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Buying Used Lab Equipment

Few scientists have money to burn, especially when it comes to purchasing lab equipment. Lab instruments arguably represent the biggest slice of a lab's funding pie. Fortunately, scientists aren't restricted to buying new instruments at standard retail prices. They can purchase equipment second-hand, saving up to 70 percent on anything from a test tube to a production-scale fermenter. Buying used lab equipment is not limited to those who run poorly funded high school labs.

By | November 12, 2001

Few scientists have money to burn, especially when it comes to purchasing lab equipment. Lab instruments arguably represent the biggest slice of a lab's funding pie. Fortunately, scientists aren't restricted to buying new instruments at standard retail prices. They can purchase equipment second-hand, saving up to 70 percent on anything from a test tube to a production-scale fermenter.

Buying used lab equipment is not limited to those who run poorly funded high school labs. Investigators in established research or industry labs and academic facilities should also examine the secondary equipment market. Along with the potential financial benefits, there are other advantages to buying used lab equipment: minimizing landfill fodder, helping others get money for their unwanted items, saving on equipment upgrades, and even helping a charity. Furthermore, many sources of used lab equipment can ship rapidly-often faster than standard channels that send new equipment.

Reaping the financial benefits of buying second-hand requires homework. With scrutiny, the risks are manageable, and the effort expended can result in a transaction that is agreeable to all parties. For those ready to make the leap, the array of alternatives for making second-hand purchases is staggering. A large number of used equipment sources offer all manner of services, products, and warranties. What follows is a description of some of the considerations and potential pitfalls to bear in mind when purchasing used equipment. Although the discussion is mainly aimed at buyers, many of the ideas also apply to sellers.

Defining "Used"

Terms applied to equipment that is not standard retail vary considerably, and different companies may use the same term in different ways. The definitions below apply only to this article; when dealing with specific vendors, be sure that both you and the seller understand the terms being used.

Refurbished equipment refers to equipment that has been serviced by a qualified technician and has had all parts checked and replaced if necessary. Remanufactured equipment has had all its integral parts replaced, and has undergone extensive product testing. Cosmetic work may also have been performed. Generally, a remanufactured product should function pretty much like a new equivalent, and may even come with a similar warranty. When negotiating with a seller, make sure to find out exactly what has been replaced and tested, where the testing and reconstruction were done, and who performed the work-that is, whether by a manufacturer-authorized technician or another party.

Reconditioned items are those that were rejected by the original buyer or retailer, perhaps because the container was opened or damaged, or because the buyer simply changed his or her mind. Consequently, there may be no defect in such a product. Nevertheless, the vendor should be able to provide documentation proving that it was retested at the factory. This category also includes items that were close to new but replaced under warranty and subsequently repaired at the factory. Such items are essentially equivalent to new ones, and with the extra testing it could be argued that they may be "better than new." Finally, demonstration models are included in this category, because trained personnel continually test them.

As-is describes items whose condition is unknown to the seller or mediator. They are truly "second hand" and could be anything from perfectly functional-like new-to "on their last legs." These could be superb bargains but should be evaluated directly if possible. As-is equipment may come with a minimal warranty, but the term emphasizes an unknown history or condition.

Pathways to Purchasing

The first stage of research when making a used equipment purchase is no different than when buying new: Deciding which brands and models best suit the lab's needs. This can be complicated, however, because the secondary market includes both current and discontinued models. There is also a wider array of buying options compared to those available in the new equipment market. The accompanying table of companies is not a comprehensive list of sources in this rapidly changing market, but it illustrates the variety of options available to the laboratory bargain hunter.

The Source: Several companies refurbish (or remanufacture) their own brand products. Thus, one approach to buying secondary items is to contact the original manufacturer directly-a particularly simple solution when considering only one or two alternatives. For example, New Brunswick Scientific Co. of Edison, N.J., remanufactures its own brand of shakers, fermenters, and incubators. The company then sells these items with a six-month warranty.

Going directly to the manufacturer offers several benefits. First, it provides the security of expert technical attention at a fraction of the price of a new item. Also, many vendors offer after-warranty services, and some even provide demo models at a discount. Finally, because of the size of the markets, manufacturers often authorize third-party companies to service, refurbish, remanufacture, and resell their products. For example, Compco Analytical Inc. of Little Ferry, N.J., and TSA Inc. of Houston, Texas, are authorized to refurbish and market Hewlett Packard equipment.

The Upgrade: A variety of options are available for labs that already own outdated equipment and want to replace it. When mothballing an old instrument and buying new is neither the best financial nor environmental solution, some manufacturers will consider a trade-in. Some companies will upgrade the equipment instead. For example, Update Instrument Inc. of Madison, Wis., specializes in upgrading spectrophotometers, enhancing capabilities, and leaving the buyer with the familiarity of the old unit's shell at a price that is likely to be less than that of a complete replacement. A final alternative is to sell the old unit and buy another on the new or used market.

Going Once, Twice, Sold!: Sometimes people simply want to free up bench space and are willing to sell their equipment at a bargain price. They can either sell to a general retailer or refurbisher, or can use an auction. Some institutions operate their own auctions or bid sales, and areas dense with research labs may also have live auctions. In the past few years online auctions have become a popular medium for buying and selling just about anything. This has now extended to lab equipment, which is available through general online auction mediators and through services that specialize in lab equipment.

Many people are initially apprehensive of any type of auction, but those initiated often return. Although the anonymity of buyer and seller may appear to be a risk factor at first, this can be balanced by the reputation and functions of the auction house. In fact, one advantage of Web-based auctions is that feedback on previous transactions is available online, so auction participants can see a particular buyer or seller's rating. One such auctioneer is LabX.com, which hosts transactions and takes a $6-$30 fixed fee on listed items. According to J.T. Sandone, operations manager, "LabX allows market forces to determine the value of the products. Some auctions start with no minimum bid and end up selling for thousands of dollars. Some auctions start at $50 and close without a single bidder."

Warehouse Retailers: Most auction or brokerage sites provide no warranty; they simply mediate between the buyer and the seller, who then have to trust each other. If this seems too risky, consider a "warehouse" retailer. Some of these companies specialize in purchasing equipment from various sources and then selling it used, from a warehouse, sometimes after extensive refurbishing. These companies vary in the degree of refurbishing and the degree of instrument specialization, but this approach may be viable when looking for a common lab item or if brand name is not critical. Buying from a warehouse retailer holds the allure of potential bargains, but there are risks, too. Thus, researchers with garage sale tendencies should visit the warehouse in person to see exactly what is going into their nonvirtual shopping carts.

EinsteinsGarage, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a warehouse in Raleigh, N.C., operates primarily as an online auction or direct-bid Web site, but items are located in a warehouse rather than with an unknown seller. In effect, EinsteinsGarage is a discount distributor. Although equipment condition varies, much comes from the parent company, Fisher Scientific, 80 percent of which is new surplus stock. Rob Carskadden, general manager, notes that an advantage of EinsteinsGarage is that it is a small company with an easy connection to buyers (a "Mom-and-Pop store"), but with the benefits of expertise and service infrastructure through Fisher. Direct contact ("walk-in" traffic) with EinsteinsGarage is also possible at their Raleigh facility. Pegasus Scientific Inc. of Burtonsville, Md., also keeps a large inventory but does most of the refurbishing, of all types of lab instrumentation, in-house. The advantage of these and other warehouse sources is that the items are usually ready to ship, and delays are minimized, an important consideration for a start-up lab that needs to get experiments under way quickly.

The Classifieds: Similar in some ways to the nonwarehouse auction site, online sources-essentially classified services with vast databases-simply connect potential sellers and buyers. BioBid.com of San Diego acts as an intermediary and uses its influence to keep both buyers and sellers legitimate. The company can also help to mediate third-party warranties, and it takes a percentage commission on sale. BioBid.com is somewhat specialized, with an emphasis on genomics-related items such as DNA sequencers. LabWorld-online Inc. of Wilmington, N.C., runs a similar classifieds service, but for smaller lab items such as magnetic stirrers and shakers.

The Specialists: One of the risk factors of buying on the secondary equipment market is that instruments often need special care that may not be available at a general source. For example, Mike Gemble, owner of Conneaut Lake Scientific Inc. of Hartstown, Pa., notes that incorrect packing and shipping of a microscope can damage an otherwise perfectly good instrument. If equipment handling is a concern, consider looking for sources that specialize in various types of equipment; several are listed in the accompanying table. McBain Instruments of Chatsworth, Calif., specializes in microscopy, whereas MTX Lab Systems Inc. of Vienna, Va., focuses on microplate devices, and H.K. Equipment Inc. of Haverhill, Mass., concentrates on vacuum and thermal equipment. These specialists may charge a bit more for the used product, but they are more likely to handle the item appropriately during shipping.

Charity Lab: Labs that want to get rid of but not sell some equipment do not necessarily have to throw it away. Instead, consider the Charity Lab (www.charitylab.org). Although not a direct source for buying used equipment, the Charity Lab provides a means to donate surplus equipment to charitable organizations. First, it acts as a depository of unwanted inventory, especially from companies that have no further use for good-quality items and want to make a donation as a tax write-off. The only requirement is that the donated items be in good working order. The Charity Lab offers the equipment to high schools and junior colleges. Items that are not appropriate for these beneficiaries are sold on the market and the proceeds donated to charity. Thus, the Charity Lab provides a valuable service to the research and educational communities. Several other companies that deal in used equipment make a point of making donations of surplus material to the needy as well.

For some, there is greater satisfaction in getting an excellent item at a bargain price than in opening a box of shiny new toys. But, if fear of being taken advantage of prevents you from taking the used-equipment plunge, consider an online escrow agency. These services protect buyers and sellers during transactions. Once the buyer and seller agree to price and shipping conditions, the buyer sends the money to the escrow service. After the escrow agency verifies the payment, the seller ships the goods. The buyer has a specified number of days to inspect the merchandise, and if the buyer accepts the items, the escrow service pays the seller. Escrow services can be easily found through a quick search using an online search engine, but be aware that these services charge a fee.

Paul Wolf (wolf@biology.usu.edu) is an associate professor of biology at Utah State University.


Risk Management

Buying used lab equipment is not exactly like buying a new car; there are some unique factors to consider. Cost must be balanced against risk, and the goal is to minimize both factors. As a starting point for your own research, here are some points to consider:
  • Decide which brands and models will fit your needs. If at all possible, test-drive the model, for example at a colleague's lab.
  • Decide on a budget beforehand-you should know the best retail price for the new item after considering shipping, tax, and local contracts and discounts.
  • Watch for institutional restrictions-some universities do not allow, or limit, the buying and selling of secondary equipment.
  • Compare several companies. Ask about the item's condition on a scale of used-and-abused to completely remanufactured. If refurbished, to what extent, and by whom? If possible, try to visit the site where the instrument is located to evaluate it directly. Familiarity with the specific equipment can help to distinguish a lemon from a deal of the century. If in doubt, contact a professional association such as the National Instrumentation Service Association (800-447-4169) that can guide you to a qualified and appropriate third-party service organization.
  • What is the warranty? Make sure you study the terms as well as the time-line and compare them to those for the new instrument.
  • Are there possible trade-in options, perhaps with the original manufacturer? Compare these to no trade-in plus selling the item elsewhere.
  • Get referrals, and look for both satisfied and unsatisfied customers-though the latter are not always easy to find.
  • Do a test to build your confidence for a seller or mediator. If you are setting up a lab, start with small-ticket items, such as a pH meter or pipettor, for example. Do thorough evaluations, and if you are not satisfied, examine the seller's response. If you like the way you are treated, you will likely become a repeat customer, the mainstay of many successful operations.
  • Make sure the seller or distributor knows how to handle, pack, and ship the item appropriately.
-Paul Wolf





Supplemental Materials

Used Lab Equipment Services (no longer available)


 

 

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