Temperature Data Loggers & Their Role in Environmental Monitoring

We owe many of the modern conveniences of life to data loggers. Think of the confidence with which we board an airplane, pop an ibuprofen pill into our mouths, or enjoy a forkful of fresh salmon at a restaurant. We are putting our health, our safety, our very lives into that airplane, that pill, that food. How did we get so comfortable?

Our confidence in consuming these products and services is a triumph of quality assurance. Because public health and safety depend on the quality of these products, they must comply with fairly stringent regulations imposed by government bureaus and third-party watchdogs. 

To comply with these regulations, organizations in these industries must validate that their products were produced, manufactured, stored, transported, and otherwise handled under conditions that have been proven to result in safe products. 

Consider the recently-released COVID-19 vaccines. Anyone who reads the news knows that the vaccines must be stored and transported at a certain temperature in order to remain effective. So how do companies like Pfizer or Moderna and their retail partners prove that dozes in a syringe were fastidiously kept at those temperatures?

The answer is environmental monitoring. Someone—or something—has to keep track of the temperature at every stage of the product’s life, from manufacture to consumption.

Is a human being assigned to follow each shipment of the vaccine, look at a thermometer, and make notes of the temperature on a spiral notepad? Not only are you unlikely to find anyone willing to ride in the back of a refrigerated truck for hundreds of miles—especially for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which must be kept at arctic temperatures—but humans are actually not the best tools for this kind of environmental monitoring. Humans make mistakes, write illegibly, fall asleep, or fail to notice details, among other vulnerabilities.

This is what brings us to the digital data logger. Data loggers are the unsung heroes of quality assurance and regulatory compliance. A digital data logger is a tiny, battery-powered computer that does one thing and one thing only: measure and creates a log of the conditions around it, producing a reliable and time-stamped record of those conditions.

Organizations use digital data loggers to monitor a variety of environmental conditions—humidity, pressure, voltage, etc. In this article, we will focus on temperature data loggers and the role they play in environmental monitoring for various regulated industries.  

What Is a Temperature Data Logger?

According to Dickson, temperature data loggers are pivotal for several areas of environmental monitoring. A temperature data logger is like any digital data logger in that it consists of three components:

  • Sensor. In the case of a temperature data logger, the sensor is a thermometer capable of detecting ambient temperature. The sensor will vary in sensitivity and durability, depending on whether it needs to measure the inside of a refrigerated truck or the temperature of superheated fluids.
  • Microprocessor. A small computing device that turns information from the sensor into digital data. 
  • Storage Drive. A data drive that can record data from the microprocessor. 

Organizations that must maintain a “cold chain” for their product quality often depend on multiple data loggers—in the factory, in the refrigerated truck, in the warehouse, at retail outlets. 

Large warehouses present a particular problem since temperatures can vary from one corner of the facility to the next. Warehouse managers must often use temperature data loggers to perform “temperature mapping” on the facility—making a map of the hotter and colder sections of the facility and recalibrating environmental control systems accordingly. 

What Are the Benefits of Using a Temperature Data Logger?

Temperature data loggers offer many advantages over earlier devices, and certainly over-relying on human resources. Digital data loggers can spend hours in refrigerated trucks, sometimes under a deep freeze, without complaining or failing. 

When in good working order, they never fall down on the job. An automated solution, they tirelessly record the conditions around them to the accuracy and resolution of the components. Digital data loggers are not subject to human error, either, and don’t cost as much as the salary or wages of a human data specialist. 

Ultimately, regulated industries trust digital data loggers because they produce data with a high level of integrity. To validate its integrity, the FDA holds data to the ALCOA standard—it must be:

  • Attributable
  • Legible
  • Contemporaneous
  • Original
  • Accurate

What Industries Use Temperature Data Loggers?

As mentioned above, the industries that depend on the most on environmental monitoring are the industries that face regulatory burdens in the name of public health and safety. Organizations that must validate the temperature conditions of their products often fall into one of the following industries:

  • Food Production. From farms to grocery stores to restaurants and everywhere in between, the industry that keeps us fed requires temperature monitoring at all levels. Improper temperature control at any point in food logistics can kill consumers. Partially due to Upton Sinclair’s explosive meatpacking industry expose The Jungle, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 led to the creation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which maintains regulatory controls on the food products that companies make available to consumers.
  • Pharmaceuticals. The FDA also maintains tight regulatory control over the pharmaceutical industry and for good reason. The cold chain required to deliver effective COVID-19 vaccines is just one example. Millions of people depend on the output of the pharmaceutical industry for their health and safety. If exposed to excessive temperature during manufacture, storage, or transit, many drugs and vaccines can spoil or become unsafe. 
  • Aerospace. Quality control failure of the Boeing 787MAX led to over 340 deaths across two accidents, highlighting the need for robust quality assurance in the aerospace industry. Companies must answer to a variety of Federal regulatory bureaus in the US, including the US Department of Defense (DoD), Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). AS9100, an aerospace-specific version of international control standard ISO 9001, specifies the conditions under which aerospace components must be manufactured, transported, and stored to maintain the quality and safety of aircraft, including exacting temperature standards. 

Conclusion

Temperature data loggers perform a crucial role in a society where we enjoy an amazing standard of living, as well as an epic level of consumer confidence. Without them, we would never know if a pill was safe to pop, food safe to eat, airplanes safe to board. As digital data loggers advance in sophistication and reliability, they will continue to play a critical role in our health, safety, and happiness.

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