Why renewable, water-only cleaning processes will gradually displace many chemical-driven approaches
Cleaning is the removal of unwanted matter, including dirt, germs and toxic substances. While cleaning should be associated with 'healthy' it has become unhealthy because common practice involves removing gross or visible soil while polluting in other ways (e.g., spreading invisible particles, pathogens and chemicals around instead of removing them or keeping them out to begin with.)
While 'Green Cleaning' is a key intervention to make cleaning practices healthy again, 'Renewable Cleaning' - called chemical-free cleaning by some practitioners - is an advanced prescription to move away from a chemical-centered approach to one that centers on non-chemical processes.
What is Renewable Cleaning?
Renewable cleaning is the removal, inactivation and/or proper disposal of contaminants, pollutants, particles, pathogens and chemical residues to restore built or indoor environments to their original or desired condition. Water is a key medium for renewable cleaning (but not the only one) because it is a universal resource which is benign, non-polluting, and renewable (naturally replenished). Renewable cleaning works like nature does and employs parallel methods.
Before going further, let's say it up front: There is a time and a place for EPA-registered disinfectants and other well-chosen chemical solutions in our indoor environments. However, Renewable Cleaning requires they be used sparingly, like good antibiotics, in the right dosage and only when and where needed, and where no better alternative exists.
With the advent of technology, fortunately there are now many Renewable Cleaning alternatives that can help us clean up our environments and heal our chemical addiction. The best news is they often work better and faster than the older methods. Rather than relying on better chemicals, they rely on better Processes (Note: Process Cleaning is yet another article). Here are some examples:
Microfiber Applicator and Squeegee: One manufacturer has created a simple method that applies water to smooth surfaces like student desktops with a microfiber applicator and then squeegees the surface dry. Advantages? No chemicals are needed, and organic matter and microbial reductions are dramatic and consistent in less time and with better results than convention spray and wipe chemical approaches even using microfiber. It's a simple soil removal process that works.
Spray-and-Vac Machines: A pioneer of spray-and-vac technology has recently been testing their restroom cleaning machines using water only. In this Process, water only is sprayed under pressure on restroom fixtures and floors and then vacuumed away. The result? Labor times are half what they would be in manual wiping and mopping/mop bucket scenarios and surfaces are cleaner and more hygienic.
A recent comparative beta test conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle suggests that this method is very effective in practice.
One worker cleaned and wiped off faucets, sinks, and counters with traditional tools, disinfected toilets with a correctly diluted EPA-registered product, and mopped floors with a correctly diluted EPA-registered product and a microfiber wet mop in two restrooms: one men's room and one women's room located on the second and third floors of the Health Sciences Building.
Another worker used a 12 gal. spray-and-vac machine (Kaivac) filled with water but no chemicals to clean an identical men's and women's room on the same two floors: pressure-washing vertical and horizontal surfaces, wiping down fixtures, squeegeeing counter tops, and squeegeeing and vacuuming the floor.
Spraying, agitating, and vacuuming restroom surfaces using the spray-and-vac machine produced on average an 89% reduction in ATP in two restrooms tested, while the 'microfiber-traditional' method utilizing an EPA-registered disinfectant produced a 56% reduction. Machine cleaning with just water produced 58% better results than microfiber-traditional cleaning. In both cases where the machine was utilized, the ATP reading decreased to below 30; in two test sites the count dropped to zero. Labor times were similar in this comparison, though in many cases the spray-and-vac method has demonstrated significant labor reductions.
The university found that spray-and-vac agitation presents a special advantage in the cleaning process. Pressurized plain water agitates soil, as does the motion of a squeegee. Immediate vacuuming of soil on the surfaces sampled in this study seems to represent the essential final step in achieving favorable cleaning results. (Another part of the efficacy of the water-only/chemical-free spray-and-vac method may be that the pressurized water creates a super fine mist that thoroughly wets the surface (acting as a mechanical surfactant) which combines with the agitation of the spray and squeegee.) Dissolved soil held in solution cannot resettle on surfaces if it is vacuumed immediately after agitation.
In tests at other facilities, mopping removed 56.67% of organic soil, while the spray-and-vac process removed an average of 98.60%. That means that the microfiber mopping process left 31 times more soil behind than the spray-and-vac method! For a spreadsheet of the actual results of the 12 tests, click here.
It's becoming increasingly clear that the cleaning Process often has a greater impact than the cleaning chemical. In other words, for effective cleaning, chemistry may be important, but the process is critical. This notion has been demonstrated repeatedly in multiple field and laboratory tests that show that the cleaning process has a greater impact on the reduction of soil loads and bacteria than the chemical being used.
Easy to use handheld ATP meters enable non-scientific people to immediately and easily 'see' the amount of invisible organic soils on a surface, even when it appears to be clean. After all, it is these invisible contaminants that pose the greatest health risk to human health.
Fortunately, renewable water-only cleaning practices are delivering both visually clean and hygienically clean surfaces as demonstrated by ATP measurement.
An advancement in Green Cleaning, Renewable Cleaning is a prescription for what ails the cleaning industry; and, thankfully, one that yields remarkable benefits without harmful side effects.
(Author: Allen Rathey is a 25-year veteran of the cleaning industry and also serves as president of InstructionLink/JanTrain, Inc., an educational marketing firm that seeks to promote cleaning products and services that can back marketing claims with credible science.)
Note: The University of Washington tests a variety of products as part of its commitment to Integrated Cleaning and Measurement? (ICM), and does not endorse particular products.
Allen Rathey is the principal of the Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI), director of the Indoor Wellness Council (IWC), and author of articles about best practices in cleaning and indoor environmental management.
*The Healthy Facilities Institute (HFI) and the Indoor Wellness Council (IWC) do not endorse products.