Chemicals have been part of cleaning carpets, floors and other surfaces for just about as long as cleaning has been a profession. As chemical manufacturing science has accelerated, creating a huge array of effective cleaning products for every application, a different type of cleaning crept in along the fringes: chemical-free cleaning. Some general cleaning applications do require the use of chemicals and disinfectants, but other options are available for floor maintenance tasks. Most people — including building service contractors and their customers — have a difficult time believing that floor maintenance can be done without traditional chemicals.

A number of manufacturers are working to change that, and have set out to prove that their equipment can compete with the more traditional equipment that dominates the cleaning market. They’re working a green angle that emphasizes cleaning for health and environmental sensitivity, as well as a productivity angle. The embracing of microfiber as a chemical-free way to clean has helped progress attitudes in the industry, and now other methods are being tested. Whether BSCs are considering taking on a chemical-free floor care program, they are being challenged to think in a new way about cleaning.

How it works

Chemical-free cleaning doesn’t simply infer the removing of chemicals from the process; rather, many methods actually change the chemical makeup of air and water to make it effective in cleaning on its own.

“There has been a strong impetus in our industry to reduce the amount of chemicals used. I don’t think anyone actually thought it possible to go all the way and completely remove the need for chemicals, but there’s been definitely a move toward reducing chemical and water usage,” says Scott Keller, senior product manager for Tennant Co., Minneapolis. The company has developed technology that uses electrolyzed tap water to clean like a detergent in autoscrubbers.

In explaining how the technology works, Tennant has to start with the basics of how chemicals work.

“If you know the basic cleaning properties of a chemical, we’re achieving the same effect but we’re not doing it chemically, we’re doing it electrically,” Keller says. First, the tap water is infused with oxygen, then an electrical current is applied, creating a charged blend of acidic and alkaline water with the same cleaning attributes of a chemical solution. The scrubber does its job of collecting the water and dirt removed from the cleaning surface, and in less than a minute, the water returns to its original state.

Another example of changing the make-up of water is vapor or steam cleaning, which heats tap water to more than 300 degrees to create a gas vapor, says Larry Cavalloro of VaporLux, Roseville, Mich.

“Because it’s a gas, it acts like all gasses — it has very small molecules, and the molecules are so small that they’re able to penetrate the pores on any surface because all surfaces have pores,” says Cavalloro. “And the vapor goes into the pore, it violently expands and it forces all the dirt from the bottom of the surface up to the top. And that’s how it cleans.”

The high temperature also kills bacteria and eliminates odors, he adds. Vapor can be used to clean and restore on a variety of naturally hard surfaces, including tile, stone, marble, granite and hardwood floors. The selling point of being chemical-free is obvious, but it takes more than that to convince BSCs to invest in a machine.

Dry ice blasting is a method that is being pitched to building service contractors, particularly those who service the industrial sector, as an alternative. It can be used to remove dirt, grease and paint from floors.

“You don’t have to get on your hands [and knees] with rags and use the chemicals to wash it off or use a water substance, it’s just dry ice, and once it hits the surface being cleaned, it evaporates and you have nothing left,” says Betsey Seibel, director of marketing and global communication for Cold Jet, Loveland, Ohio. Dry ice blasting is commonly mistaken for water-derived ice blasting, she says. Dry ice is a solid form of gas, and is in the form of pellets when blasted.

“When that pellet hits surface, it goes back to its natural state, which is a gas. There’s no water, so you don’t have to wait for it to dry, you’re not using that resource,” Seibel says.


One benefit of using chemical-free floor cleaning methods is that a residue won’t be left behind, maintaining the long-term life of a floor.

“What happens, over a period of years, gradually traces of chemical and dirt build up on a surface and you look at that surface and say it needs to be replaced,” Cavalloro says. “Most of the time it doesn’t need to be replaced. It just needs to be cleaned thoroughly.”

Chemical-free cleaning makes day cleaning more of a possibility for customers who don’t want building occupants to be disturbed by cleaning chemicals.

Using chemical-free cleaning, janitors and clients alike can reap the safely benefits of daytime cleaning without the risks, says Steve Hengsperger, president of Tersano Inc., based in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. The company infuses cold tap water with an extra oxygen atom to create a natural oxidant sanitizer.

Cleaning without chemicals can benefit workers, who no longer have to worry about exposure to skin and airways, as well as the environment. Not only are BSCs not polluting drains with caustic chemicals, but they’re also using less water and energy to clean. There’s the worker safety angle as well: workers’ comp injuries related to chemicals and slips and falls.

The advantages of chemical-free floor stripping are in efficiency, safety and environmental sustainability, says Keith Willey, marketing manager for Clarke, Springdale, Ark. The slip-and-fall hazard from floor stripping is reduced by eliminating those chemicals from the process, Willey says, and BSCs save on time as well as the cost of chemicals.

“The process moves to one pass of the machine, which removes the wax and cleans up the debris all in one pass,” he says.

And as far as training, most chemical-free floor cleaning methods are simple and easy for workers to understand how to use.

Reduction of water usage is a goal for many BSCs who are sustainability-minded. Some methods, such as dry ice blasting, use no water at all. Chemical-free scrubber and floor machine applications typically use less water than traditional methods. And these methods carry less waste disposal concerns, since they don’t involve emptying cleaning chemicals into the drain.

Manufacturers face an uphill climb in educating BSCs and their customers about the benefits of chemical-free cleaning. Hengsperger is encouraged by the industry’s rapid acceptance the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program.

“Cleaning professionals are beginning to understand the value of chemical-free systems,” he says.