Lab Queries: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

I’m sure you’ll all be happy to know that this week on the blog we are leaving calibration curves and math behind us!

Don’t worry, if you still have questions about instrument calibrations, or a new issue arises in your lab, I’m always here to help you address those.  In talking to some of you at FELC a few weeks ago, the issue of troubleshooting came up a few times.  I know this can be a hard topic and really digging into a broken instrument can be an intimidating idea for some people.  But I’m going to let you in on a secret….it’s maybe one of my favorite activities to do!

I’m weird….I know…..I’ve accepted it and moved on. 😊

What to Do When Things Go Wrong

We’ve all had that moment….we started samples on an instrument, left for the night expecting to come back in the morning to a nice, completed data set, and return to find that our instrument malfunctioned!  Now results are behind schedule and you have the added issue of an instrument that just refuses to cooperate.

squirrel

Troubleshooting can be a frustrating and tricky activity to complete, especially because instruments never break at convenient times.  If I had a dollar for every time an instrument broke when I had rush samples to do, I wouldn’t have to work anymore!  But, because instruments will always continue to break, and I need to keep my job, I thought I’d fill you in on some of my favorite troubleshooting tips.

  • Follow the Path

A good way to make sure you don’t overlook any parts of your instrument is to start at one end of the instrument and follow the sample path through to the other end.  It’s easy to jump from place to place first, maybe checking your sample loop before jumping up to check your eluent filters.  Odds are that you’ll over look something, and your issue will be in the place you over look.  Following the path helps ensure that you give every section of you instrument it’s due investigation.

  • The Tubing Checker

One of my new favorite troubleshooting tools is a spare autosampler syringe!  When I need to troubleshoot one of my instruments with a large amount of tubing, I’ve found that using the syringe to carefully inject DI water into each section of tubing is a quick and easy way to look for the source of the problem.  Maybe a section of tubing is plugged, maybe it’s cracked, maybe there’s a dust bunny lodged in the end (true life this has happened to my IC!!)  It’s so hard to tell sometimes by just eyeballing the sections, but this technique has yet to fail me!

  • Look Beyond the Science

Sometimes the source of an instrument issue isn’t related to the “science-y” components we would typically focus on.  Sometimes exhaust fans wear out or autosampler screws fall out or sheer off.  Don’t be afraid to look into the more mechanical parts of your instruments.  Think of them as support systems.  If your autosampler syringe housing is loose and wobbly because a screw is loose, maybe the syringe isn’t being held firm enough to puncture the vials.  If you’re lucky, your instrument will be smarter than you.  Sometimes the software might notice that something is wrong and stop the analysis run.  If it’s not….you’ll come back to a broken syringe plus a lack of data.

screw

If you have any fun or interesting troubleshooting tricks that have never steered you wrong let me know!  I’m always on the hunt for new ideas, and if I get enough, we might do a part 2 later.  Having as many tools in your troubleshooting tool belt as possible is so beneficial, and it’s one of the areas that we should all constantly be striving to improve.