Fume extraction systems don’t seem like the most exciting thing to write a whole blog post about, but there is a lot of information to know if you’re choosing a fume extraction system for your laser cutter – you might not even have been aware that you needed one! So far on our blog, we’ve been sharing information about laser cutters and 3D printers, what to create with them, and how you can create different types of businesses to make money with your equipment. In this post, we’re taking a deeper dive into fume extraction systems, what they are, and how to choose the right one, as well as the health and safety legislation that you need to know about when you’re working with laser cutters and fume extractors.
What is a fume extraction system?
A fume extraction system is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – it is an extra piece of equipment that removes fumes from your laser cutter while you’re working with different materials. They’re designed to keep you and your team safe from the hazardous fumes, dust, and particles that are generated when different types of materials are marked, cut, or engraved with your laser cutter.
Given the huge number of laser cutters available for both commercial use and for hobbyists, it makes sense that there are also a wide range of fume extraction systems available on the market for laser cutters too.
How does a fume extraction system work?
Essentially, a fume extraction system removes the particles and gases in a similar way to a vacuum cleaner. The machine contains a powerful fan that pulls the fumes and any particles that have been generated during the lasering processes through different levels of filters. As the air is pulled through, the machine then allows the filtered air to be expelled back into the main workspace, without the contaminants, free of nasty odours, and safe for breathing.
Depending on the type of fume extraction system you have and what type of contaminants you’re likely to be dealing with, there may be several layers of filters. We’ll talk more about these different layers in a moment.
Where are fume extraction systems found?
Fume extraction systems that are used to remove harmful particles aren’t just used for laser cutters – they’re found in many different industries, in different settings – but always where there is the need to remove damaging and harmful particles. You’ll find fume extraction systems in industries that are performing activities such as:
Where chemicals and gases are being used
3D printing – particularly where there are multiple 3D printers working simultaneously
Essentially, wherever materials are being cut, marked, heated, burned or physically altered in any way, there is the chance that harmful fumes will be created. Those harmful fumes need to be removed from the work space – which is in a nutshell, why you need a fume extraction system when you’re using a laser cutter.
Why do I need a fume extraction system?
Even if you’re doing the smallest of etching tasks, the reality is that pretty much everything that is cut with a laser cutter is going to release some kind of fumes, whether that is respirable dust, larger particles, or toxic gases that can cause bigger health issues, or a problem within your machine.
To reduce risks to health
Unlike mechanical machinery, with a laser cutter you aren’t required to be right next to the machine as it is working. That has created a false sense of safety, and the impression that there isn’t anything to worry about with fumes being created.
An important point to remember is that it isn’t actually the laser cutter that is creating the fumes – it is the material that is releasing them. Because of this, there is sometimes a misconception that if you’re not going to be cutting anything that releases toxic fumes, then you don’t need to worry about a fume extraction system. But just because you’re cutting and engraving natural materials, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t fumes being created that could be problematic for your health if you inhale them – so don’t risk using your laser cutter without proper ventilation.
To reduce risks to your machinery
It isn’t just your lungs and those of your team that need protecting from those harmful fumes created by laser cutting processes. Your laser cutter needs protecting from these fumes and any deposits that might be left behind, as do the rest of your machinery and electronics. We’ve mentioned how cutting certain types of materials (such as those with sticky glue backing) can damage the lens on your laser – but without a fume extraction system, over time those tiny particles can build up and cause damage to the machine.
To eliminate the risk of fire or explosions
We definitely don’t mean to alarm you here, because the risk of fire and explosions is minimal when you’re working with a gas laser cutter, because most fumes that are generated from the normal materials that you’d be cutting are inert. However, if you’re working with metals in a crystal or fibre laser cutter, then fire can be a potential concern, especially if you’re working with unoxidized metals, because their fumes can be combustible. Your fume extractor will help to reduce the chances of fire and explosion simply by removing the gases effectively, neutralising the chances of the fumes causing an issue.
Your risk assessments should have been completed by your health and safety personnel to ensure that this is definitely the case.
What legislation applies to fume extraction for laser cutters?
We know, we know – everyone groans when we talk health and safety, but it really is an essential part of all workplaces, and when you’re working with machinery that has the potential to cause harm, that is even more true. In the UK, the legislation that covers laser cutters and the required fume extraction is The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which states that employers must protect the ‘health, safety, and welfare’ of their employees at work and on the premises, including temporary or casual staff, self-employed, clients, visitors, and the general public.
The amount of fumes that you are legally allowed to be exposed to in the workplace is covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH), and are regulated by the Health and Safety Executive. These regulations are legal requirements, and the regulations that apply to fume extractors include:
Regulation 6 – Assessment of the risk to health created by work involving substances Hazardous to Health. This includes consideration of any relevant workplace exposure limits (WEL).
Regulation 7 – Prevention or control of exposure to substances hazardous to health.
Regulation 8 – Where control measures are provided by the employer it is a requirement that employees make ‘full and proper use’ of them.
Regulation 9 – The Maintenance, Examination and Testing of Control Measures. Where control measures are installed they must be thoroughly inspected and tested at least once every 14 months (in practice every 12 months). A suitable record must be kept of the examination and tests, for at least 5 years.
Regulation 10 – Monitoring exposure in the workplace. It is a requirement that ‘personal sampling and gravimetric analysis’ be carried out for workers in the area of a possible source of airborne contaminants if it is not possible to demonstrate by another method that adequate control of exposure can be done.
Regulation 12 – Information, instruction and training. It is a requirement that employers provide training for workers likely to be exposed to a hazardous substance. This needs to include details of these substances, including their Workplace Exposure Limit.
COSHH regulations are also accompanies by Approved Code of Practice (ACOP). These aren’t mandatory requirements, but they provide guidance on best practice and how to comply with COSHH regulations.
You can also find relevant information about fume extraction systems in the publication Controlling airborne contaminants at work: A guide to local exhaust ventilation (LEV). This is available to download completely free of charge here.
Can I use my laser cutter without a fume extraction system?
You can, but the question you need to ask yourself is whether you should. You should always, always look to vent the fumes from your laser cutter away from enclosed areas – and just because you can’t see the fumes or particles being generated, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
It is possible to vent fumes from your laser cutter to outside, and if you’re working with small amounts of natural materials such as wood, or you’re simply engraving, then putting the vent hose through the window to eliminate the smoke and dust particles might be enough for your needs. When you’re dealing with larger sized materials, and bigger laser cutting or engraving jobs, then you definitely need to make sure there is enough ventilation, and that the fumes being generated are being drawn away – which requires your fume extraction system.
What is in the fumes that are created when laser cutting?
Sometimes when you’re cutting, etching, or engraving with your laser cutter, you’ll see what appears to be smoke coming off the material while the laser is operational. In most cases, this smoke is actually a release of fumes from the material, rather than because the material is burning – although, there can be actual smoke, should the material catch fire or be scorched.
Can I cut materials that release toxic gases if I have a fume extraction system?
We’ve talked about the problems that cutting certain types of materials can cause before – and while a fume extraction system will draw out any gases that are released by cutting materials, you still don’t want to cut those materials that will release the really toxic gases. The main ones that people want to cut with their laser but definitely shouldn’t are:
PVC, vinyl, and artificial leathers – they release chlorine gas that is highly irritating to the lungs and in high concentrations can kill in just 30 minutes
ABS – can release the poisonous gas hydrogen cyanide, which again, can be deadly in a short space of time
Epoxy – when it burns, it releases poisonous fumes that can have serious implications for the lungs
Fibreglass – more poisonous gases here!
Coated carbon fibre – thin carbon fibre mats can sometimes be cut with a laser cutter, but avoid cutting coated carbon fibre, especially when you’re unsure what the carbon fibre is coated with, since many typical coatings contain materials that can release poisonous gases when they are cut
With the high risks that the gases that these materials can release, you certainly don’t want to mess around and take the risk of cutting them, even with a fume extraction system in place. It simply isn’t worth it.
As a side note – these aren’t the only materials that shouldn’t be in your laser cutter – thick polycarbonate, HDPE, polystyrene foam, polypropylene foam, and materials with sticky glue backing should be avoided too, due to their tendencies to catch fire, drip deposits on the laser cutter bed, and to vaporise and damage the lens. We talk in more depth about these in this post, so head there if you need to know more details.
If you’re working with a laser cutter that can cut metals, the risks are different again. You’ll need to be aware that:
Cutting stainless steel and materials with chromium releases hexavalent chromium
Working with galvanized steel can result in zinc oxide being released
Steel alloys can release manganese
All metal dust can irritate the eyes and potentially get into the skin
In these cases, you definitely can’t be using your laser cutter without a suitable fume extractor unit – the risks to your health, and those of your team, are simply too high. The risk to health has huge financial implications for your business, not only in terms of potentially causing your business to be without a member of staff, but also if the team member decided to take legal action if negligence was found to have occurred.
How should I get the right laser cutter fume extractor?
The right peripherals for your laser cutter should be as dependable as switching the lights on – you need to know that your fume extraction unit is going to perform for you as you need it to, all the time.
Choosing a laser cutter is a relatively straightforward process – in most cases, you’ll be choosing based on what you’re going to be cutting, and the size of the materials you want to cut, as well as the budget that you have available. But when you’re choosing a fume extraction unit, those aren’t the only thing you’ll need to consider. The right laser cutter fume extractor for your setup is dependent on four main factors – air flow, filter type, filter size, and sound output. In this next section, we’ll be looking at each of these factors in turn, so that you can understand and get closer to the right laser cutter fume extractor system for your needs.
It might seem an obvious statement, but the bigger the laser bed, the more air flow and extraction you are going to need – the recommended is around 1.6 feet per second. If you’ve got a large laser cutter, you’ll need a bigger extractor system.
As when you’re choosing your laser cutter, you’ll need to think about the type of materials that you’re going to be cutting when you’re choosing your fume extractor. There are three main types of filters that are common in fume extractor units:
Pre-filters – to remove bigger particles that can be clearly seen, such as soot particles
HEPA filters – to catch the smaller particles that can’t be seen by the naked eye – even to the size of 0.3 microns (a typical human hair is 70 micron, to put that into perspective!)
Activated carbon filters – to capture the fumes, smoke, and odours. These contaminants are trapped in the tiny pores of the activated carbon so they aren’t released into the work space.
It goes without saying that you should be looking for filters that are made specifically for your fume extraction unit – as with other technologies, compatibility is essential. At best, incompatible filters are likely to cause error messages on your fume extraction unit, and may not be accepted for returns by suppliers if you choose the wrong one, and at worst, could cause gases to be released into your workspace that could cause health issues.
If you’re going to be cutting bigger pieces of material, then you’ll need a bigger sized filter in your fume extractor too. It isn’t something that many customers think of, but when you think about it, it does make sense. Of course, when you’re deciding on the right fume extraction system for your business, you’ll need to make sure that your budget is going to be able to cover the replacement filters going forward. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget to include consumables in their calculations!
Safety should always be the first thing you consider when you’re choosing any equipment for your workplace – and sound is a necessary consideration too. Many laser fume extractor units are well below the recommended levels that the Health and Safety Executive has set as requiring ear protection – 85 dB (average daily or weekly exposure). However, the bigger the unit, the louder the sound generated is likely to be, so if your business requires a larger unit with higher sound output, you’re going to need to ensure you’ve invested in adequate ear defenders. Don’t be tempted to skip this – not only are you at risk of legal action from employees that encounter damage to their hearing, but trust us, tinnitus and hearing loss isn’t fun to deal with.
Ensure you get the correct size fume extractor
You’d think that getting the right size fume extractor for the size of your laser cutter would make logical sense, but since your fume extractor is an investment, it can be tempting to try and minimise costs by opting for a smaller unit. Many fume extractor units are plug and play, so they will work with a range of different sized laser cutters – however, it is definitely not a good idea to try and work with a smaller fume extraction unit than is recommended by the manufacturer for your laser cutter. In the long term, a smaller unit won’t provide the efficiency that you need, and you’ll end up needing to replace the unit – so buy the right one in the first place, or you’ll end up spending out on another one to get the performance that you actually need.
Capture fumes as close as possible to improve efficiency
Fume extraction is the most effective when the nozzle is as close to the source of the fumes as possible. It isn’t always possible to put the nozzle right where you need it due to mechanical constraints – but it needs to be as close as you can get it. If it is possible, then the nozzle should stay close to the laser beam during operation to ensure that fumes are being removed efficiently.
Use automation for safety measures
Your fume extraction system should be connected to the laser cutter, so that should an error occur, or an issue arise with the fume filtration, the laser cutter is shut down as a safety precaution – and accidental fume leakage should never be an issue that occurs.
There are two main problems that can occur with the fume extraction system, including:
Using an old filter – trying to use a filter past the end of its working life means that you won’t get the filtration that you need to keep the air safe. Fume extractors monitor differences in pressure between the air input and the air output, and the machine should display reminders to change the filter. Once the filter has been completely saturated, the machine should automatically stop, and trigger the laser cutter to stop too, to keep you safe from further fumes that are generated.
Leaks in the airflow – if your fume extraction system is compromised due to a leak, you’re going to get contaminants in the workspace, which can be inhaled, causing those long term health issues that you want to avoid. The automation that fume extractors have monitor the air pressure in the system, ensuring that the system is shut down if there are any leaks.
Ensure you maintain the fume extraction unit correctly
You’re almost certainly carrying out the right maintenance on your laser cutter to keep it running efficiently, and for good reason – if it malfunctions due to lack of maintenance, you’re going to be out of pocket for your business. But the same applies to your fume extraction unit too, because without it, your laser cutter can’t safely do what you need it to.
The right maintenance will depend upon the brand you’ve chosen, the size of the machine, and what type of fumes you’re expecting. Whatever the recommendations the manufacturer says you need to for the machine, stick with them, and ensure you complete the routine, and annual maintenance when you need to, so you don’t end up with the machine out of order.
When you’re changing the filter in your fume extractor, you’ll need to ensure that you’re using the right personal protective equipment too.
Protect your eyes from any stray dust particles by wearing safety eyewear
Wear gloves when handling the filters to be changed, as some of the contaminants within the filter may cause irritation to the skin, especially if there is prolonged contact
It is a good idea to use a face mask over your nose and mouth, to ensure that any loose dust doesn’t end up in your airways – and if you know there is a lot of dust, or certain contaminants in the filter, you might need to use a respirator
Take care of personal hygiene – such as careful hand washing to remove any dust, changing and washing clothes with any contaminants on before wearing them again
Where can I get a fume extraction unit for my laser cutter?
If you’ve read this far, you’re almost certainly going to realise that we’re going to tell you that we can help. Our range of fume extraction machines and filters has many of the parts that you might need. If you’re unsure about the fume extraction system that will be right for your laser cutter, feel free to get in touch – our team of experts are happy to help you identify which is the right one for your machine.
How much do fume extractors cost?
It depends on what type of laser cutter you have, what size materials you’re going to be working with, as well as the other considerations we spoke about earlier. As a ballpark figure, you’re going to be looking at upwards of £1,500 for a high quality machine that will do the job well, and last for the lifetime of the laser cutter.
Replacement filters start from around £75. Remember, you’re going to need to purchase these on a regular basis, in line with the needs of your laser cutting.
What other safety measures are required for a laser cutter setup?
When you’re working with any type of machinery, your personal safety and that of anyone else that might use the machine after you should be at the front of your mind – you don’t want to end up in A&E or worse. With your laser cutter, be certain to follow our top safety tips:
Never try to modify, change, adapt, or disable any inbuilt safety features – they are specifically designed to keep you safe from harm
Always have adequate fire safety equipment in place – chances are you won’t need it as the risk of fire is low with laser cutters and fume extractors, but it is better to have it and to never need it than needing it and not having it! (don’t forget that you need to keep fire safety equipment well maintained too)
Always have, and use the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for what you’re doing
Never leave the laser operating unattended – even if you’ve used it thousands of times without an issue!
Always wait for materials to cool before removing them from the cutting bed
Always sweep the cutting bed and remove dust and debris in a timely manner to prevent potential for fire
Always ensure children are supervised near the equipment, and keep pets away from the laser cutter
Fume extractors might not seem like a particularly exciting bit of kit compared with what a laser cutter can do, but they play an essential supporting role in keeping you, your team, and your equipment safe when you’re using the laser. Whatever you’re cutting or engraving, whether you’re doing it for your business or for pleasure, venting the fumes safely should always be one of your first concerns. Get it right, and your laser cutting will continue to be safe and efficient for years to come.
If you’re in need of help to identify which is the right fume extraction unit for your laser cutter, give us a call on 0333 900 8700, send us an email email@example.com, or drop us a line – especially if you’ve got one of our desktop laser cutters, or platform laser cutters. We’re happy to support you with getting the right fume extraction unit for your needs.