Atypical suppliers of valuable research equipment – or, the purchases that drive your department accountants crazy (UPDATED!)

We all know that companies like Fisher and VWR are important suppliers of lab equipment, and places like Wildco and Forestry Suppliers (and, of course, Home Depot and Lowe’s) are important suppliers of field equipment. But ecologists are also known for, oh, let’s say purchases from less standard science suppliers, to the eternal consternation of university accountants and auditors. (Namnezia has an entertaining post on trying to get reimbursed for lab notebooks and a stapler for the lab. This also relates to an old post of Jeremy’s on exapting your own scientific gear.) As an example: I once made the unfortunate combination of purchasing hemp seeds (from NutsOnline, of course) and grow lights on the same day. That earned a call from the auditors. (Hemp seeds are used to grow oomycetes, and the grow lights were for our algae cultures, so they weren’t even related. Poor planning on my part. I realized what I had done, and brought the relevant protocols to our department accountants on Monday morning.)

So, what are some non-standard supplies or suppliers that you’ve found invaluable for your research? And what are some of the more unusual things you’ve purchased for your research?

My contributions:
Bed, Bath and Beyond: we buy a lot of totes from here. We’re probably going to buy 200 as part of our new lab startup. Why am I such a fan of Bed Bath and Beyond totes? For starters, they have very flat bottoms. We use the totes to store our beakers, so that we don’t have to move individual beakers around. You can fit ~50 150 ml beakers per tote – it makes life so much easier for getting things in and out of environmental chambers. (Carla Cáceres is the one who gave me this tip, by the way.) The flat bottom is key, because, if it’s not flat, the beakers are more likely to go careening around inside the tote if it’s not totally full, which is obviously a problem. Another handy thing about these totes is that we have generally been able to convince the lab safety folks that we can just label the totes (saying all of the beakers contain filtered lake water with plankton), rather than labeling each beaker individually. Labeling each beaker just isn’t feasible, so this is very helpful. And, finally, we can fit two of these side-by-side nicely on each shelf of our environmental chambers, so they pack in there efficiently. For all those reasons, I am a big fan of the Bed, Bath & Beyond totes. UPDATE: Here’s the info off the tote labels: They are made by Iris, and have UPC: 762016418292; they also say: 498980. UPDATE 10/8/12: The manager at a local store said the product number for the totes is 762016418292, and that they are not available for sale online.

Bed, Bath, and Beyond also has funnels that fit on the end of PVC sewer pipe. That may sound like an odd thing to want to do, but this allowed me to make cheap sedimentation traps when I was a grad student. I used a coupler to attach the PVC sewer pipe and the funnels, and it worked quite nicely. I tested out funnels from lots of places before finding the magic ones at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Denominator Company: This isn’t a company I’ve heard other ecologists talk about, but I love their lab clicker counters. I find the buttons much easier to push than the ones on Fisher counters, which saves a lot of wrist strain (and reduces carpal tunnel) when counting plankton all day. They are also pretty competitively priced compared to the Fisher ones. (We just bought ones for my new lab. The one with 8 buttons cost $300, for example.) A couple of odd things about them: if you want a clicker with 8 different buttons, you order a 1 x 9 counter (since they count the total at the end of the row). Also, you want a “non-locking totalizer” (NLT). The locking ones lock at 100. Apparently that’s useful in some settings (though I can’t really imagine which), but it would drive me insane. But, really, I don’t know why more labs don’t use this company. I love their clickers.

Grainger: My lab loves the Chemical Resistant Gloves for aquatic field work when it’s cold out. You can put thin glove liners under them, put these on top to keep dry, and still have enough dexterity to actually collect samples. Plus, the elastic sleeve cuff makes it so that they aren’t sliding down all the time, and the long length means you can reach into the water without flooding the glove.

And then, of course, there are the purchases from fairly standard places (Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.), but that lead to bewilderment on the part of the poor sales associate stuck trying to help you. I suspect many aquatic ecologists have a story that involves an exchange along the lines of:
Ecologist: “I’d like 40 of these garbage cans, please”
Salesperson: “We only have 27 of those gray ones, but can give you 13 black ones, too.”
Ecologist: “Oh, no, they need to all be the same color. Do you have 40 black ones?”
Apparently the idea that you don’t care which particular one you get, just that they are all identical, is not one they run into often.

And then there was the conversation I had with someone at the hardware store near the Kellogg Biological Station, in which I was asking him to help me figure out how to secure funnels to PVC sewer pipe, in a way that would be secure underwater. (This was for the sediment traps mentioned above.) He just looked at me and said “You’re from that bio station, aren’t you?” I guess we ecologists had a reputation.

Aquatic ecologists are also known for purchasing large quantities of things like pantyhose (or clay pots, ceramic tiles, and/or bridal veil) for field work. We made traps to try to catch oomycetes from ponds, which involved putting marbles and hemp seeds inside pantyhose, and then putting a fishing bobber on them so we could later retrieve them. You can imagine how excited the accountants were to receive those receipts.

And, finally, I’ve used a lot of drink stirrers in the lab. I found ones when I was a grad student that were the perfect size for grinding Daphnia in an allozyme rig. And, since I’m a Daphnia person, we still sometimes use allozymes (hey, we’re old school), so we still keep some drink stirrers around the lab.

So, what are your favored atypical suppliers of lab or field gear? And what is the strangest thing you’ve purchased for your research?

By the way, the idea for this post came from a suggestion by Jonathan Eisen, with follow up from Dr. Wrasse and Cackle of Rad.

UPDATE: I just learned that May Berenbaum has an article on the use of vibrators by pollination biologists. I can’t find it online, but if I find it, I will post the link. But that one might take the cake in terms of most unusual receipt to have to turn in!

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Stelio Chatzimanolis for tweeting me the link: (Subscription required)

68 thoughts on “Atypical suppliers of valuable research equipment – or, the purchases that drive your department accountants crazy (UPDATED!)

  1. How about nail polish, used to make stomatal peels of leaves? Two field seasons ago I had an amusing encounter with a beauty parlor in a small town – clear coat, no glitter. The technician took one look at me and asked if I was a biologist – apparently it’s not an uncommon purchase!

    • Yes! That definitely counts. I didn’t realize terrestrial folks used that, too. We’ve used clear nail polish for sealing cover slips on slides. That is definitely another receipt the accountants love.

    • Definitely nail polish. We used it for toenails of birds (neonates). Same with sharpies (under the chin). And also pantyhose or the sock-like pantyhose things – calms a bird right down and makes them easy to weigh. Throw in a few hundred zip ties and it looks like you’re up to something weird.

      • I love that your use of nail polish is so close to the intended purpose, yet so far at the same time. 🙂

  2. So in my uni, if you get enough salary $$ from grants you get some back in the form of an unrestricted slush fund. I once used this to buy an espresso machine for the lab from a place called “Whole Latte Love”. Needles to say I got a panicked call from accounting asking about my purchase from “Whole Lotta Love”.

    • Ha! One of my colleagues at Georgia Tech had a story about submitting a receipt for a computer repair to the accountants. Unfortunately, the place he had brought his computer to had a name that was very similar to that of a prominent strip club near campus. The accountants were a bit concerned about the receipt.

      I’ve also heard a story about an aquatic ecologist who turned in a receipt from Meijer (a store in the midwest that sells groceries and lots of other stuff) for $200 worth of noodles. The accountants were not happy, until he pointed out to them that they were *foam* noodles, used to make floats for mesocosms. The accountants had been worried that he bought $200 of ramen noodles on a grant.

  3. I remember having a conversation in Lowes about a light bank I was custom building using cool-white fluorescent lights. The person was very helpful, but recommend grow lights as a better alternative. He was surprised when I told him that they don’t have the full light spectrum that most algae require for growth. Once I started mentioning accessory pigments his eyes began to gloss over lol.

    • Ha! Yeah, we tried lots of different lights for our algae, and ended up using ones that are from an aquarium supply company. The biggest key we found in making our algae happy, though, was to bubble a lot more air through them. That really made them take off.

      • I found we needed to break the pumps we got from the aquarium store to remove the restriction valve on the flow. Once we did that, we were all set.

  4. As a dendrochronologist, when we collect tree cores in the field we store them in plastic drinking straws. Best drinking straws for this are at McDonalds (this is a universal–can get the same McDs straws in every country we’ve worked in). Some strategy involved in getting McDs straws, however. Some store managers aren’t very cooperative, which means you might have to buy sodas or milkshakes for your whole lab group and have everyone grab a few handfuls of straws (and then move on to the next McDonalds). Other store managers think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard of and give you a whole box of straws (500 straws…Jackpot!!).

  5. A few years ago, I met a woman who did work in Antarctica several decades ago. She was the only woman working at the station, and showed up with a massive number of condoms. She used them to cover the end of a core tube that she was lowering, so that nothing would get in it until it got to the sediment. (The impact with the sediment was apparently enough to break the condom.) Surely that raised some eyebrows during unpacking!

    • This reminds me of a story a friend of mine told me. He used condoms to transport invertebrates on alcool via airplane. Apparently, condoms are the best containers to support pressure changes. Also a lot of eyebrows during unpacking.

  6. Hubby found that drink cups from a local pizza place were perfect size to shelter his data loggers. He ended up getting ~200 of them. The guys thought he was nuts, but found it funny too.

    I purchased a flat of organic mushrooms from the coop to make fungal litter bags… With panty hose 🙂

      • Well, I don’t know if they’re organic, but we do indeed throw wheat seeds into our protist cultures. I think it basically serves as a recalcitrant, slow-release source of C and nutrients for the bacterial decomposers on which many of our protists feed. We protist microcosmologists pretty much treat the bacteria as a black box, and so our culture methods basically come down to “That’s how Sharon Lawler and Peter Morin did it back in 1993, and it seemed to work, so that’s how I’ll do it too.”

        Re: litter bags, if you’re doing a study on how protist diversity and species composition affects decomposition rate, as my former labmate Jill McGrady-Steed once did, you cut bridal veil into tiny squares and then sew those squares into tiny litterbags, each just large enough to hold one wheat seed.

      • I remember Lin Jiang specifying organic to me when I was getting set up to grow Paramecium, so I went over to Whole Foods for them.

      • I get wheat seeds at a local health food store, so I’d guess mine are organic too. Probably most places that carry wheat seeds at all only carry organic ones. Not sure if “organic” is essential, though; I’ve never tried the organic vs. non-organic experiment…

        I have a student who needs uncooked mung beans and lentils for his bean beetles. He gets them at the Asian grocery store at the end of our street. But I don’t think he needs such excessive quantities that he’s ever drawn weird looks.

  7. Our solution for the scads of beakers in environmental chambers problem is to use fiberglas lunch trays, which we buy from a restaurant supply company — fortunately I’ve never been anywhere that the chem safety police wanted every beaker labeled. The only thing that’s ever raised eyebrows, though, is when we buy dozens of bullet boxes. Handy for your ammo, but even better for storing microcentrifuge tubes.

    • Ammo boxes, eh? I’ll have to look into that. They’re presumably cheaper than those ridiculously expensive freezer boxes?

      The thing about the cafeteria trays that I don’t understand is that it seems more prone to having a beaker get knocked over. Does that happen? For the chambers, you could probably fit more in with the trays, which would be nice. We also use the totes to create stacks of totes of beakers in the lab. I like to think of this as the Manhattan model. We don’t have room to keep spreading out horizontally, so our beakers need to go up vertically.

      • Your tote recommendation from BBB is great. We are running out of room in the lab for storage of all the flasks and beakers. I just hope our BBB in Canada has the same flat-bottomed totes!

      • I just edited the post with more info on the totes, which will hopefully help you find them. 🙂

      • I just added more info on the totes to the post, after my postdoc made a voyage to our local BB&B to find out how to buy 200 totes at once. The product number for them is 762016418292, and they aren’t available online.

  8. I do a lot of work collecting fishes on SCUBA, which means that often I end up blowing several hundreds of dollars for spears, spare tips, spear grip, nets and camouflage rash guards at stores like “Blue Water Hunter”. Funny thing is I’m vegetarian…

    • I was looking at waders yesterday, and realizing that the camo ones would seem extra weird to purchase. Fortunately, I then remembered that Cabela’s sells women’s waders, which are not camo.

  9. As a “computer” ecologist I have to live vicariously through graduate students for these kinds of stories. My graduate student Julie Messier worked in the BCI plot in Panama. She needed to retrieve leaves from the top of trees. One standard method is to use a shot gun. So she lined up a park ranger to do the shooting. But then because it was on the long term plot they told her she had to use steel pellets instead of the usual lead (due to lead leaching into the ground). These were unavailable anywhere in Panama. So I had to sign a purchase request for thousands of shotgun shells, ship them, and then she had to talk them through customs in Panama as a perceived Yankee importing large quantities of ammunition into Panama (she was actually Quebecois but I don’t the Panamanian customs agents appreciated that subtlety). I sometimes think that was the single most impressive feat of what was an impressive field season by her.

    After hearing this story, Jeff Lake took the other route to get canopy leaves and hired a tree climber. However, Harry Potter 7 had just come out in Spanish and the guy wouldn’t climb trees for more than a couple of hours a day because he was too busy reading!

    • That is really impressive that she got them through! I spent a long time talking with various customs and FWS type people trying to import live amphipods into the US from Canada. I kept getting transferred to terrestrial plant folks, and it was clear that they had no idea what an amphipod was. But the only common name I know of for them is scud, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to say that i was looking to import scuds into the US!

  10. In fairness to the accounting staff who get alarmed by this sort of thing, sometimes there is reason for alarm. Not too long ago, my university hired a hotshot engineering prof away from another university–only to find out after hiring him that he was under investigation at his previous university for using grant funds to buy bigscreen tv’s and sound systems for his house and chrome wheels for his car. The accusations proved true. So while it looks funny when you spend your grant money on hemp seeds and grow lights or whatever, sadly there are some people who are both unethical enough and stupid enough to spend grant funds on obviously-inappropriate things.

    • Oh, yes, definitely. When I first got to Georgia Tech, there was a big scandal there where a department administrator had used grant funds to buy all sorts of personal stuff, including a big boat. (This all hit the news the day after I bought a boat for my lab, by the way.) So, yes, I agree that it’s good that there are people who are looking out for fraudulent spending, and I also completely sympathize with the accountants who need to okay all these weird purchases by ecologists, because their jobs are on the line, too, if they miss fraud.

      • Man, I wished I worked in a field that required me to purchase a “lab boat”. If you ever need to collaborate with a neurobiologist…

      • There are definitely perks to being an aquatic ecologist! Should I point out that we have multiple lab boats? We usually use a row boat for bigger lakes and a kayak for ponds. 🙂

  11. Two anecdotes.

    An aquatic ecologist friend of mine ordered a water bed. Why? The perfect method for transporting a lot of sea water full of blue crabs on the back of a truck from the coast inland to campus.

    Condoms. Perfect for placing on flowers to prevent (self)pollination.

    • Yeah, my husband is a mathematician, and there’s no competition in terms of who buys more interesting research equipment! But thousands of dollars of legos does sound very fun. 🙂

  12. My favorites:

    Williams Brewing Company, which normally sells to beer home-brewers, makes a really nice temperature controller for controlling the temperature of a refrigerator to between 35F (the normal low temp on a refrigerator) and room temperature. If you don’t need extreme precision and don’t have access to a growth chamber, you can make your own out of a fridge and one of these.

    Multi-colored toothpicks from a party store. 10,000 of them for marking individual seedlings. I bought the store out, and got some raised eyebrows.

    Potassium nitrate (aka the explosive for rocket propellants. fireworks, and gunpowder). Also happens to be a useful fertilizer for seed germination of small-seeded grasses. You used to be able to buy this as saltpeter from any drugstore. Now it’s only available from shady organizations online.

  13. I also have had my fair share of “weird” purchases for my lab, but luckily our accountants are pretty understanding. I just include a note with my receipts and picture them chuckling whenever they get my comments. I DO have a question about the ammo boxes for sample vials — that is a great suggestion, btw! I was looking at a website to price out ammo boxes ( ) and found myself trying to figure out what calibre and nearest handgun bullet make which would be most similar to my cryo vials…. Can anyone advise which calibre sizes would be good for flip-top 2-mL, screw-cap 2-mL and 5-mL vials? 🙂 Thanks for your help! (Ecologists do ask a lot of weird questions too!)

    • I would also love more details on the ammo boxes. I started looking yesterday, but couldn’t figure it out. Hopefully someone who knows more about this will chime in!

      • We use MTM Case-Gard P100 series boxes. The P-100-44 (for .44 magnum or Colt .45 ammo) works well for 1.5ml cent tubes and cryo tubes (though some cryo tubes — 1.7s, maybe? — are a bit too tall). The P-100-45 are shorter, and work well for 0.5 ml tubes (and pcr tubes). We like them primarily for their durability relative to the paperboard ones, but they’re also transparent (if you choose), hold 100 tubes (instead of 81), and are easier to relabel. Drawback: they don’t fit in standard racks for cryo boxes. Website: In the descriptions, the “Max. OAL” is the maximum overall ammunition length. This would be what you need to compare to your tubes to see if they’ll fit in a particular box.

      • Also, the slip-top style (rather than flip-top) would probably work for tubes that are bit too tall (like 2 ml tubes).

  14. We have to purchase several hundred of those “red solo cups” that are more commonly used for beer pong. They are the perfect size for holding individual dragonfly and damselfly larvae in well water! Definitely get weird looks from the Canadian Tire staff and the accountants 🙂

    • We pass a bunch of frats and sororities on the walk home from my daughter’s daycare, and I’ve wondered how I will explain beer pong to her when she asks. Maybe I can try saying they’re raising dragonfly and damselfly larvae for science projects. 😉

  15. I saw a talk a couple years ago by a researcher studying the Taimen in Mongolia. She was new on the project, and on arriving in Ulaanbaatar, the senior researcher took her to buy vodka and cigarettes. A lot of vodka and cigarettes. In the rural areas where they were working, it was easier to barter and gift these universal commodities in exchange for goods, services, and favors than it was to use cash. Which is great until you have to explain to the administrator why you should be reimbursed for $1000 worth of booze and smokes…

  16. I worked in a lab in Sweden where there was a group working on lichens. They found out that the best baskets to grow their lichens in were those used to package physalis on sale in the local supermarket. They rung the manufacturer of the baskets, who was only willing to sell them in astronomic numbers. So, the group bought 250 packs of physalis from the local store, used the baskets and put the physalis in a big bucket in the coffee room for everyone to take home. You can only imagine what the accountants must have thought: they used the same coffee room.

  17. I am a huge fan of McMaster-Carr (similar to Grainger) because they have great illustrations of their items. This is perfect if you are looking for something but don’t know what it’s called. I wrote a post about it a while back.

    I love nail polish and little colored sticker dots for labeling vials. I don’t think I’ve bought anything too weird in large enough quantities to raise red flags, but my bags always get searched (you know, boxes with batteries and wires…).

    • Yes, I also find the catalogs with pictures very helpful — even if I know what I want (say, a 150 ml beaker), it can be hard to figure out which of the 82 options I want just from the online description. So, I requested a Fisher catalog when I got to Michigan. It also helps that it’s a great weight to use for making filtering screens. 😉

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  28. Water-based lube from the local pharmacy. Great for mounting aquatic organisms for macro photography without being visible on the photo.

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