Over the course of the past few decades, the chemical makeup of floor strippers has evolved — much like other cleaning products — to reflect the needs of users as well as industry trends. And while many other green cleaning products have proven themselves effective, floor stripper is one that a lot of building service contractors remain on the fence about.

The focus of product development used to be creating the strongest chemicals to complete a job; however, with the increase of environmental concern, chemical manufacturers are now investing in eco-friendly and green cleaning products. Floor strippers are one of the harshest chemicals janitors use, creating a tough challenge for BSCs trying to balance the demanding job of eliminating floor finish with the increasing demand for a worker- and tenant-friendly product.

A handful of factors drive BSCs’ decision-making process when it comes to choosing floor strippers: cost, labor investment, environmental friendliness, worker safety and customer needs.

Evolved Chemistry

Marc Lisenby, president of Master Building Services in Tucker, Ga., recalls the days when floor finishes were wax-based, requiring a strong alkaline (often ammonia) stripper. In the last 35 years, chemical makeups of both finishes and strippers have evolved, and Lisenby notes that the strong odor that has long been a characteristic of strippers has improved dramatically.

“I think one of the biggest things is, the odor is much more manageable,” he says. “We don’t get nearly as many complaints about the odor of a stripper. We used to run people out of buildings with ammonia.”

Much floor stripping is done after-hours, when tenants are gone, so the number one consideration in regards to health is for cleaning workers.

“The volatile organic compounds, the VOCs, are much reduced,” Lisenby says. “They’re still caustic but they’re easier on the skin and they do a better job of breaking down the floor finish faster. We don’t have to spend as much time on the floor with the machines and the tools and scrapers and steel wool to get it off the floor.”

With some of the newer formulas, especially green products, odor is negligible or even pleasant. James Rice, general manager of GSF North American Janitorial in Cincinnati, uses a green stripper that works well and smells much better than others he’s used in the past.

“Just in the odor itself is where the safety comes,” Rice says. “Anybody who’s worked around stripper for any period of time will tell you that most stripper is unbelievably toxic.”

The green angle is important with Rice’s customers, who often ask the company to help them become more green in their cleaning practices. Some customers also face the difficult task of managing their own caustic chemical waste, and don’t want a BSC contributing to that.

“We [clean] a lot of manufacturing [facilities] and that’s really a premium point for them because in manufacturing, they have to worry about all the stuff they’re shoving down the drain,” Rice says.

Is Green Strong Enough?

Not all BSCs, however, place a high priority on environmental friendliness. Some remain skeptical about green floor strippers’ ability to get the job done well. As labor represents a big chunk of a BSC’s costs, a floor stripper that works fast and effectively is the most important factor for most contractors. Most strippers are priced within cents of each other, but it’s worth it to most BSCs to pay a little more for a product that will save in labor costs.

Jack Morris, president of Advanced Floor Care in Kearney, Neb., hasn’t switched to a green stripper but he is concerned about the health of his workers. Morris has tried a few environmentally friendly products but found they didn’t work as well as those that are more dangerous to use.

“What we have done here is we have worked really, really hard to come up with a program so that we strip our floors much less,” he says.

In fact, there are some floors that haven’t had a full strip in four years, he says. He does that by using a much less concentrated stripper solution to do a “mini-strip.” The results have been positive, Morris says, with rave reviews and glossier floors.

Rice argues that any BSC should want to use an environmentally preferable stripper if possible — and he says the product his company uses is just as effective as traditional strippers in nearly every situation.

Improving With Time

Whether or not a BSC is using a green stripper, most agree that it’s still early in the process of development of quality green strippers.

“I think that floor strippers are still evolving, primarily because of the pressure from green cleaning sources to get the floor strippers more in line with a more healthy and environmentally friendly environment,” Lisenby says.

The partnership between finish and strippers has improved, he says, and chemical manufacturers see the two working as a system — with stripper working like a key to unlock the finish from the floor.

“Back in the day, you were trying to take glue off the floor with dynamite, and now it’s like you’re trying to remove wallpaper with wallpaper remover. There’s more of a relationship than there ever used to be,” Lisenby says.

As the harsher chemical products continue to improve to be easier on workers and the environment, most BSCs expect floor stripper to follow suit. Some believe customer demand will pave the way for greener products, and that manufacturers need to be pushed to create safer chemicals. It’s a responsibility of BSCs to be looking to protect their employees and the earth, says Rice.

“I think as an industry we have to and it is our duty to look to change in respect of the stripper,” Rice says. “I’ve hundreds of workers that work for me and it’s a worry to me — they’re the ones who get the job done, they’re the ones who are there every night, they’re the reason I can sleep at night and if I don’t take care of them I’m going to be in trouble.”