Technologies and techniques for efficient water use - My first contract cleaning company grew to 85 customers by the time I sold it in 1987. During the 15 years I had the company, the client roster included schools, restaurants, offices, and facilities of all shapes and sizes. I soon realized that certain issues and challenges were just a normal part of the business. For instance, it did not take long for me to realize Monday was complaint day in the cleaning business.
Invariably, something went wrong somewhere or some customer was not happy with something, so I made a policy regarding how to handle complaints: If it was an emergency, I attended to it as quickly as possible. If it sounded like a more general problem, I would wait until late morning to call the customer and reassure him or her that the issue would be corrected with the next cleaning visit. By then, they likely had gotten a chance to calm down.
There were scores of issues that became commonplace as well. Cleaning equipment needed to be repaired or replaced. Facilities needed chemical supplies or related tools. Cleaning workers called in sick about an hour or so before they were to go to work, which meant I had to put on the overalls and work the evening shift even after a full day on the job.
The Water Problem
However, in all my years in business, even during some of the driest years in Northern California, I never gave much thought to conserving water. We turned on the tap, and the water came out—even in restaurants, where we hosed down the kitchens to first clean them and then hosed them down a second time to rinse them.
"The best way to examine how we might be able to reduce water consumption is to analyze certain cleaning resources, starting with chemicals."
If I was in the business today, though, I could no longer treat water as a nonissue. Several states now have severe water shortages. Water is becoming the oil of the 21st century. But just as we have developed automobiles that use far less petroleum than cars did a decade ago, we are going to have to turn to new technologies and cleaning methods that use water more efficiently in years to come. For more on this, see the sidebar “What Does Using Water Efficiently Really Mean?” Chemicals and Water
The best way to examine how we might be able to reduce water consumption when performing cleaning activities is to analyze certain cleaning resources and practices, starting with chemicals. When I was in the business, I don’t remember auto-dilution systems being available. We mixed chemicals with water from the tap. Often, we used either too much water or too little, and water invariably continued flowing from the tap after we were done.
Auto-dilution systems grew in importance as “green” cleaning became more accepted. These systems mix chemicals more precisely so that just enough are used to perform cleaning tasks, helping to reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment. And they can reduce water consumption as well—by mixing water more precisely to reduce waste and increase efficiency.
Related to this, the practice of hosing down commercial kitchen floors twice is simply no longer sustainable.* Mopping is also not a very wise option because the mop and solution become so soiled so quickly. If I were still in the business, I would look into getting a trolley bucket system that dispenses water directly onto floors as it is rolled over them. The floors can then be brushed down, loosening grease and soils, which along with the solution are vacuumed up using a wet-vac attachment.
What Does Using Water Efficiently Really Mean?
When we conserve water, we are trying to reduce the amount of water we use during a specific period for a specific reason. Typically, this is done due to a temporary period of drought. But when conditions change, we use water freely, as we have in the past. Using water efficiently is different. This refers to longterm conservation where we use systems, products, and methods that reduce water consumption on a permanent basis.
Floorcare and Water
Stripping floors often requires the use of considerable amounts of water, and unfortunately, there may not be too many ways around this. One option might be to use the trolley bucket system mentioned earlier, where the water is at least more precisely used, helping eliminate waste. The best way to reduce water consumption when stripping floors is not to strip them at all. Ensure high-performance mats are placed at all key entries to help prevent grit that can damage floor finish from entering the facility. Also, increasing auto scrubbing and recoating cycles as well as increasing buffing and burnishing frequencies can delay stripping/ refinishing cycles for a year or more. Many facilities are looking into reducing stripping/ refinishing cycles not only because it reduces water consumption, but also because it is more environmentally responsible and helps reduce operating costs.
Technology is also helping reduce water consumption in floorcare. More and more machines are “low-moisture” auto scrubbers and floor machines, so they are engineered to use less water. Another water-saving technology now available from some manufacturers is cylindrical brush technology. According to Sean Martschinke, a 10-year veteran of the professional cleaning industry and now Product Manager with Tornado Industries, cylindrical brush floor machines have counter-rotating brushes (instead of pads) that can often reach deeper into floor pores and grout than rotary machines. This results in an estimated 30-percent reduction in water consumption.
Carpet Care and Water
In many ways, carpet cleaning is an entirely different world now compared to when I was in the business. Years ago, many contract cleaners shampooed carpets or used a bonnet system. These methods are used less and less today.
Although it was developed in the late 1970s, the encapsulation method of cleaning carpets was rarely used.** Encapsulation is a dry carpet cleaning method, but early chemicals did not always perform well, and many caused rapid re-soiling. For the most part, those issues have been addressed, and this mode of carpet cleaning is used much more frequently.
Just as there are now ways to reduce stripping/refinishing cycles to save water, using dry methods such as encapsulation helps reduce extraction cycles. While there are no set frequency guidelines that will work in all cases, often a program where carpets are cleaned twice using the encapsulation method and then extracted is a reasonable plan. In places where carpets were extracted twice per year, such a program would mean they would now be extracted once per year or less.
Why are we trying to reduce extraction frequencies? Portable carpet extractors, which are typically the machines that cleaning contractors use, can release up to 1.5 gallons of water per minute. If a carpet cleaning job takes about 45 minutes, that’s about 70 gallons of water. However, once again, technology comes to the rescue. Some manufacturers are now making low-moisture extractors that use about one gallon of water or less per minute. Further, while there are likely no studies to confirm it, a heated carpet extractor may use less water as well because the heat improves the effectiveness of the cleaning chemicals. This would mean fewer wand passes to clean the same area, which would result in less water being used.
Another option is to use continuous-flow recycling carpet extractors that filter water and solution, so it can be used several times. These systems can reduce water consumption considerably.
Looking back on how freely we used water for cleaning years ago now seems unconscionable. But reviewing all the ways we can reduce water use when cleaning today— and still attain high-quality results—at least gives me a sense of pride that our industry once again has stepped up to the plate and done what needs to be done to be more sustainable and use water more efficiently. *A garden hose with no nozzle can release more than 300 gallons of water per hour; if a commercial kitchen floor is hosed twice for a total of 30 minutes that means at least 150 gallons of water are used.
**In general, the encapsulation method involves spraying or sprinkling chemicals that “encapsulate” and capture soils. A cylindrical brush machine is then used to agitate the carpet and loosen the soils. Finally, the carpet is vacuumed, which removes the chemicals along with the soil.
Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor. He has started and sold three contract cleaning companies in Northern California and is now a frequent writer for the industry.