Water-Tech: Making Green Greener

Green cleaning for hard surfaces has progressed on a continuum from reducing toxic chemistries to eliminating them wherever possible. Now technology and cleaning science have helped us to return to the most essential of cleaners and solvents — water — with a new enthusiasm and a growing arsenal of applications.

In this article, we’ll examine the science of what makes each water-tech approach successful, and provide test and field results where practical. We’ll also explore how these technologies are changing the industry, and how they help institutions move into the next phase of green, sustainable, effective and healthy cleaning.

A Little History
Soaps and synthetic detergents have a long and interesting history, starting with soap-like materials found in the ancient ruins of Babylon dating back to 2800 B.C. Records from 1500 B.C. describe combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to form a cleansing agent for treating skin diseases and washing.

Modern history recognizes Procter and Gamble in the early 1930s as the first to market a synthetic detergent. Since that time, detergents have been refined, compounded, buffered and further enhanced to produce the products we use regularly. Science, safety, environmental issues, litigation, health and the green movement have impacted what can be produced and sold as cleaning products in the 21st century.

Water Comes Full Circle
Before we had soap and then synthetic detergents, water was all anyone had for cleaning. After decades of using petroleum-based synthetic detergents, we have begun the move towards bio- or natural-based cleaning chemicals. The final step in this evolution is back to where we started, using only water for cleaning.

The water we use for today’s cleaning is not the same as the water that our great-great grandparents used on the farm or in their homes in the early 1900s. Today’s water is a hybrid that is being enhanced in many ways to make it more effective than plain tap water. These enhancing processes produce water that is activated or electrolyzed, vaporized, heated, pressurized, oxygenated, cavitated, polished, softened, filtered, deionized… and the list goes on. We’ll cover several processes in this article.

A Closer Look at the Technology
Electrolyzed Water – Floor Machines: The use of activated or electrolyzed water in the cleaning industry is growing. Some floor scrubbers available on the market eliminate the need for general-purpose detergents when cleaning medium to heavily soiled floors, including industrial applications. Even though the process isn’t effective when cleaning petroleum-based oil and grease-contaminated soils, what it is able to do is a major advancement towards green floor care, since in perhaps 95 percent of commercial facilities, light to medium soil is what is encountered daily. The elimination of, or even a reduction in, the use of chemicals from the cleaning process has many benefits, including increased productivity, lower cost, less residue remaining on floors, greater slip resistance and a more environmentally benign waste stream.

Since electrolyzed water’s introduction, equipment manufacturers have continued to refine the process and equipment and have entered into licensing agreements for use of the activated water process in this equipment as well.

According to Sven Toelen, with the Tennant Company, “Our next step is to see what else we can do with the [electrolyzed water] process; we know that from a chemical cost savings standpoint alone, our customers are able to get an ROI on their equipment purchase in as little as two or three years.”

Electrolyzed Water - Sprayers:
The electrolyzed or activated water process has been taken a step further by miniaturizing the technology to make it portable in a spray bottle and creating a dual-water stream that is both acid and alkaline at the same time so that it can kill germs (it’s classified as a sanitizing device by the EPA) as well as clean hard surfaces.

In this technology, an onboard chip senses the minerals in the water and adjusts the electrical current for optimum cleaning and sanitizing, enabling the water coming out of the sprayer head to kill microorganisms at a log 5 level (99.999 percent) of effectiveness for a broad spectrum kill of bacteria and viruses, including H1N1, in six seconds or less. This is a sanitizing process, not a disinfecting one.

Chris Deets, marketing director for Activeion, explained it this way. “We have effectively amped up the ionizing process to enable the ionized or electrolyzed, acidic water to kill microorganisms by breaking down the cell wall in less than six seconds. Based upon a tested and proven process that has been used in the medical and food processing industries for many years, this is the first time it’s been applied to the cleaning industry.”

The negatively charged stream (alkaline) functions as a mild all-purpose cleaner, and can be used effectively for cleaning stone, marble, plastic, stainless steel, glass and many other hard or resilient surfaces; plus, as a carpet spotter.

“It’s not a miracle cleaner; the process doesn’t work on heavy grease or grossly soiled surfaces, and isn’t approved by the FDA for use on food-prep surfaces in restaurants.” Like any process, it has its limits, but under common cleaning conditions, using activated water for cleaning and sanitizing is very effective without adding chemicals. In most facilities, such as offices and schools, on-site tests have shown that the number and cost of chemicals used can be reduced by up to 50 percent or more.

Financially speaking, an activated water sprayer that replaces hundreds of bottles of pricey chemical sprays may pay for itself over time.

Dry Steam Vapor Cleaning:
A growing number of companies are offering low-moisture steam vapor systems for cleaning, and some both clean and disinfect environmental surfaces (these units have an EPA establishment number as disinfecting devices). This process produces steam vapor that has hospital-quality disinfectant properties. The system uses a combination of heat, low pressure and low-moisture vapor for rapid results, and is especially effective on hard and intricate or porous surfaces that are difficult and time-consuming to clean and disinfect.

Rick Hoverson, president of AVT, is frank about the fact that he doesn’t know how it all works, but he does know that independent lab and on-site testing and performance prove that the process gives rapid results and is effective in killing a broad spectrum of microorganisms. As Rick put it, “Not all steam is created equal; this is truly a green disinfectant process that uses no chemicals of any kind.”

Spray-and-Vacuum Sanitizing Systems:
Recent tests using EPA-approved lab protocols, commissioned by Kaivac Cleaning Systems, Inc., demonstrate that spraying surfaces with plain tap water under pressure, followed by vacuum removal of the solution from floor and hard surfaces in restrooms, removes 99.9 percent or more of microorganisms and soil present when used as directed. These findings, as well as on-site real world performance evaluations, allow manufacturers to label their equipment as sanitizing devices under EPA rules.

Tom Morrison, Kaivac’s vice president of Marketing, said that the critical elements of effective cleaning and sanitizing with spray-and-vacuum systems are the use of water pressure, vacuum removal and a squeegee.

Morrison went on to explain that by using plain tap water only versus adding chemicals to the spray stream, workers are able to reduce the time it takes to clean a restroom by as much as 30 to 40 percent or more.

From a realistic standpoint, Morrison cautions that the process is not suitable for all locations. “If you have serious contagion outbreaks, grease or extremely heavy soil and years of buildup, a disinfectant, detergent or degreaser will be more effective and speed up the process. If surfaces are in bad shape or extremely sensitive to moisture, this type of system shouldn’t be used. For restrooms that are in good shape, you won’t find a faster or better process than spray-and-vacuum cleaning, and now it can be a totally green, chemical-free process.”

Chemical-Free Scrubbing and Stripping:
One of the latest developments in green floor care is the introduction of a floor finish scrubbing and stripping system that does not require the use of a detergent or stripper to remove finish from floors, but rather relies on high-speed orbital agitation of water using a pad on the floor, similar to the way an oscillating sander works. This is a major improvement due to reduced labor and chemical costs, as well as the elimination of harsh stripping chemicals from the cleaning process and waste stream.

Evolving Trends
The environmental movement will continue to have a major impact on how and what we use to clean facilities in the years ahead as the technology matures and is further supported by science. Green chemicals and cleaning will continue to evolve and grow in popularity as more people become aware of the benefits of new and evolving technologies in that most sensitive of environments — the nation’s educational institutions.

William “Bill” Griffin has more than 30 years’ experience in the cleaning industry as a cleaner, consultant, and educator. He is the author of the Comprehensive Custodial Training Manual, How to Sell and Price Contract Cleaning, How to Start and Operate a Successful Cleaning Business and other books and manuals, as well as hundreds of articles regarding cleaning, maintenance and self-employment. Visit www.cleaningconsultants.com.