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Falling For Floor Cleaners - Why Finding A Green Floor Cleaner Can Be Harder Than Cleaning The Floors

Written by  Michael Wilson



Several years ago, the facility manager for a group of buildings owned by a northeastern state began switching from traditional cleaning products to greencertified cleaning products. For the most part, the transfer went smoothly. By then, many green-certified cleaning products were both cost effective and performed as good as, if not better, than their traditional counterparts.

However, there was one exception: floor care products. Even today, some cleaning contractors complain that environmentally preferable floor care products, from cleaning solutions to glosses and finishes, just do not work as well or hold up as well as their traditional alternatives.

This became a real problem for this facility manager. Floor care can have a very detrimental impact on the environment, so finding products that reduce this impact was imperative. To address the situation, the manager decided to evaluate green floor care products – specifically as to their costs, durability, performance and how good the floors looked after application – by manufacturer.

The process took a considerable amount of time, but in the end the manager did find one product that satisfactorily met his criteria. In the process, the manager had to test 23 green floor care products from different manufacturers.


We know that traditional cleaning solutions, including floor care products, can vary considerably. Some are costlier than others, perform better than others, wear better, are more durable in different situations and so on. But when it comes to green-certified cleaning solutions, there has been a general belief that they are all fairly similar. After all, all of the major green certification organizations have similar standards and criteria which seems to imply that the ingredients used in these products, as well as the ways they are manufactured, should all be fairly similar and produce similar results.

That is not necessarily the case.

Remember, the goal of green cleaning is based on President Bill Clinton’s 1993 Executive Order 13101, which says that green cleaning is “the use of products that reduce the health and environmental impacts [of cleaning] when compared to similar products used for the same purpose.”

It does not say that specific ingredients can or cannot be used in these products. While green certification organizations do narrow the field of the ingredients that can or cannot be used in a cleaning product, they often do so in generalities.

For instance, most certification agencies will indicate that a green-certified cleaning product must have, among other things, the following characteristics:

• Low toxicity

• Non-carcinogenic

• Do not contain chemicals associated with harm to the reproductive system

• Non-corrosive to skin or eyes

• Hypoallergenic

• High flashpoint

• Release no VOCs, or reduces the number of VOCs released

This means that as long as a chemical manufacturer is able to meet these criteria as well as the criteria established by the specific green certification organization they are working with, their product should be able to pass independent testing and earn green certification. It is also because of this that some green cleaning products, especially those made for floor care, can vary as to the actual ingredients. This is likely why our facility manager had to test 23 floor care products before making a product selection.


All cleaning solutions, green or traditional, have four key types of ingredients that make them effective at removing soils from surfaces. These key ingredients, their amounts and how they interact with other ingredients in a product can vary. Because of this, some may work better on certain types of surfaces than others.

These key ingredients are the following:

SURFACTANTS: These are “surface active agents” and are the most important part of any cleaning solution. The technicalities and chemistry of surfactants can be a bit complicated to understand. For our purposes, what we need to know is that when they are mixed with water, they surround the soil, oil, or grease on a surface and dislodge it. This is referred to as “suspending” the soil so it can be wiped away.

CHELATING AGENTS: The water we use in cleaning may contain a variety of ingredients and compounds that can interfere with the cleaning process and the ability of the surfactants to suspend soils. A chelating agent (pronounced kee-lating) surrounds these ingredients and compounds in water to help prevent them from disrupting the cleaning process.

BUILDERS: Builders are added to cleaning agents to help improve the efficacy of the cleaning product. Builders help soften water (hard water can interfere with a cleaning agent’s ability to remove soils) and increase alkalinity of the cleaning agent which improves cleaning performance.

SOLVENTS: When a cleaning agent is mixed with water, the water is actually acting as a solvent. It is helping to dissolve soils. However, chemical solvents can be added to a cleaning agent to help boost the performance of the cleaning products. This is especially true for those cleaning solutions manufactured to liquefy grease and oil or dissolve solid soils.

Other ingredients are often added to cleaning solutions, including preservatives, to help protect the product from decay, discoloration or bacterial degradation. But the takeaway here is that these ingredients can vary in many ways and that is why green cleaning solutions – as well as traditional cleaning solutions – differ in performance, costs, effectiveness and other metrics.




Now that we have a better idea of what we are dealing with and why cleaning solutions can differ, does this mean we will need to try 23 different green floor care products to determine the one that works best on our floors? Will we need to do this with other environmentally preferable cleaning solutions?

Some experimentation of cleaning solutions, green or otherwise, will likely always be necessary. However, there are certainly ways to make this testing procedure easier.

The first is simply to work with a janitorial distributor. It’s possible that contract cleaners are unaware of this, but jan/san chemical manufacturers demonstrate their cleaning solutions for the distributors they work with. In the process, the distributor learns the features, benefits and on what types of surfaces these products work best. This allows them to direct you to those products that best meet your specific needs.

Taking this a step further, technology has also made this testing process easier. Cleaning contractors can now access free online dashboard systems that help them compare products’ costs and performance. Because there are so many manufacturers making so many different cleaning solutions, keeping track of which products are available for which cleaning situations can be very difficult. These dashboard systems help alleviate this problem.

Cleaning contractors face a challenge. The surfaces they clean are always changing. New types of materials are always being introduced when it comes to floor and wall coverings, countertops, desks and other surfaces. Whenever these new products are installed, it means new cleaning solution may be needed to remove soils from these surfaces and keep them healthy. In most cases, an astute distributor along with access to online technologies can help you address these challenges and make your job a lot easier.

Michael Wilson is vice president of Marketing for AFFLINK


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