Four Steri-Center Options For Your Dental Practice

By Dr. David Ahearn, DDS, Founder and President of Design Ergonomics

Our industry made up the name “Steri-Center” and sold a bunch of cabinet conglomerations by convincing people that they were borderline magical.

Depending on your type of practice and goals, we’ll show you choices from super cheap and basic to those fancy showpieces – in case you think that patients will be impressed. And we’ll also show you a choice specifically designed for the unique challenges of the busiest of dental practices.

1. Big Box Store (e.g., IKEA) cabinets in a dental office

There is one significant do not do in this category and that is using kitchen cabinets from big box stores like IKEA. My opinion is that IKEA expects you to put their cabinets in an apartment and move before the whole thing delaminates! They also expect you to be an urban professional who doesn’t cook much anyway. You’ve got cafés to visit in your swanky city. (Okay, when I was young and had an apartment, I had these cabinets. Don’t judge me!)

In contrast, the solid wood cabinets that you can get at the big boxes can hold up rather well. However, these solid wood designs tend to look like the cabinets in your mom’s kitchen instead of something that your patients would consider appropriate for the sanitary aspects of your healthcare facility. They’re also harder to clean.

The other big box store option is flat laminate cabinets. Unfortunately, these tend to be at the discount end of the spectrum, so there’s a risk of having them perform much like the IKEA units. Nonetheless you CAN create a proper layout and flow that’s an efficient process – if you design it right. Make sure to include enough working countertop. (That’s something premade Steri-Centers skimp on, but I’ll cover that later.) If you’re on a really tight budget, you can even use simple open shelves for storage above this cabinet area. Just don’t put it in the patient’s view!

The last problem with a premade cabinet solution is the autoclave rack itself. We see far too many sterilization areas that look mostly pretty good five years out but the actual autoclave space is almost completely destroyed because of the constant heat and steam that a busy practice creates. This delamination is embarrassing – and it may pose health concerns. Next time you’re in Steri, take a look at the cabinet faces and counters immediately adjacent to your autoclaves. Peel back any loose laminated surfaces, and I bet you find mold. Consider a different racking system for this area.

2. Contractor cabinets

Many contractors have, or have access to, extremely good commercial cabinet shops. If your contractor has significant commercial experience he might be able to build a cabinet with high-quality moisture resistant board with commercial grade laminate and edge banding. It’s much heavier than residential specifications. This will be a more expensive solution but has a much greater probability for durability. Make sure to ask them to show you their laminate and their edge banding technique and materials before making a decision. There are some very good 2 and 3 mm highly durable edge bands. They may limit the cabinet color selection so make sure you choose the combination wisely. Again, like the pre-made cabinet solution, you should be able to design something that has a reasonable flow and efficiency.

Sterilization area custom cabinetry

Custom cabinetry can be attractive but it is often an expensive option. Just make sure that there is adequate venting for the autoclave.

Since you’re spending a fair amount, make sure that all the features that you would want can be included in this design:

  • A moisture proof autoclave area. Venting is critical here.
  • Large trash storage volume. (No one has time to take out the trash multiple times a day!)
  • Some sort of hanger system for all of the small items that you want to have at your fingertips. Don’t let these clutter your counter.
  • A significant amount of storage. All your disinfection supplies should be inventoried at their point of use.

3. Commercial “Steri-Centers”

The 3rd alternative for sterilization, while quite common, is unfortunately quite expensive; purchasing one of the dealer units. The build quality on these varies widely. Some are designed with rather good durability. Even the metal cabinets are a better alternative to the thin box-store laminates mentioned earlier.

Steri-Center example

Just look at those fancy lights!

However, the main reason most offices purchase a dealer-type Steri-Center doesn’t really have anything to do with its capability or performance. Instead, it’s a marketing device. Reps explain that your Steri-center should be displayed as a focal point of your office – showcased to your patients. Their logic goes as follows; Your patient is nervous and doesn’t trust you. Therefore, you need to show evidence of your hygienic tendencies.

I’ve commented on this in lectures and my statements have been considered rather controversial, given how many corporate types have sent me hate mail. Here’s how my logic on this runs:

  1. The most highly contaminated and potentially unsafe part of the office is the last thing I would want to put my patients in front of! Contaminated instruments are constantly being run through that area and the thought that they would be exposed to patients and family coming up and down the hallways has been a challenge for me. It should also be for you too.
  2. My second objection is simply that if your patient doesn’t trust your infection control, it probably has something to do with a trust issue created in some other part of the office. If their first impression of your practice is cluttered and congested, you’ve already lost them. Therefore, you should start by fixing those challenges – which are probably far less expensive to remediate than buying a fancy looking sterilization unit with colored lights and sticking it in a hallway.
Steri Center with segmented countertop

Cluttered and congested “Stericenter” showcased in an office hallway. This is exactly what NOT to do!

If you do choose to buy one of these units, try to find one with a continuous countertop. Many of them are modular so that the cabinet sections can be smaller for easy shipping. That’s nice for the shipper but it’s horrible for the day-to-day flow of instruments across the work surface! Breaking up a linear sequence with gaps or walls kills efficiency.

4. Desergo Dental Office Sterilization Centers

I have been studying, improving, and lecturing about the importance of a smooth dental office sterilization and dental resupply system for almost two decades. Unfortunately, the industry continues to produce sterilization products that don’t flow, and don’t stand up to the challenges of the dental environment. Out of sheer frustration, I had to build what our clients have been asking for – and give you what I use in my own practices daily.

Desergo Steri Center - dental sterilization

Long continuous countertop with ample off-counter storage is imperative for productive use

I designed it for … well … me. And because I have a factory, we built it to last using the same commercial grade materials found in all our products. I designed big continuous countertops, included a chrome and stainless steel autoclave frame, lots of pulldown storage, built-in water filtration and customizable aluminum wall racks to clear clutter off the work surface. You could probably build this yourself – and we would be happy to show you how. But I have a feeling that it’s cheaper just to have us make it for you.


David AhearnDr. David Ahearn, DDS, Founder and President of Design Ergonomics (desergo.com) and Ergonomic Products (ergonomic-products.com).

To learn a little more about my journey in dentistry, and other principles you can apply to make your practice a fun, easy, and productive place to work, take a look at our This Can All Be Easier playlist on YouTube at:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLdy8h3FzbwzK-LWXejuKHmpcETFy_cGm8

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