The UCSF Freezer Initiative
Posted: December 17, 2018

UCSF is conducting a campus-wide inventory of -80°C Ultra-low Temperature (ULT) freezers to safeguard up to one billion dollars in research materials from natural disasters and power outages (see September ReSearch ReSource). Preliminary information indicates that UCSF may have up to 1,400 -80°C freezers with each storing an average of $500,000 worth of contents, and roughly half of the units at UCSF not connected to back-up power. In the event of a prolonged power outage, perhaps $500 million of research materials might be lost – including many irreplaceable samples.

This inventory is one component of a broader initiative comprised of 10 projects and is a joint effort by the Office of Research and Supply Chain Management to better understand and manage cold storage at UCSF. These projects fall under two groupings: information gathering and initiatives to address issues that have already been identified.

Information and data collection projects

  • Campus-wide -80°C freezer inventory
  • Backup power assessment: determine capacity, by building, to add additional red plugs
  • Basic research freezer contents analysis
  • Biospecimen banks contents analysis    
  • Fusion™ vapor freezer freezer beta test: evaluate new safe and sustainable storage freezer
  • Freezer monitoring systems: identify best value system by Facilities


  • Freezer cleaning service: feasibility analysis of UCSF-managed freezer cleaning service
  • ULT storage expansion: evaluate opportunities to expand biorepository space
  • Biorepository data systems: integration with LabVantage and RedCap software
  • Freezer Replacement: replace energy inefficient freezers 

In addition to the freezer inventory, there are projects that will enable UCSF to secure more freezer contents against long-term power loss. While the freezer inventory will identify which freezers are not connected to back-up power, another project will identify the capacity in each building to expand back-up power to additional freezers. Another project, spearheaded by Facilities, is identifying a freezer alarm system that best integrates into UCSF’s IT infrastructure and is affordable. UCSF is also one of a handful of beta-test sites for a novel vapor-phase storage freezer still in development which requires only one liquid nitrogen fill in its lifetime and can retain temperature below -80°C up to 18 days after a power outage.

Another important project will profile the contents of UCSF’s freezer by surveying a large sample of labs and biospecimen banks. The project lead is Research Commodities Manager Dean Shehu. His goal is to personally meet with up to 30 UCSF labs to collect this information. As a former lab manager himself, Shehu values these in-person meetings as a means to increase UCSF’s knowledge of labs’ cold storage needs.

The information gathered will better inform several initiatives already underway. There are two initiatives to expand biospecimen storage capacity both on campus and via commercial suppliers. Knowledge of the types and total volume of -80°C freezer contents will also elucidate items that would benefit from being logged in UCSF cloud-based database systems Lab Vantage and RedCap. The freezer inventory will yield sustainability benefits in terms of identifying the oldest most energy-intensive freezers. Replacing those with Energy Star -80°C freezers will reduce electricity use by 75% per freezer. If all of UCSF’s freezers were to be converted to Energy Star, long-term campus savings would be ~$3 million.

Lastly, a campus-funded -80°C freezer cleaning service is in the feasibility analysis stage. A concept under development is for UCSF to cycle through every lab annually and personally provide each lab with an empty -80°C freezer, tools, and preventative maintenance to support their freezer cleaning and contents consolidation.

This service concept addresses a need where many labs don’t have the equipment, personnel, tools and freezer expertise to properly maintain their freezer storage. Shehu learned that many freezers are not properly maintained due to other priorities. “Unlike microscopes or other lab equipment, freezers don’t generate data. If something is generating data for you, you have an interest in maintaining its operations to make sure it’s giving you correct information. Freezers don’t do that, but they can house hundreds of thousands of dollars of precious research materials,” he said.

There are multiple benefits to performing an annual cleaning and assessment of each -80°C freezer. Research at other institutions indicates that roughly 30% of items in any -80°C freezer can be eliminated. Therefore, the potential to reduce labs purchases of -80°C freezers by 30% will free up substantial resources for labs to purchase other needed equipment. Such a service would save time and resources for labs, especially those without a lab manager. UCSF operations will benefit from minimizing freezer ownership through reduced energy costs related to powering freezers and HVAC to compensate for the heat generated by these units. The consistent interaction with labs will also serve as a vehicle to disseminate best practices for sample preparation and storage and raise awareness of our cloud-based database systems Lab Vantage and RedCap.

This multi-pronged effort will help raise expertise, balance access to resources for all labs, and move UCSF toward its sustainability goals. Accurate, comprehensive inventory and organization ensure that freezers are effectively and efficiently used, maintained, allocated, and accounted for in a central information system, to the benefit of the UCSF research community.