About six years ago, the professional cleaning industry was introduced to automatic scrubbers that could clean and maintain floors by electrically converting regular tap water into a cleaning agent. While there was certainly some controversy about these systems when they were first introduced—mainly revolving around claims about their cleaning effectiveness— these days chemical-free floor machines appear to be quite popular and are now used around the world.
Although these machines can be slightly more expensive than traditional systems, they have found a significant “niche” market with BSCs and facilities focused on green cleaning. In fact, some users claim these machines and other chemical-free cleaning systems are “taking green cleaning beyond green cleaning.” The reason for this is simple. While green cleaning products are designed to reduce cleaning’s impact on the environment, when surfaces are cleaned with just water and no chemicals, there is invariably no impact on the environment—which is a step beyond indeed.
These no-chemical systems are recognized by different names, such as chemical-free, engineered water, ionized/deionized water, electrolyzed water, and aqueous ozone cleaning. They all use water, but some systems use different technologies than others to transform the water into a cleaning solution. Historically speaking, many of these chemical-free cleaning technologies are in their infancy, but enough research and development has been completed that manufacturers are beginning to offer these systems on a relatively large scale to the professional cleaning industry. In fact, for those BSCs attending the next ISSA/BSCAI tradeshow in November, you can expect to see several of these chemical-free cleaning technologies in the spotlight.
As they are being rolled out, cleaning contractors will see that while the various machines all have the same goal—effective, environmentally safe cleaning—they often use slightly different technologies. Each machine may also offer different benefits, features, and attributes, which provides BSCs with an array of chemical-free cleaning choices. To determine which of these technologies is most appropriate for their needs and expenses, BSCs should carefully research each different option.
History of Chemical-Free Cleaning
In some ways, chemical-free cleaning is not entirely new; in fact, it can be traced back some 50 years. One of the earliest forms of chemical-free cleaning was steam vapor cleaning, which required boiling water heated to 212 degrees F. or higher. Heating water to about 250 degrees F. actually changes its physical properties, according to Vince Elliott, founder of the Chemical Free Cleaning Network and author of the book Extreme Cleaning, which discusses cleaning alternatives that do not include chemicals.
The vapor these machines produce is forced through a nozzle, brush, or another attachment. The vapor loosens and then helps dissolve soils, dust, and a host of allergens, harmful bacteria, and other pathogens. No extraction is required, since the heated vapor moisture dries quickly. While this process can prove effective in many situations, for heavily soiled surfaces, some manufacturers do suggest cleaning a surface using a traditional method first—meaning chemicals—and then applying the vapor to ensure all contaminants are removed and no chemical residue is left on the surface.
We should note that in most cases, there are no SDS (Safety Data Sheet, formerly known as MSDS) for vapor cleaning systems. This is because the equipment only uses plain water, which dries or evaporates quickly in the cleaning process. While some of the other chemical-free cleaning technologies will have SDSs, the potential dangers behind using most of these systems for the user, building occupants, or the environment is very low, especially when compared to traditional or green cleaning chemicals.
WHAT IS STERILIZING? Sterilizing is often used when discussing healthcare equipment. Essentially, sterilization refers to a physical or chemical process that eliminates all forms of microbial life, including transmissible agents, such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, and all bacterial spore forms from a surface or instrument. In contrast, “disinfectants” are designed to kill all microorganisms on a surface as listed on the disinfectants label and if used properly, while “sanitizers” are designed to kill virtually all microorganisms on a surface if used properly.
Before we start discussing the most prominent chemical-free cleaning systems, please note that what we will present here is simply designed to give you a general overview of how these technologies work. These are complex and complicated technologies, so we will leave the physics to the scientists and primarily focus on discussing how these machines are used for cleaning.
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned no-chemical scrubbers, so we will review this technology first. Essentially, what this system does is electrically convert tap water into a powerful cleaning agent. As this blended water comes into contact with soils, it helps dissolve them, breaking them up into microscopic particles that can be wiped away. These contaminants are then collected and removed by the scrubber as it passes over the floor. As these soils and moisture are collected in the machine’s recovery tank, the blended water reverts back to regular H2O, which can be safely poured down any drain. As to these scrubbers’ efficiency at killing germs, Elliot said that such systems “can be considerably more effective when compared to the effectiveness ratings of various cleaning chemicals.”
Another technology is referred to as engineered water, which is also a term sometimes used to describe all chemical-free cleaning technologies. However, it is actually just a category or type of chemical-free cleaning. The system uses electricity to create sodium hypochlorite, a common ingredient in bleach. The process also converts tap water and salt into sodium hydroxide (often used in liquid drain cleaners) and hypochlorous acid solutions (a mild solution used to kill germs) simultaneously. The result is electrolyzed water that can be used for surface cleaning and sanitization.
According to Matt Montag of CleanCore Technologies, aqueous ozone cleaning uses ozone to turn water into a safe, yet effective cleaning agent: “Ozone is safe and created naturally in the atmosphere when sunlight adds an extra oxygen atom to the molecules in the air.” Montag explains that ozone can also be created mechanically through the interaction of electricity and oxygen. “Ozone is infused into water to create aqueous ozone, which we know can help eliminate germs, odors, stains, mold, mildew, and other contaminants on most any item or surface before changing safely back to water and oxygen,” said Montag.
Elliott agrees that aqueous ozone is an effective cleaning technology, and it can also be used in some situations for sterilizing, sanitizing, and disinfecting. “This is one of the most effective disinfectants available,” said Elliott. “In tests measuring pure disinfection qualities, aqueous ozone has proven to be as much as 10 times as effective at sterilizing surfaces as common household bleach.” For more information on such methods, see sidebar “What is Sterilizing?”
On Site/On Demand Cleaning
After getting an overview of these technologies, it’s evident that such cleaning systems can provide the same level of cleaning as traditional machines without requiring the use of any chemical cleaning agents. Some BSCs report that another big benefit they offer is what they refer to as “on site/on demand” cleaning. Some chemical-free cleaning systems have “fill stations” connected directly to cold water pipes, and these fill stations make the power of no-chemical cleaning available anytime, anywhere, which can help speed up the cleaning process considerably. With all of these benefits, BSCs looking for the ultimate in green cleaning technology would do well to give these machines a closer look.
Dawn Shoemaker is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning industry.