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While experts agree that traditional strippers may still be preferable for some floors, today’s environmentally-preferable strippers can offer the same level of performance as their forefathers — at a much lower cost to the environment.
Anatomy of a floor stripper
You don’t have to be a scientist to understand how floor finishes and strippers work. Finishes coat flooring with a polymeric emulsion that “locks” together with cross-links for long-lasting protection. Every so often, the surface needs to come clean, so a stripper is used to dissolve the film — often layers of it — so it can be removed without damaging the floor.
“We’ve made the films more durable by increasing the cross-link mechanisms,” says Michael Kupneski, section head of product development for Procter & Gamble Professional, Cincinnati, Ohio. “The challenge comes when we try to minimize the number of times we strip and refinish. The goal is to dissolve the floor finish without damaging the floor, in the most convenient and effective way possible.”
Traditionally, two methods have been used to break down the finish’s chemical bonds. One relies heavily on metal — often zinc. The other uses butyl to swell the finish’s film and make it soluble. Neither is considered environmentally preferable because they both employ an unhealthy pH and/or toxic surfactants that help keep the solution spread out on the floor. That can create poor indoor air quality.
In addition to rock-hard finishes and reducing environmental impact, there is continuing pressure on end users to save on labor. To cut down cleaning times, end users often choose stronger chemicals.
“Our best selling strippers have always been our best-performing strippers, regardless of price,” says Rocky Massin, Hillyard’s, St. Joseph, Mo., senior product manager. “Performance is that important.”
To meet green cleaning challenges, more floor stripping options are becoming available. Rebecca Kaufold, a chemist at Spartan Chemical in Maumee, Ohio, says that today’s chemists are juggling the elements to create greener floor-finish removers that meet specific, desired results.
“To get a low-odor stripper, which could be desirable in a hospital setting, you may be high in another compound,” she explains. “Or, in the case of a floor that hasn’t been stripped properly for many years, you may need something incredibly powerful. A rinse-free stripper can be helpful for porous terrazzo or concrete. It has no added caustic, so you’re relying on higher levels of solvent and ammonia.”
Just about every manufacturer either produces an environmentally-preferable stripping option, or has one on the drawing board.
Massin says his company is trying to stress placing fewer coats during stripping and waxing.
“There shouldn’t be an issue with using green strippers in facilities where there is a good, regular program,” he says. “During the last 12 months, there have been huge improvements in green strippers.”
He continues, “I believe we’ll be able to figure out how to create better green strippers over time. It’s the progression of the marketplace and its impact on technology.”
Mike Tarvin, technical director at Multi-Clean Inc., Shoreview, Minn., says that Green Seal’s GS-40 standard (Greenseal.org), is helping speed the adoption of green finishes. He emphasizes that the standard requires demonstration of effectiveness.
“New generation strippers still use solvents, but don’t evaporate into the air,” he says. “They stay on the floor where you need them. The most common chemical is benzyl alcohol — a heavy-molecule alcohol that doesn’t evaporate into the air, is low-odor and is very effective at attacking floor finish.”
According to Tarvin, benzyl alcohol is ideal for removing multiple coats of finish. He adds, “The new generation also does a better job at keeping the finish liquefied, so it’s not gummy and you can pick it up better.”
“Having the GS-40 standard is important,” agrees Kaufold. “It establishes what we mean by green, specifies chemistries that can and can not be used and outlines performance characteristics.”
When comparing green strippers to both traditional strippers and Green Seal criteria, she offers the following: Green Seal requires a pH below 11.5 and volatile organic compound (VOC) of 3 percent by weight at the greatest dilution and 7 percent for heavy build-up. Most traditional floor strippers are 10-30 percent VOC.
“Remember you’re diluting, but if you can reduce it, there’s a definite advantage,” says Kaufold. “Obviously it won’t strip like products with a 30 percent VOC and pH of 13.5 — but that’s more appropriate for programs where floors haven’t been maintained properly.”
Green strippers also address biodegradability. “You’ll see claims for 100 percent biodegradability, but how many days will it take to strip the floor?” asks Massin. “You have to pay attention to that. I’m gratified that organizations such as Green Seal have laid down rules. At the end of the day, it builds a platform for us all to follow — which will only strengthen and improve these products over time.”
These manufacturers agree that there are virtually no differences in procedures, training or equipment with greener stripping compounds. “That’s important,” says Kaufold. “We don’t like to shake things up. People are typically happy with the procedure they have, and — more important — a procedure that works. Time is money.”
End users can also expect the same level of training and support as they had for traditional products. More than anyone, chemists and researchers — who work hard to perfect these products — are adamant in their desire that products be backed with full training and support. Support and education, they agree, will continue to play a large role in a facility’s success and the success of the products themselves.
There is some debate over whether it’s better for the environment to do more passes using greener products, or to strip floors less often but with less environmentally-desirable formulas. Hopefully, as technology continues to advance, this debate will be able to retire.
Of course, every facility has a unique set of challenges and will implement what works best in order to meet all of those challenges.
“Green products can be used on any surface without damage, are safe for the environment and humans and don’t disrupt processes in the building,” says Kupneski.
“I think that technology has evolved to the point where all of these are doable.”
Lauren Summerstone is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.