Before beginning the discussion on how cold water cleaning can be a part of a comprehensive green cleaning program, it is important to define “green.” Based on Executive Order 13423 (which has superseded EO 13101 and 12873), green (or “environmentally preferable,” which can be used interchangeably) is defined as “products or services that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose. This comparison may consider raw materials acquisition, product, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance, or disposal of the product or service.”

When applying this definition, there are a few important points that contractors should keep in mind. To begin, the definition speaks of green as being a “comparison” to other products or service that “serve the same purpose.” Thus, it is important when considering cold-water cleaning that the cleaning task itself is done comparably and effectively. In this regard it is not acceptable to use “greener” products or services that fail to clean effectively. To be clear, effective cleaning is always the first priority!

Within just a few years, new surfactants, solvents, and chemical-free and other technologies that allow soils to be removed in a fast and effective manner with cold water have been introduced to the market. While there may be no improvement in cleaning performance or human health impact, there would be a reduction in impacts on the environment because less energy is used to heat the water. And this would clearly meet the definition of “green” as long as the impacts on performance and health are at a minimum comparable to traditional hot water cleaning.

The potential impacts could be huge. Friends at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories estimate in discussions that the energy savings resulting from reducing the temperature of the water could be three times greater compared to using energy efficient motors in the appliances themselves — three times greater! And reducing energy consumption is a good thing — good both for the environment (resulting from reduced extraction of fossil fuels) and emissions (from burning them to produce the energy).

However, as my friend Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice, pointed out in the company’s study, “7 Sins of Greenwashing,” we should be aware of the “hidden trade-offs.” In regards to cold-water cleaning, contractors should not accept the trade-off of a product or service that cleans effectively in cold water, but uses ingredients that are perhaps more toxic after disposal, or higher in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Those VOCs can be inhaled and cause respiratory problems or can create atmospheric smog when ultimately exhausted to the outdoors, or are otherwise more hazardous to human health and/or the environment compared to the product or service being replaced.

Please know that we are not suggesting that cleaning with hot water is the major cause of energy consumption in a building, because it is not. But cold water cleaning is a contribution that cleaning contractors can and should make. The energy and related environmental benefits may seem minor to the contractor who may be using customers’ electricity, but to a growing number of building owners and facility managers, being able to reduce energy consumption is important to them, and can therefore be a differentiator for BSCs.

In an effort to reduce energy consumption and the resulting environmental impacts by using cold water, it is important to point out that a comprehensive green cleaning program does not mean that a contractor can only use cold water for cleaning. The drive toward sustainability (the ultimate goal of green) is a journey, so even small steps that continually improve practices are important. And they should only be taken when they make sense for the customer, environment, our workers and bottom line.

Stephen Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group and executive director of the Green Cleaning Network.