When the Wicomico County Board of Education cut its budget two years ago, the facility department lost about 20 people or about 15 percent of its staff of 118 custodians. In response, Brian Foret, the director of Facility Services, has been struggling to keep up with custodial work across the 24-building school district located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. An important part of Foret’s solution has been new cleaning materials and more advanced cleaning equipment.“Our staffing cuts were substantial, so we’ve had to increase the productivity of the staff we still have,” Foret says.

This summer, for example, Wicomico custodians will deep clean the district’s school buildings just like always. But when it comes time to refinish floors stripped of yellowing, year-old wax, they will apply a new polymer-based finish that promises, with regular routine cleaning, to retain its luster for three to five years.

The polymer finishing process requires training for custodians and new powered application equipment, but the three to five year break in the deep cleaning schedule should enable Foret to increase the productivity of his smaller staff during the summers.

In the 68-school Winston-Salem/Forsythe County School System in North Carolina, Gene Miller, assistant superintendent for Operations will begin dealing with similar challenges this summer. The large district recently lost $300,000 in funding for custodial staff.“Our staff is being cut from 300 to 265,” he says.

Across the country facility managers are wondering how smaller staffs can maintain custodial standards. New chemicals and new equipment appearing in district custodial closets will provide at least some of the answers.

Chemicals and Dispensers

In the past, custodians bought cleaning solutions at the local grocery or drug store. When they began to use more sophisticated products, they were often asked to mix the concentrated chemicals into solutions with little or no training. They often got it wrong, wasting cleaning solution in the process.

Today, many custodians are preparing cleaning solutions by tapping buttons at automatic mixing stations in custodial closets. “Mixing centers eliminate the possibility that someone in a hurry will grab a bottle off of a shelf and mix it improperly,” says Steven Weiser, a regional vice president with Aramark Facilities Services of Philadelphia. Mixing centers also ensure that expensive concen-trated solutions are used efficiently.

A typical station dispenses four solutions: bathroom floor-cleaner, bathroom toilet sanitizer, wall cleaner and glass cleaner. A custodian simply places a bucket under the nozzle for the appropriate cleaner and presses a button to dispense the chemical properly proportioned with water.

Aramark codes its mixing stations with pictures and colors to guard against errors. For example, one mixing station container may be market with a red picture of a person mopping a bathroom floor. “This is a way to overcome language barriers,” says David Norton, an Aramark contract employee who is currently serving as general manager of the 70-building Plano, Texas, School District.

Mixing stations may also dispense new, more environmentally friendly neutral floor cleaning solutions. In many districts, these floor cleaners have begun to replace acid- and solvent-based cleaners.

Safety Training and Information

Custodians today should receive intensive training in any and all the safety precautions related to using chemicals, says Norton. “Custodians also need training in how to deal with blood borne pathogens — how to clean up vomit and blood,” adds Norton.

At Winston-Salem/Forsythe, Miller oversees the regular updating of a five-in.-thick procedures manual for custodians. The district keeps an updated manual in every custodial closet. Among the reference materials in the book are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), one for each chemical used by district custodians. OSHA regulations require employer’s to inform employees about the materials they are handling. In short, the law gives employees the “right to know” the ingredients in particular chemicals as well as the emergency procedures to follow in case of an accident. The MSDS materials satisfy OSHA’s right to know requirements. “If we don’t have an MSDS sheet, we won’t use the chemical,” Miller says. “All of our custodians are trained to use the manual.”

In many districts, the custodial closet also contains a blood-borne pathogen cleanup kit, which contains cleaning masks, gloves, medical waste disposal bags and other protective gear designed to prevent the accidental spread of communicable diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis.

To prevent accidents, well-equipped custodial closets also store “Wet Floor” signs, which are used in front of and behind wet floors. “We hammer hard on using these signs to keep people from slipping and falling,” says Norton.

Tools and Power Equipment

Proper cleaning tools and procedures help protect custodians as well as students, faculty and other staff from disease. According to Norton, research findings suggest that properly sanitized tools can reduce illness in schools by five to 10 percent. “I’ve seen individual schools reduce illness by as much as 20 percent by changing their tools and procedures,” he says.

Among the new cleaning tools is a toilet wand. Instead of using a rag to scrub toilets and urinals, custodians now wield a wand with a round cloth pad on the end of the rod. While at work in the rest room, they wear gloves and masks to protect their hands and faces. Upon finishing the job, the custodian slips the rod into a container filled with sanitizing chemicals.

Even the floor mops are new. Old stringy, cotton mops are out. Washable cotton and nylon mops with removable heads are in. “You can wash and reuse these mop-heads hundreds of times,” Norton says.

For carpeted floors, vacuum cleaners, both backpacks and traditional uprights, now have high-efficiency filters to reduce particulate matter released into the air, thus improving indoor air quality. Many of these machines are now powered with rechargeable batteries, making them more convenient to use. Norton cautions facility managers considering the move to battery-powered vacuum cleaners to make sure that custodial-closets have plenty of electrical power for recharging these batteries.

To deep clean carpets, Norton recommends looking into new carpet extractors. While older dry carpet buffers tend to move dirt around, extractors combine a warm water stream with lightweight scrubbers and a vacuum to pull the water back out.

According to Norton, Aramark recently introduced battery-powered floor cleaning machines into some of its customer’s schools. These unique machines pull themselves, while the operator walks behind. Quiet battery power enables custodians to clean the hallways during the day, with classes in session.

Cleaner and More Efficient Schools

New chemicals and equipment are enabling smaller school custodial staffs to work faster, and smarter. Ten years ago, for example, floor stripping and refinishing might have been done once a year by expensive contract labor, says Aramark’s Weiser. Most staff labor was tied up handling daily service.

By enabling people to work smarter and safer, continues Weiser, modern chemicals and equipment can boost the productivity of shrinking custodial staffs and provide an opportunity to re-allocate resources. A small example: custodians with more time can change the filters on HVAC units and replace burned out light bulbs. That can free up the maintenance staff for other jobs. “You can do more today than you could 10 years ago,” Weiser says.

Modernizing the chemicals and tools in the custodial closet makes it possible to work safer and smarter — even if budget cuts have reduced the number of people on staff.