When you’re reviewing different chemical inventory systems, you need to be able to spot the bad ones quickly.
Not knowing which red flags signal potential problems can lead to a lot of wasted time, money, and energy. Much like buying a car, if you're not careful, you could end up with a lemon.
To help you weed out the wrong system (and to make sure you end up with a good one), here are four must-check warning signs to look for when you're purchasing chemical inventory software.
What to look out for
Chemical inventory systems come in a wide range of sizes, specialties, and services. From free systems that only ask for an email, to home-brewed solutions using spreadsheets, to high-powered systems capable of handling multinational inventories and performing reports.
So what is the most important thing about a chemical inventory system? It meets your needs. An hour or two of thought about what you need your chemical inventory system needs to be able to accomplish can save you ten times as much time (or more) in the future.
1. The system is simply a glorified Excel spreadsheet
Every chemical inventory system allows you to store chemical names and quantities and do a simple lookup. But if that's all it can do, then it's just a fancy (and expensive!) version of Excel.
The point of chemical inventory software isn't solely to store information, it's to help you use that information to increase safety, reduce risk, and lower costs. That means being able to monitor purchases, oversee chemical use and access, track chemicals by hazard class, ensure appropriate disposal, and create accurate regulatory reports (to name just a few).
In order to perform those tasks, the software must include a robust chemical database. This provides all the chemical information you rely on — chemical identity, properties, known regulatory implications, fire code information — right within the system.
It should also include some form of data validation. Unlike spreadsheets, this prevents errors or duplicate entries from being entered into the system and ensures your system relies on an accurate single source of truth.
Finally, it should provide a clean user interface and intuitive workflows that allow researchers and inventory specialists to get in, get out, and get back to their work in the shortest time possible. Otherwise, your team will likely avoid using the system. If the interface feels clunky, more often than not, that clunkiness will also show up in the way your data is organized.
2. It isn’t designed for the type of regulatory reports you need to create
No brainer, right? A chemical inventory system that can't generate regulatory reports (not just raw data) isn't worth the price. Your team will still be stuck with the burden of compiling data by hand.
Even if a system can’t get you 100% of the way there, if your chemical inventory isn’t giving you a big leg up on the process then you’re missing out on a huge portion of the benefits you should be receiving.
Knowing which reports you’ll need to create before you approach a potential vendor can help you avoid purchasing the wrong system. Take some time to map out all the reports you'll need, such as:
- EPCRA Tier II/Right-to-Know
- Department of Homeland Security CFATS/COI
- State and local reports (CERS, NYC RTK)
- Fire and building code reports
Each of these reports requires specific information based on context. Sometimes a system lacks the capability to truly support management of non-chemical data, such as control areas or buildings. Other times, the system can provide the data you need, but in the wrong units. The last thing you want to deal with right before a deadline is to work by hand to convert your inventory data from kilograms and liters to pounds and gallons (don’t get us started on gases…).
Either way, it’s a reason to pass on that software.
3. There’s no clear implementation plan or implementation support from the vendor
Even top-notch chemical inventory software can end up being a waste of money if it's not used consistently and to its full potential. Any good system will have a solid, tested plan and approach to implementation. It might seem obvious, but many buyers focus too heavily on features and overlook the implementation process.
Instead, be sure to review the vendor's implementation services and come prepared to ask for details, like:
- How will data initially be imported into the system, and who will be responsible for importing it?
- Is there a clear timeline for implementation with major milestones so that your project stays on track?
- Does the vendor's team have a lot of experience with successful software implementations?
And perhaps most importantly:
- Do they make you feel comfortable reaching out for help?
Any vendor who doesn't have a formal implementation plan or avoids giving a clear answer should go straight to the "NO" pile — a failed implementation presents too much risk for monetary loss and time spent without sufficient coverage.
4. It’s designed for an industrial setting, not for labs
It's hard to overstate the importance of finding a system that is specifically designed for lab settings.
Think about it: You wouldn’t buy a Ferrari to pull a boat trailer, would you? It might be a great car for a corporate executive, but it would be a terrible choice for your needs — one use later, and you might be looking at a broken car, a huge bill for repairs, and a boat trailer that’s still right there in the same place it started.
Similarly, it doesn’t make sense for organizations to purchase a chemical inventory system that’s designed for an industrial setting. What works well for a plastics manufacturer could end up being near-useless in a research setting.
While both organizations need chemical inventory systems, their workflows, regulatory requirements, reporting needs, and even the types of users are much different, and their systems should reflect and support that.
One quick litmus test to determine whether a system was built specifically for labs is to look at the wording on their website. Steer clear of solutions that are marketed as “suitable for all industries” or employ wording like “sublocation 1” that feels foreign to your lab environment.
Another tip-off: If you notice a client list or testimonial page filled with industrial companies, that system may not be able to meet the needs of a research laboratory environment.
If you still aren’t sure, try floating a few example use cases and see how the vendor responds. You’ll know quickly whether the vendor understands your challenges and can help solve your problems.
Just like screening general EHS software, screening chemical inventory systems can be a difficult and time-consuming process — unless you know what to look for.
Here are a few things to remember so you don’t get stuck with a lemon:
- Chemical inventory software should do more than just store information like a spreadsheet — it should help you use that information to improve safety and lower costs.
- The best-fit chemical inventory software is designed specifically for lab settings and the types of reports and tasks they need to do.
- Don’t forget to look beyond the software itself to the vendor’s team that will be your partner and guide before, during, and after setup.