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A Closer Look at Green Floor Care

Written by  Debby Davis

There are numerous ways contract cleaners can make their floor-care programs greener, especially when it comes to stripping and refinishing. And while this is certainly a pressing issue for BSCs to look into right now, with more and more facilities in both the private and public sectors transferring from carpeting to hard-surface floors, green floor cleaning will become even more important in the years to come.

Cleaning and maintaining floors using traditional methods has presented several challenges in terms of health and the environment. For instance, some floor care chemicals can cause skin and eye irritation, headaches, burns, and in rare cases, permanent health issues. This is because they often contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can damage indoor air quality (IAQ). Also, possible harmful ingredients, such as 2-butoxyethanol, which is considered to be a potential carcinogen and can be absorbed through the skin, is found in some stripping chemicals.

Furthermore, some ingredients in traditional floor finishes, specifically zinc and other heavy metals known as “strengtheners,” are incorporated to help produce a high gloss shine to floors. These metals are known to be harmful to aquatic life if washed down drains, and this is why some areas of the country now require that this “slurry,” as it is often referred to as, be handled as hazardous waste and disposed of accordingly.

However, BSCs should not automatically assume that simply transferring to green floor care products, such as strippers or cleaners, will put an end to these health and environmental concerns. While environmentally preferable cleaning products are generally safer for your staff, building tenants, and the environment, cleaning contractors should always keep in mind that many green cleaning solutions are highly concentrated. This means they must be diluted properly, and if not, there is always the possibility they can cause health and environment-related problems, even though this is exactly what they are designed to prevent.

That said, assuming they are diluted and used properly, switching to environmentally preferable cleaning products that are certified by a credible green certification organization is the first step in greening floor care. Although the selection was quite limited several years ago, BSCs will now find many high-performing green floor cleaning solutions, which meet or exceed the quality and performance of their traditional counterparts. However, contractors should be aware that as with any cleaning chemical or solution, some trial-and-error may still be necessary with the different green solutions. As with practically anything you buy, not all of these products are formulated the same, perform the same, or are as effective on different floor types. Fortunately, all it takes is a little experimentation to find the one that works best for you.

Chemical-free solutions

The second option contractors can consider as they transfer to green floor care is the use of alternative floor care equipment. Some of these machines are designed to use no chemicals whatsoever—and what could be greener than using no chemicals at all?

For instance, floor care machines are now available that are designed to clean surfaces using electrolyzed water instead of chemicals. Though each machine operates slightly differentially, depending on the model and brand, they generally use regular tap water, which is infused with oxygen and then charged with an electrical current. This charged solution creates a blend of acidic and alkaline water that is reported to clean as well as most chemicals. What’s more, the water returns to its original state when it’s disposed of, so it’s completely harmless to the environment. Though many BSCs have reported success with these machines, others indicate they are best when used on light to moderately soiled floors or that they may require the addition of a small amount of chemicals for optimal effectiveness.

Other chemical-free—and often more cost effective—green floor-care equipment options include “orbital,” or rectangular-shaped, floor machines. When they were first introduced, many BSCs believed the main benefit of these machines was their ability to clean edges and corners due to their straight-edged design. While this is one of their most important benefits, it’s not their only one. Unlike rotary machines, which are round and typically require considerable cleaning solution to work effectively, orbital floor machines are designed to remove finish without chemicals and without water.

With a floor pad attached, some of these orbital machines generate as much as 3,500 rotations per minute (rpms) and feature an oscillating motion that delicately “sands” away finish and soils from the floor’s surface. Some systems even allow weights to be added to the machine for greater contact pressure, which further helps their ability to remove finish without the use of cleaning solutions, water, or strippers. For more details on orbital machines and their use, see the sidebar to this article, “What About the Dust?”

What About the Dust?

BSCs should be aware that while orbital floor machines do not require chemical solutions or water, they will generate dust as they are used. Cleaning contractors are advised to look for machines outfitted with a dust skirt and a dust port. The dust port can be connected to a backpack vacuum cleaner, which collects the dust so it does not become airborne.

Greening the refinishing process

One of the final components that can help BSCs “green up” their floor care programs is to simply stretch your floor refinishing cycles. Years ago, when labor costs were lower and school districts had ample budgets, the floors in many schools were stripped and refinished two or three times per year. Not only is this frequency unrealistic given today’s increased labor costs and strapped budgets, but there’s now too much concern about the environmental impact of refinishing floors that often.

As a result, many facilities now ardently work to stretch refinishing cycles. One key way they do this is by selecting high-quality floor finishes. Typically, a higher quality floor finish will be specifically designed to be more durable. Additionally, knowledgeable BSCs will ensure that several thin coats of finish are applied to the floor, along with installing high-performance matting systems at all of the facility’s key entry points. The matting systems capture the bulk of soil and moisture from shoes, which can be one of the biggest culprits when it comes to floor damage.

Vacuuming/sweeping of the floor must also be increased to help stretch re-finishing cycles. But for the best results, contractors should consider using backpack vacuum cleaners, instead of traditional dust mopping, to clean floors. Not only is this a healthier option that aids in IAQ protecttion, but vacuuming also pulls soils from the pores and grout instead of pushing it. If not removed thoroughly from the floor, these soils can damage the floor and its finish. For maximum longevity, floors should be scrubbed clean and buffed or burnished on a more frequent schedule. Once again, the increased frequency ensures that the highest amount of soil and other debris are removed from the pores and top layers of the floor, helping to protect the surface and maintain its finish.

Another Consideration

When it comes to green floor care, BSCs should always strip and refinish floors only when absolutely necessary. Stephen Ashkin, a leading green cleaning consultant, notes that floor care is often scheduled and performed whether it is needed or not. Or even worse, it is performed more frequently in executive areas of a facility simply to keep top company officals happy.

“Especially when it comes to stripping and refinishing floors, it should be performed only when needed and as needed,” says Ashkin. “In a sense, this is the most significant way to green up floor care and unfortunately, the one that is often overlooked.”

Debby Davis is a floorcare expert and an industry veteran. She is now product manager for Powr-Flite, which manufactures floorcare equipment.


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