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Options to Consider Before Re-Using An Overhead Medical Support Structure

The inevitable equipment upgrades and remodeling projects common to hospital settings often prompt questions regarding the merits of repurposing an existing overhead support system versus a new installation. 

Strong and stable systems ensure proper functioning of equipment and protect manufacturer’s warranties of highly sophisticated lighting and imaging systems weighing hundreds or thousands of pounds. Patient liability and employee safety are also a concern, so before any decision is made regarding the use of an existing overhead support structure, it is important to consider all available options.  It is our hope that with this information in hand, you will have everything needed to make an informed decision.

On the surface, the least expensive option is to assume that since the existing structure held the old equipment, it is suitable for re-use.  Although this may be true, there are no guarantees that the existing support structure is suitable for the new equipment.  If problems arise, the equipment manufacturer will claim that the General Contractor has final responsibility for the strength and stability of the mounting structure.  Re-purposing is your least expensive option, but this approach also has the most potential downside because nobody has assessed the structure’s suitability for the new application. Your project may also experience delays if the contractor discovers problems mid-project and worse yet, the new equipment may malfunction or even fall during use.  With these outcomes in mind, the re-use of an existing support structure has potential hidden costs that may far exceed anticipated savings.

The second option is hiring an engineer to review the existing structure and compare the support system to standard design practices.  Often this additional step unveils missing bracing, loose hardware, and improper design concepts that can save substantial time downstream.  The last thing an architect, general contractor, or construction manager wants to tell the project manager that their project is facing delays because the existing support structure is insufficient to handle the new equipment loads.  Although a site visit is not fail-safe, a simple engineering judgment goes a long way toward spotting potential problems and in some cases, repairs and modifications to the existing structure MAY improve system performance and safety.  If you do elect to re-use the existing support structure, we recommend having a competent carpenter perform a “nut and bolt” check to ensure that the structure’s hardware remains properly torqued.

Still a third option is to hire an engineering firm like Unistrut Service Company to conduct a formal assessment of the existing structure. Unlike a simple site visit, this option includes a complete engineering review, including load calculations.   In a best possible case scenario, the engineering study may find that existing structure is suitable for re-use and the general contractors can move forward installing the new equipment.  If the study discovers design flaws or structural issues, the complexity and feasibility of repairs and modifications depends on the original fabrication method.  Older support structures fabricated using Unistrut or a similar style of channel lend themselves to field modification, but most of the structural steel and red iron supports we see in the field require welding.  The byproducts of welding (fumes, dust, and potential explosions from sparks near oxygen) are problematic in hospital settings.  So while you may be tempted to explore this option, remember that the combined costs of the engineering assessment and potential repairs may significantly exceed the investment required to replace the entire system from scratch.  It is also important to note this step is solely a design analysis; there is likely NO warranty on the lighting, cath lab, x-ray, patient lift or boom system if a weld should fail or break.

The only options that ensure the equipment manufacturer will honor a warranty include removal and installation of a new support structure backed by engineering drawings and PE seals, or making modifications (again, backed by engineering drawings with PE stamps when necessary). These options may seem unnecessary, but when you factor in the costs associated with voided equipment warranties and potential patient liability, a new or thoroughly reviewed support structure are the most cost-effective solutions over time.

As an example, this month, we were hired to assess the suitability of a Cath Lab support structure we designed and installed 17 years ago.  In this case the new equipment’s support structure requirements were remarkably similar to the old equipment.  The owner hired us to confirm the original calculations, perform a nut and bolt inspection (re-torqueing) and add an additional.  In this case, no additional changes were necessary. Here is a one of the original drawings which features our old address and phone number:

Original drawings of medical support structure

Although we offered a turnkey service for the original installation and performed the retrofitting, we can also design systems, and cut, kit, and bundle materials so a local contractor can complete the project.

If you are wondering what to do with an existing overhead support structure, remember to explore your options with an engineering company that understands the complexities of hospital and medical applications.  A suitable overhead support structure will help ensure proper and accurate operation of your equipment while keeping patients and staff out of harm’s way.  To discuss the specifics of your support structure project, contact the engineering experts at Unistrut Service Company for further assistance.