Proper product use is half the battle
More isn’t always better especially where cleaning chemicals are concerned. The misuse of cleaning chemicals — including overuse, applying on the wrong surfaces and failure to follow other usage guidelines — can add up to big problems for building service contractors, including inflated cleaning costs, safety hazards, and ineffective cleaning.

However, industry experts frequently encounter chemical errors, especially overuse.

“The cleaning industry on average uses way more chemical than is needed,” observes John Walker, president of ManageMen, a Salt Lake City-based consulting company. “I advise people to pay attention to how much chemical they are using, because they may be using too much.”

For example, if a floor is mopped daily with too much cleaning solution, chemical build-up may occur, which damages the floor’s finish.

“Your cleaning activities are actually harming the floor’s shine as much as the traffic is,” Walker explains.

Although chemicals serve a purpose — to enhance cleaning procedures — they must be applied properly to achieve maximum benefit. A few simple guidelines can help cultivate a formula for success.

Ensure proper dilution
Cleaning staff at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., receive the correct mixture of cleaning chemicals before they start their shifts, says Kirk Campbell, director of maintenance and custodial services. He uses a proportioning system that mixes the chemicals with water and automatically dispenses it to employees.

“We make sure that the solution is mixed in the appropriate concentration before it reaches our employees’ hands,” Campbell says. “This reduces their error and we have less wasted chemicals.”

Read the instructions
Unfortunately, the old caveat —apply in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions — often is ignored. If chemicals are applied with the wrong procedure, unsafe conditions can result.

Some chemicals can not be used in aerosol or spray form, explains Alan Bigger, director of building services at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. They can release harmful particles into the air, which can cause allergies.

The same can be said for chemical concentrates put directly into a spray bottle without diluting. The solution can be too strong for workers to breath in. That’s why it’s so important to folow label instructions.

Know the difference between disinfectant and general cleaner
In order to use them correctly, it is important to distinguish between disinfectants, or sanitizers, and general (all-purpose) cleaning solutions.

Disinfectants kill bacteria, and require “dwell time” (time to eliminate germs) before they are wiped away. General cleaners, on the other hand, work by trapping and suspending dirt particles in soap bubbles.

“You don’t try to kill germs with general cleaners, because they are not designed for it,” Walker explains.

Avoid overspraying
“Overspraying” occurs when too much chemical is applied directly onto the cleaning surface. This is generally not problematic while cleaning restrooms, since disinfectant is usually wiped while damp, given time to kill germs and left to dry.

However, overspraying in other settings often is disastrous.

Bigger tells the story of an employee’s attempt at cleaning a drinking fountain. The spray from the chemical damaged the walls around the fountain, and even bleached the carpet underneath.

“In office settings, computers, personal items and important papers could all be damaged if they come into contact with cleaning chemical,” Walker says. “If there are items present that could be harmed by chemicals, it is important to spray chemicals onto a cloth, not directly on the surface.”

Use the right cleaning tool
If cleaning tools are not matched with their appropriate chemical counterpart, chemical effectiveness is compromised. For example, a bowl brush is used to spread disinfectant around the toilet bowl, and is effective because its bristles are able to dislodge germs that have adhered to the porous surface. Bowl mops, on the other hand, are typically used as an acid remover to attack calcium deposits or hard-water stains. They are not as effective as a disinfectant tool.

Other cleaning tools that are often misused are the different types of mops. Kentucky mops — mops that have thick, looped yarn tied to a handle — are used to apply floor stripper, neutralizer, or floor finish. However, they are not designed for use in a restroom, because their high profile often tends to leave a two- to three-inch high ring of dirt around the walls or baseboards. Instead, a flat mop — a low-profile mop with a terry towel surface — spreads disinfectant evenly and is appropriate for restroom cleaning.

Avoid cross-contamination of solutions
Cross-contamination of solution occurs when cleaning solution or unwashed tools from one cleaning task are also used for another. Unfortunately, this can contribute to the spread of bacteria from one area to another.

“If I don’t change my cleaning solution and mop head each time I move from one restroom to another, I’ve taken everything I’ve mopped off the floor in one room and spread it to the next room,” Paul Condie, vice-president of Professional Janitorial Service, a building service contractor based in Austin, Texas, explains. He makes sure his employees use a fresh cleaning tool — mop head or bonnet — each time they begin work on a new floor surface. The mop heads and bonnets are then laundered and re-used.

Cross-contamination also can occur from the improper use of cleaning tools. For example, an employee who uses a bowl mop instead of a bowl brush to clean toilets may inadvertently spread bacteria.

“A bowl mop isn’t a disinfectant tool — instead, it’s a perfect breeding ground for bacteria because it’s typically stored while wet in warm, dark spaces, like a supply closet,” Condie says. “If I use the mop to clean toilets the next day, I’m spreading bacteria throughout the building.”

Base cleaning decisions on proper context
Finally, Walker recommends carefully examining the variables in each situation, which ultimately affect which cleaning method, tools and chemicals (if any) are employed.

“When you use a machine or use a chemical, you have to ask yourself what you’re cleaning,” he advises. “How much chemical and what type of chemical to use, which machine to use, how much dwell time should be allowed, how much agitation is necessary, how much time do I have to let it dry? How I answer these questions will determine my cleaning strategy.”

Lynne Knobloch is a frequent contributing writer to Contracting Profits, based in Mishawaka, Ind.

When in Rome...
The cleaning chemical may be king in the United States, but other cleaning methods take precedence elsewhere in the world. For instance, in Europe, the focus on water conservation, environmental impact and economy has led to a more frugal use of chemicals.

"The high-gloss or 'wet look' in floor cleaning so popular in the United States is not the norm in Europe," says Keith Marcoe, president of The NISSCO Group, an international association of maintenance-product distributors. "In order to achieve the same result of cleanliness and hygiene while reducing their use of chemicals, European nations typically emphasize mechanized cleaning machines powered by batteries, such as riding floor sweepers and scrubbing machines."

Microfiber technology also often is used in Europe as a way of reducing chemical usage. Microfiber cloth, composed of wedge-shaped polyester filaments around a core of nylon, traps dirt particles inside the fibers. The microfiber requires only water, not additional chemical, to clean most surfaces.