How long does an autoclave cycle take to sterilize medical items?


In the healthcare industry, ensuring the sterility of instruments and equipment is paramount to prevent the spread of infections. Autoclaves, with their ability to use high-temperature and high-pressure steam, are indispensable in achieving this goal. But how long does an autoclave cycle take to sterilize medical items? How much time does staff need to use a steam sterilizer machine?

In Celitron’s next article, we will delve deeper into the factors that influence the cycle times of these onsite medical equipment and waste treatment solutions. We’ll also tell you which category of autoclave can be faster and more effective at sterilizing medical items!

How long does an autoclave cycle take? The basics

Before we get into specific details about how long an autoclave cycle takes, let’s first take a look at how steam sterilizers work. Similar to dishwashers or washing machines, autoclaves work in “cycles”.

You put a load of autoclave-compatible materials inside the machine, and launch a steam sterilization cycle based on the desired settings which will define pressure, temperature, and of course, the time it takes to sterilize the medical load inside. After the cycle is done and the items inside have dried and cooled down, they can be taken out and used for the treatment of patients without any risks of healthcare-associated infections, since steam sterilization can even kill heat-resistant foreign materials.

There are many types of autoclaves available on the market, and while they all use high-temperature and high-pressure steam to sterilize medical equipment, the category of the machine will affect how the steam is introduced inside the chamber where you put the load inside. This will affect the versatility, but also the speed of the autoclave.

How long does an autoclave take to sterilize medical items? Factors influencing cycle time

It’s difficult to provide an exact answer to this question because there are a multitude of factors that can affect how long an autoclave takes to sterilize medical items.

The most notable factors are:

  1. Steam sterilization temperature
  2. Load size
  3. Medical item characteristics
  4. Autoclave type
  5. Prep work

Let’s take a look at each of them!

1. TEMPERATURE - How long does an autoclave cycle take to sterilize medical items at high temperatures?

Temperature directly affects how long an autoclave takes to sterilize medical items. As the temperature inside the autoclave’s chamber increases, the time required for the sterilization process decreases. This is important because different materials may require different temperature settings.

Celitron’s autoclaves make this whole process easier with a fully automated operation and precise temperature controls ranging between 121 and 134 degrees Celsius. Our autoclaves come with preset cycles (flash, unwrapped, wrapped, prion, and porous) for different types of loads to facilitate the work of medical staff, but you can also customize up to 20 different unique cycle settings to suit the specific needs of your medical facility.

High temperatures can be dangerous, which is why our autoclaves also come with extra safety features to prevent unnecessary incidents. Until the temperature and pressure levels inside the autoclave’s chamber aren’t back to normal, its door cannot be opened.

2. LOAD SIZE - How long does an autoclave take to sterilize the load inside its chamber?

The size of the load inside the autoclave plays a pivotal role in determining how long an autoclave takes to sterilize medical tools. Larger loads generally necessitate longer cycles to ensure that the entire load reaches the required temperature and pressure for sterilization, and to make sure the steam reaches every material inside. As always, it is imperative to adhere to the autoclave manufacturer's guidelines regarding compatible materials and load capacity.

Celitron’s autoclaves are available in different sizes to accommodate medical facilities of all sizes and allow even the smallest of clinics to continue to operate profitably. Performance remains the same reliable sterilization technology regardless of model.

Celitron’s autoclaves:

3. ITEM CHARACTERISTICS – How long does an autoclave cycle take to sterilize certain items?

The composition and density of medical items being sterilized are critical factors that also affect how long an autoclave cycle takes to sterilize certain materials. Items with intricate structures may require longer cycle times to guarantee comprehensive sterilization. Additionally, the autoclave must be compatible with the materials being sterilized to avoid potential damage.

The versatility of the autoclave and which items are compatible with it is mainly defined by the type of steam sterilizer used – which brings us to our next point.

4. STERILIZER TYPE - How long does it take to use an autoclave? Gravity vs. vacuum cycles

Ultimately, to answer the question “how long does it take to use an autoclave”, you have to look at the type of steam sterilizer you’re using. While the previously mentioned factors certainly should not be overlooked, ultimately, on paper, the basis for the cycle time will be decided by the technology of your autoclaves.

There are two main types of autoclaves on the market categorized by how they introduce steam inside their chamber: gravity and vacuum cycle-based autoclaves. According to CDC guidelines about steam sterilization in medical facilities, there can be a marked difference between the cycle times of these two categories.

A) How long does it take to use a gravity autoclave?

This category represents a simpler category of autoclaves that use gravity to eliminate the air within the chamber before introducing steam. The limitations of this technology result in less versatility and longer cycle times.

The minimal exposure time to high-pressure steam at 121 degrees Celsius is at least 30 minutes. This means it can take about 60 or even 90 minutes to use a gravity autoclave. This estimation also includes the drying and cooling phases.

B) How long does it take to use Celitron’s vacuum autoclaves?

Vacuum autoclaves can remove all the air from the steam sterilizer’s chamber, thereby removing one of the most important obstacles of sterilization, and ensuring much more efficient steam penetration. They can also do this much faster thanks to a powerful vacuum pump. This results in greater versatility and shorter cycle times.

The minimal exposure time at high-pressure steam at 132 degrees Celsius is 4 minutes, which means a vacuum autoclave manufactured by Celitron can sterilize medical times in about 20 minutes. This estimation includes the cooling and drying phases.

5. PREP WORK – Other factors related to how long an autoclave takes to sterilize medical items

While the sterilization process technically only starts when you put the load inside the autoclave and press the appropriate button, there is also a fair amount of prep work that needs to be done. You can reduce the time it takes for an autoclave to be ready to sterilize medical items by paying attention to:

  • Proper packaging. Some items require to be wrapped before sterilization.
  • Proper loading of items. Do not overcrowd the chamber of the autoclave!
  • Routine maintenance and monitoring. Celitron’s self-diagnostic system makes it much easier to keep autoclave performance at optimal levels.
  • Staff training. While fully automated models like Celitron’s autoclaves are extremely user-friendly, staff should still undergo proper training to understand the equipment's functionality and safety protocols, and familiarize themselves with the manufacturer’s guidelines.
  • Documentation. Maintain detailed records of autoclave cycles, including date, time, temperature, and pressure. Proper documentation is crucial for quality control, tracking equipment performance, and complying with regulatory standards. Celitron’s monitoring software also makes this process easier.

Thanks to the rapid sterilization times of Celitron’s autoclaves, you can enjoy the advantages of a quicker turnover of sterile medical instruments, alleviated workloads and less pressure on staff, and seamless operations that can handle emergencies more easily.

Should you have any further questions about how long an autoclave takes to sterilize medical items do not hesitate to write to Celitron’s experts, and you can always contact us for a free price quote!

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