This is not legal advice or opinion on the rules and regulations for installing or using a laser cutter. These are notes on what I’ve learned and a guide for people interested in having a laser cutter.
What’s all this, then?
I’ve been working with, near, or in toxic fumes since I was a teenager. I’ve wrenched, welded, soldered, used metal working machines, worked on motorcycles and cars, and built CNC equipment, including several 3d printers and a couple of Lasersaurs. I’ve taken and taught safety classes and I’ve still made some stupid mistakes.
It’s easy and inexpensive to get home/shop level digifab equipment like laser cutters but not much out there on what it means to own and operate one.
I wrote this short introduction to laser cutters and fume extraction based on what I’ve learned in work spaces and my studio. I hope that sharing what I’ve learned helps other people interested in setting up a laser cutter.
Let’s start by defining what “fume extraction” actually is — removing fumes and particles suspended infumes from an area. Many processes we use create annoying, hazardous, or lethal fumes and fume extraction gets them out of the work area.
Some examples of fume extraction:
- remove lead and solder fumes from the air around a soldering station
- remove air containing viral contaminants from a safety area where someone is doing medical research
- filter or remove greasy smoke out of a kitchen in a home or restaurant
- remove toxic side-products of welding from a welding station in a closed room
For laser cutters, there are two specific reasons to do fume extraction:
- remove vaporized particles and fumes from a laser cutter work space to protect the people using the laser cutter
- clear the air inside the laser cutter to prevent fumes from damaging the media or the laser cutter equipment
Who needs fume extraction?
Anyone generating fumes that are bad for people to breathe, harmful to the environment, or that can damage the tools they are using. That’s a sweeping statement, but there’s a wide scale of materials that can be used as media in a laser cutter. On one end are people who have a business making models but of plywood or cardboard and never cut plastic or etch powder coating off of metal. On the other end is a hacker space, college studio, or Techshop where there’s a “DANGER: do not cut” list and temporarily illiterate laser cutter operators.
Fume extraction isn’t fume filtration!
Note that we’re saying “extraction” not “removal” or “filtration”. Fume extraction means moving the fumes from one area (inside a laser cutter) another area (outside the laser cutter). If you’re laser cutting something that generates toxic fumes and you have wonderful extraction, you’re just moving te toxic fumes to another location. Extracted fumes don’t disappear and an important part of fume extraction is deciding what to do with the fumes. (Saturday Night Live’s “Yardapult” is a funny but real example of what some sites consider fume extraction.)
Laser cutter restrictions
Did your laser cutter come with a manual that explains restrictions on what media you can cut and fume ventilation requirements? Start by reading the manuals and FAQs, there might be limitations on what you can cut or etch because of the materials used to build your laser cutter. One example is what your mirrors are made of — are they backed glass or polished metal? Some mirrors need routine cleaning if you’re cutting smoky materials, even if you have the best fume extraction possible.
What can the fumes damage?
Everything, starting with the person using the equipment and nearby people, then to the equipment (see below), or people near where the fumes are sent as exhaust. If you’re only cutting paper and cardboard and sending the exhaust up a legal fireplace chimney, there’s not much more risk from the fumes than having a fire in the fireplace. If you’re cutting and etching acrylic in volume and dumping the unfiltered exhaust out your garage window, don’t be surprised if the neighbors dial 911 to complain about the smell of burning plastic.
You could also be working with something you think is safe but isn’t. I no longer cut hardboard in my lasersaur because the heat from cutting the wood also does something to the glue and makes the wood sticky. Not sticky in a good, ice cream sort of way, but a sticky burnt glue that sticks to the moving parts and is hard to remove, even with solvent.
Did you read the Material Safety Data Sheet (aka “MSDS”) for the media you’re cutting and does it cover burning the material or fumes? What happens if you laser cut kevlar or styrene? (That’s your cue to go find the MSDS documents for these materials.) Depending on where the laser cutter is installed, there might be requirements from the FDA, EPA, OSHA, local business codes, labor codes, safety codes, etc. (Reminder: I’m in the US and not a lawyer, so I’m mostly going to make vague references to US legal systems and ignore the rest of the world.)
How bad are the fumes, really?
I took apart a laser cutter for parts and took photos of the wear and tear caused by fumes. It was used in a machine shop with good fume extraction and there was still a fair amount of damage to the internal parts. I don’t know what they cut but the amount of rust and corrosion suggests that it was releasing fumes you shouldn’t breathe.
What do you do with these fumes?
So you’re pulling the fumes out of your laser cutter, what do you do with them other than just vent them out a nearby window?
It still depends on the answer to: “What are you cutting?” Did you read the MSDS? Does it even have a MSDS? Note that a MSDS isn’t going to list “cutting by laser” it’s going to use more generic terms like “burning,” “melting,” “smoke,” or “vapors”.
If you’re only cutting something relatively safe, say paper or balsa, you’re creating “wood smoke” which is an easy problem to solve.
Do you know what the media you’re cutting is made of so you can find the MSDS? Before you etch a stack of Moleskin brand sketchbooks, do you know what they’re made of? PVC. Ok, so what happens when you etch and cut PVC? It releases hot chlorine gas that quickly converts to hot hydrochloric acid, and that acid is not good for a laser cutter’s internal parts or the people running the machine.
What if there’s no MSDS? This is where you get to do some science so you can figure out what fumes you’re generating. Cutting thin plywood generates mostly wood smoke, cutting MDF or hardboard means you’re also cutting a lot of glues or maybe paint. If you’re laser etching old paint, is there lead in that paint and the fumes that comes off the etch?
Plan on filtering your fumes
For recreational or hobby use it’s pretty easy to filter fumes and the cost is relatively low to that of a laser cutter. There are a variety of plans online and you can find one that fits your needs I suspect that using a laser cutter a few hours a week generates less air pollution than a gas lawnmower, but neighbors won’t complain about lawn mowers the way they will about the smell of burning plastic.
If you’re working in a manufacturing or art space, filtration could be cheap or free. If there’s already extraction for welding fumes or metalworking machines, you might be
able to use theirs depending on the fumes you generate.
If I were running a professional job shop or a hacker space a commercial filtration system that could handle the nasty fumes from some plastics and resins would be worth the investment. This also goes back to the issue of local regulations, you might have to have some sort of professional certificate or verification that your filtering system works.
If you’re renting or don’t legally own and control your space, you’re going to have to go by the owner’s rules. If you’re at a university you’ll probably need to talk to facilities, if you’re in an apartment complex that’s the landlord, or “ask your parents”.
In the US we have federal, state, county, city, local zoning, and various safety restrictions related to wildlife and waste discharge. It could be as simple as “filter your fumes and don’t annoy the neighbors” — I know a few people who have run laser cutters in their garage and never gotten a complaint.
If it’s a hacker space or business getting a laser cuttere there are additional regs to follow. There might be fire code regulations, safety requirements, or additional rules to comply with along with ventilation rules. I’ve seen local regulations where a permit (which costs money) and inspection (more money) are required for an exhaust vent larger than 4 inches in diameter. The regs can be as simple as “exhaust vent” or as specific as “industrial exhaust vent for fabrication equipment”. When I was looking to rent studio
space within Pittsburgh city limits, if I asked about “exhaust ventilation” the landlord just said “no”. No question of what I wanted to vent, they simply didn’t want to deal with exhaust issues.
Please leave questions (and answers) in the comments, if there’s enough interest we can turn this in to a FAQ or wiki.