Best Maintenance Practices for Your Portable Suction Unit

Ask any paramedic and they’ll tell you one of the most critical pieces of equipment in their EMS arsenal is their portable suction unit. Nothing takes the place of a suction unit. There is no other means of removing blood, vomit, or secretions from an airway, except through immediate, aggressive suction. This is why the maintenance of your unit is vital to airway management.

Let’s review some of the best maintenance practices for your portable suction unit, so that you’re prepared for that next critical suction scenario.

The Role of Suction in Emergency Response

When we think of portable suction, respiratory emergencies naturally come to mind, but your suction unit is a necessary tool for a wide range of emergencies, including:

  • Stroke
  • CHF
  • Inability to swallow
  • Altered consciousness
  • Overdose/intoxication
  • Foreign body obstruction
  • Trauma



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Any emergency can turn into a respiratory emergency, and your primary responsibility is to ensure a patent airway and prevent hypoxia. Some of the signs of hypoxia include:

  • Increased work of breathing
  • Use of accessory muscles
    • Belly-breathing (in children), nasal flaring, retractions
  • Restlessness/agitation
  • Confusion
  • Bradycardia, especially in pediatrics
  • Decreased level of consciousness
  • Inadequate breath sounds
  • Abnormal breath sounds (gurgling, wheezing, stridor)
  • Coma
  • Seizures

The critical role of suction in preventing hypoxia means you must ensure your unit is functional. This comes down to proper maintenance.

The Importance of Power

Your portable suction unit is of no use if it doesn’t power up. Most units rely on rechargeable batteries, but as we all know, batteries can fail, which is why it is crucial to check your suction unit at the start of each shift. If your unit fails to power up, here are a few tasks to check before doing anything else:

  • Ensure the canister is properly connected, all ports on the canister are capped and the patient tubing is firmly attached.
  • If the regulator is at a very low setting, adjust the regulator.
  • Replace the canister if the filter becomes clogged.
  • Replace the canister if full.

If the above factors are not in play, the problem could be your batteries. It is critical to check the overall health of your batteries—not just at the start of each shift, but as part of your monthly or quarterly truck maintenance. Here are our guidelines:

  • Confirm the power cord is supplying power to the device and check the power indicator light on the control panel.
  • Remove the power cord.
  • Turn the device on and check for vacuum by occluding the canister.
  • Allow the unit to run for 15 minutes on DC power. If the unit stops or slows during the 15 minutes, or if the battery condition indicators begin to blink, it is possible the battery capacity has been depleted and it is time to replace the battery.
  • If the unit is still running at full power after 15 minutes, turn the device off and put it back on charge.
  • Reconnect the device to the charging source.

Preventing Pathogens

One of the most important areas of suction unit maintenance is cleanliness. Suction units are, by their nature, prone to pathogens, since they come in contact with all forms of bodily fluids (vomit, sputum, blood). Don’t skimp when decontaminating your unit! Here are our recommendations:

  • Always wear personal protective equipment when handling contaminated equipment:
    • Gloves
    • Face and eye protection
    • Protective clothing
  • Disconnect the unit from any power source prior to cleaning.
  • Sanitize after each use, even if nothing shows in the canister.
    • Use a mild detergent or a mixture of bleach and water (one-part bleach/10-parts water) and rinse thoroughly.
  • Disinfect all outer surfaces of the unit, including control knobs, screens, and handles.
  • Discard ALL disposable parts: canister, patient tubing, and catheters.
  • NEVER reuse disposable parts. They are disposable for a reason.
  • Follow appropriate guidelines for disposal of biohazardous materials.
  • Follow manufacturer’s instructions when disinfecting the mechanics of the unit.
  • Do not submerge your suction unit.
  • Disconnect the battery from the PC board when cleaning the interior chassis.

Take Care of Your Unit

Where you store your portable suction unit is also crucial to its maintenance. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Do not expose the unit to extreme temperatures.
  • Avoid wet or high moisture environments.
  • Secure the unit to prevent damage.
  • Avoid areas of dust or debris.

By following these best maintenance practices for your portable suction unit, you can be confident your equipment will be ready and able to handle the next suction scenario.


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