There seems to be an overwhelming consensus among building service contractors that the cleaning industry is not very technically advanced. “We still use the same mops and brooms we used 50 years ago,” some say. Others comment that the last real change was the introduction of the high-speed buffer, 20 years ago.

Yet, these BSCs seem to overlook recent technological advances that have gone beyond product tweaks or repackaging and provided completely new options. In the past few years, chemical manufacturers have dabbled in different chemistry, finish polymers and drying methods in the hopes that they can change the way contractors clean. Microfiber technology, already a proven success in Europe and Canada, finally is working its way into U.S. cleaning operations. And equipment manufacturers recently have introduced new items that industry veterans say could vastly improve productivity in the next few years.

So, why the continued comments about how little has changed? Perhaps new tools aren’t enough, say some industry veterans. People in the cleaning business also must change their attitudes regarding the products they use, viewing them less as an expense and more as an asset to their operations. When they do there is a natural drive to seek out items that will improve cleaning processes. And, more importantly, BSCs then will push manufacturers to innovate.

Contractors need to catch up
While it is up to manufacturers to offer new technology, BSCs still play an integral role in the industry’s innovation initiative — one many contractors currently aren’t stepping into, according to industry veterans.

BSCs are not inclined to push for new items to make their jobs easier, says Dr. William Bond, vice president of research and development for ServiceMaster, the Downers Grove, Ill.-based national cleaning company.

“We’ve asked our franchise owners what they see in the future of cleaning products and a lot of times they simply parrot what is available today, but in a different color or with a minor adjustment,” he says. “They just can’t see past what they currently use to think up new improvements.”

That’s why he advocates designating someone who can take the time to research what products and methods are available.

But who is best suited for that job?

Managers have a tough time pushing for new products because they are too busy dealing with budget constraints and personnel problems, he says. Front-line workers may have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, but most won’t take the initiative to suggest updates to their managers.

“These people are too busy to dream,” says Bond. “Plus, they have no way of looking at technology in other industries and drawing a parallel to solutions needed in cleaning.”

ServiceMaster is large enough to have its own research team to do that type of legwork, but it also sends experienced cleaning workers to manufacturers’ headquarters so they can offer input into product development. The suppliers gain valuable insight from users and ServiceMaster’s people better understand the technical aspects of the tools they use.

Why the resistance?
BSCs are known on the supply side of the business for finding what is wrong with new products much faster than what is right.

“The minority get excited by new technology or methods and see the changes they can make with them, but the rest of them are real tentative and are reluctant to try new products,” says Steve Spencer, senior specialist in cleaning and interior maintenance for State Farm Insurance. Spencer overseas all cleaning contracts at State Farm facilities and handles cleaning technology research.

“If I want them to use a product I have to test it, gather the data, show them that it works and then hope they are less reluctant to use something new,” says Spencer.

BSCs do have valid reasons to worry about changing products — switching out old items, retraining workers and redoing inventory all can cost quite a bit. Initial investments into new products also can be higher than proven items already on the market. But industry veterans say BSCs still need to be more willing to test products and to analyze the long-term benefits.

Then there’s the question of what’s in it for them. Many new or updated products tout labor savings, which should sound good to an industry plagued with high turnover and other personnel difficulties. But many BSCs see labor reduction as synonymous with profit reduction, says Spencer.

“When I tell contractors that I am interested in bringing in robotic scrubbers or sweepers, I can see them calculating how much the labor savings will cut into their profits,” says Spencer. “What they need to realize is that if I save 50 percent of my cleaning costs, I still am willing to pay them the same profit margin.”

The need for knowledge
Beyond general reluctance, some contractors say there is a lack of education that clouds many BSCs’ judgement when considering new technology.

One example of how misinformation can hurt BSCs is the confusion surrounding propane strippers, says Joe Fairley vice president of new business development for Building Once Service Solutions, an Encompass company. “We have found them to be the best thing to use in 10,000 square feet or more, yet, I have scores of contractors using other, less suited equipment, and it’s literally costing them profits.”

The reason these contractors are ignoring what Fairley finds to be an obvious savings is that they haven’t educated themselves on the facts about propane emissions, taking it for granted that the fumes are dangerous without reading research that shows they can be safe with proper use, he says.

Fairley believes that while manufacturers probably could step up their commitment to educating customers, the people truly at fault are the contractors who don’t take the time to educate themselves.

“You can’t point fingers at associations or certification bodies because they do a pretty good job of making things available,” he says. “If you don’t have enough gumption to join an association or to look into the information that’s out there, then you won’t get ahead.”

One example is the lack of shared experience in the industry, says Ron Goerne, past president of the Building Service Contractor’s Association and owner of Service Resource in Bloomington, Ill. While contractors are willing to share product research or success stories with a few close peers, they aren’t willing to tell their story to the rest of the industry, holding the whole profession back, he says.

“Contractors are reluctant to try something they haven’t heard has worked, but if they don’t hear what works it’s just a staring contest to see who blinks first and tries it.”

And for those BSCs who are interested in advancing their operations and finding better cleaning technology? Well, they’ve gotten tired of asking, says Fairley.

“If you know you can’t move a mountain you stop trying,” he says.

Oftentimes, the improvement request a contractor makes seems simple enough, but the investment necessary to change that part of a product or to create something new could be more than manufacturers are willing to spend, Fairley adds. However, if enough contractors expressed an interest, the company could justify the cost because of market demand.

When contractors are looking into what tools to request, Bond suggests considering three key factors:

  • Something that improves the quality of cleaning;
  • Something that can improve productivity;
  • Something that makes the job easier for a person to do.

He currently sees most product improvements and new items centering around productivity increases, and he attributes that to the rising cost of labor and increased difficulty training employees.

In fact, another development has been the availability of supplier training kits and support to make using their products easier in light of these personnel issues.

Supplier initiative
With the admitted number of problems BSCs face in inviting and accepting new products, it is fair to ask how well suppliers are filling the gap.

Some industry veterans say manufacturers do not involve the contractor or the front-line worker early enough in their research, waiting until after a new product is complete to let people test it. Others say they’ve seen some real improvements of late that show manufacturers are willing to stick their necks out to offer new products.

The Tennant and Johnson Diversey companies launched a three-in-one floor machine about a year ago that has turned heads, says Fairley. He can’t think of any other major venture where two substantial companies were willing to partner for a new product of this magnitude.

Many contractors have said the duo’s NexGen machine, which combines a sweeper, scrubber and buffer all in one product, could make floor care much easier for contractors. Word in the industry is that some BSCs have picked out a few changes they would like to see. The question, though, is how do two companies go about making requested changes to a new product, asks Fairley.

Another recent development is the Tennant FaST system which uses foam instead of liquid to clean hard floors. Having less water leads to fewer water changes, which can take about 15 minutes each, says Fairley. Thus, he estimates that the system could save his contractors about 45 minutes each time they clean a 40,000-square-foot store.

Also an interesting development in floor care is the new line of robotic floor machines available through Intellibot, says Spencer. He is testing the company’s sweeper in at least one facility.

“The machine is more accurate than past robotic attempts and can easily reduce labor,” he says.

Previous robotic machines based their movement on manually placed markers and limited sonar. New Intellibot units use laser beams that can see up to a 400-foot radius.

But Spencer admits that it is easier for his company to buy this new equipment and install it in facilities than it is for his BSCs to do so. That is because the contractor still would have to raise prices to cover the cost of the new machine, whereas, if Spencer purchased it for the contractor to use, he will see a direct drop in labor charges.

Another area to keep an eye on is changing chemistry in floor finish, says Bond. Betco launched a new line of finishes last year that use new polymer technology designed to make it easier to apply the finish while allowing it to dry faster, says Bond. Though he is most interested in the concept of a permanent finish, which his staff currently is working on.

Restroom cleaning systems are another new development, says Goerne, who spends a lot of time researching new products.

“I never believed Kaivac could pressure-wash a restroom and get it as clean as I was with conventional methods,” says Goerne. “But I’ve tested the system and I’m convinced.”

The difference, he says, is the vacuuming system that quickly dries the area so restrooms can reopen quickly.

Kaivac also has included microfiber mopping into its latest restroom system, as has Unger.

ServiceMaster has used a microfiber mopping system for two years and has seen marked differences in productivity and ease of use, says Bond.

“With more ergonomic mops, the task also becomes effortless,” says Goerne. “And the new split-bucket systems that allow you to work with clean solutions at all times make a big difference in cleanliness levels.”

Another chemical advance that Goerne has been tracking is the use of hydrogen peroxide as a main ingredient in cleaners and disinfectants. “What I’ve seen is that it doesn’t seem to need as much dwell time, which is a big improvement, since most workers don’t wait long enough for a product to properly work as it is.”

Now that these new items are available, the onus is on BSCs to give them a fair chance. The only way to keep the industry’s cycle of technological innovation in motion is for contractors to continuously test items and determine what added changes still are necessary to help them better clean customer facilities.