

Choosing the right autoclave requires some consideration. How much equipment will need to be sterilized and how often? A small private dental practice may find that a small tabletop sterilizer is sufficient to hold the majority of what needs to be sterilized in a day. A large, busy hospital in a populous city, however, will likely require a much larger unit to hold the variety of surgical tools, testing materials, glassware, etc. that are used in daily operations.

Next, consider what kinds of items will need to be sterilized and what type of sterilization cycle will best do the job. If you'll be sterilizing a lot of porous items, an autoclave with a pre-vacuum design may work best, as the vacuum environment helps to ensure the penetration of steam through the object. If you'll be sterilizing primarily non-porous items, you may want to consider a gravity autoclave.

As always, budget will be a major contributor to your choice in autoclave. Think about whether you want to purchase a new or used autoclave and shop around for the best prices (a refurbished sterilizer may be sufficient, depending upon your needs). You could also consider working with a company that offers monthly leasing options for autoclaves if a full purchase isn't feasible. If you do plan to purchase an autoclave rather than lease it, make sure you're aware of whether it comes with a warranty and that you are familiar with its coverage.

You'll also want to make sure that the model you select will work with your building's electrical and boiler systems. A mismatch of equipment can leave you struggling to decide whether to replace the sterilizer or building infrastructure. In the healthcare industry especially, sticking to one's budget can directly affect a clinic or hospital's daily functionsand, ultimately, the out-of-pocket costs to the patients.

Finally, as with many products these days, you may want to turn to the internet to find and compare prices. In modern times, medical professionals have been able to save significant amounts of money by ordering supplies and equipment from online wholesalers who offer big discounts. By taking advantage of online deals, you can obtain good quality equipment and shave quite a bit off the list price.

Find Great Prices on Autoclaves at Medical Device Depot

Medical Device Depot is an online retailer of medical equipment, tools, and materials which aims to lower the cost of healthcare for medical professionals from a variety of fields. We offer both automatic and manual sterilizers/autoclaves, as well as utensil washers and a variety of sterilizer accessories. Our autoclave prices could save you thousands of dollars off the list price. Plus, most of our models also have convenient leasing options for which you can easily apply online.

We offer a wide variety of sterilizers and sterilizer accessories, including the simple, rugged Saniclave 102 and various fully-automatic, one-touch autoclaves. Supplement your new autoclave with a convenient instrument washer or add a variety of additional autoclave racks, baskets and mats to suit your needs. We also offer a number of biological indicator test packs and cassette seal and lube kits to help you test your sterilizer and keep your autoclave functioning at its peak.