Toxic soup.

These two words aptly describe the state of many janitorial closets. The fact is, cleaning storerooms often overflow with chemicals intended for a variety of tasks: cleaning glass, shining stainless steel, wiping countertops, washing tile floors, scrubbing toilets and more.

But crammed closets chock full of cleaning chemicals should be the exception rather than the rule. Multi-purpose products designed to clean many surfaces are changing the way building service contractors clean, says Paul Cagle, president of The King's — The Green Cleaning Specialists of Houston, Texas.

But, unfortunately, that's not the case for all facilities, says Cagle.

"I still go into closets where there are 20 to 25 different cleaning solutions," he says. "We still see ammonia and bleach on the same shelf: two chemicals that can be used to make mustard gas."

When using several products for a host of jobs, storage areas and janitorial closets quickly fill to overflowing. But multi-purpose products can be reduce that number down to only a handful of chemicals.

Less is More

"When it comes to custodial closets, less is definitely more," stresses Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain, a Boise, Idaho-based consulting firm for the cleaning industry. Employing multi-purpose chemicals can easily trim the number of cleaning products from 20 to three or four.

"This reduces the complexity of the inventory, mitigates training issues and product misuse and saves money," Rathey says. "You're not going to have a worker using a solvent spray designed to remove gum to clean countertops. It removes user-error because it simplifies the cleaning platform."

The King's relies on just three products to clean every surface in every facility and the company is certainly not alone. Many other building service contractors have pared down their chemical arsenal to utilize fewer multi-purpose products.

Janitorial companies claim a variety of advantages to using multi-purpose chemicals, with greater efficiency being the No. 1 benefit.

"The purpose of cleaning is to capture and remove soil in the indoor environment," says Cagle. "Using multi-purpose chemicals is the most efficient, ergonomical and economical way to do that."

It comes down to time and motion, explains Cagle. Wiping desktops then cleaning glass with the same product is faster than using multiple chemicals.

"Being able to use just one chemical on a daily basis makes life so much easier. It's a huge timesaver," he says.

Greater efficiency saves the cleaning operation money, Cagle adds, noting the bulk of his operational costs lie in labor. If a janitor doesn't have to go back and forth to grab different products because one product does the job, he says labor costs can be greatly reduced.

Reducing the number of chemicals janitors store in a single space also makes the job site a safer area.

Training is a Must

A host of multi-purpose products exist, from concentrates to premeasured packets to ready-to-use chemicals. Whatever the product, it's critical employees be trained in its proper use.

Concentrated multi-purpose solutions likely require different dilutions for different cleaning situations. There may be a very mild dilution for glass cleaning and stronger dilution for other tasks, especially if the product includes disinfecting properties. In this case, incorrect dilutions can negatively affect bacterial kill rates.

At Magic Touch Cleaning Inc., a commercial cleaning firm based in Lee's Summit, Mo., dispensers are in locked cabinets within every facility with a product-selection poster nearby. Cleaners can look at the wall chart, depicting different cleaning situations and the correct product to use, then turn a dial on the dispenser to the correct solution. The unit automatically dispenses the product in its correct dilution.

"Cleaners have a tendency to think that if 1 ounce per gallon works well, then 4 ounces per gallon will work even better," says Gary Walker, owner of Magic Touch. "We take that decision away from them."

Automatic dispensing cannot do all the work, however; there is still a need to train workers to use the same product in different ways. For example, consider a product designed to disinfect as well as perform general cleaning and clean glass. When disinfecting a surface, workers must pre-clean it, then spray the solution and leave it sit for a dwell time of up to 10 minutes, before wiping it off. But if they followed these steps on glass, the product would likely leave streaks behind. Here, they need to spray and wipe immediately.

The simplicity of multi-purpose product use and dispensing can make it easier to train cleaning employees.

"Imagine an industry where you have 300 percent turnover, then imagine training every new employee to correctly use 20 different chemicals. It's a management nightmare," Cagle says. "The less cleaning tools you need, the less chemicals you have, the safer it is and the easier it is to train employees to use them."

When reducing the number of chemicals in a program, it is easiest to combine all-purpose and glass cleaners, says Rathey. Surface cleaners, for instance, can clean both desktops and glass of soils such as handprints and dust.

However, it's important that BSCs tailor multi-purpose cleaners to each facility. Some areas require cleaning with specialized products.

"You cannot have a cookie cutter approach," says Rathey. "Workers have to be aware that there are situations which may change the products used to clean."

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.

Cleaning With Water?

One product poised to revolutionize the industry may be handheld ionized water dispensers. These products transform tap water into a powerful cleaner. When the bottle trigger is pressed, tap water flows through a water cell system where an electric current "activates" the water, giving it the same cleaning power as a multi-purpose cleaner.

It's especially useful on glass, stainless steel, carpet and natural stone, says Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain. When used properly, these systems also effectively remove 99.9 percent of bacteria from surfaces.

Like all products, however, ionized water does have its limitations. Grease is one problem best left for chemicals.

"You can use water all day long and it will have no effect on grease," says Rathey. "You have to use a cleaner targeted to those types of soil and contaminants."