When it comes to cleaning hard-surface floors, the knee-jerk reaction is usually to grab a mop. But according to many experts, a vacuum is just as good a choice.

“Some people don’t think of using a vacuum because dry cleaning of hard floors has traditionally always been the domain of dust mops and brooms,” says Allen Rathey, president, InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc., Boise, Idaho. “But the long and the short of it is vacuuming works.”

Using a vacuum to clean hard floors can deliver better results, be more efficient and improve indoor air quality.

Get Results

When done correctly, the vacuuming process can remove more soil from a floor than a dust mop or broom.

“Brooms and dust mops both leave fine dust and don’t get edges and corners well,” says Mark Browning, CEO of Varsity Contractors in Boise, Idaho. “The vacuum sucks up and removes all the dust, even the fine dust. It removes all the soil.”

Vacuums typically do a better job than mops at reaching dirt in cracks and corners. This is especially important with grouted floors. Mops tend to glide over the surface and miss dirt in the grout lines. Vacuums are also better suited for dried snow and salt, which would liquefy under a mop and create a film.

“Vacuuming is a removal process rather than a pushing-around process,” Rathey says.

Removing all particles from a hard floor on the first pass makes cleaning more efficient. With less dust on the surface, there is less chance of it turning into caked-on grime that requires wet mopping or burnishing to remove. One recent study shows that vacuuming rather than dust mopping reduced the need for burnishing by 60 percent.

Collecting dust and soil with a vacuum also makes mopping easier because there is less dirt to remove.

“When moistened, residual dust and dirt become mud,” Rathey says. “If you can remove more of that fine soil via vacuuming, then your water stays cleaner. You can do less mopping of the floor because you are not creating mud.”

Another study in a university found it took a janitor 47 minutes to dust mop and wet mop one classroom. Using a vacuum and then a damp mop reduced the cleaning time for the same space to 25 minutes. The time savings were realized in not having to move furniture around and in not having to replace the bucket water.

Not walking to replacing mop bucket water has made cleaning 15 percent more efficient for Xanitos in Radnor, Pa., says Ken Krauss, vice president of sales and marketing.

Browning says being able to vacuum hard and soft floors in one pass has made his team more efficient and cost effective.

“It’s a slam-dunk to me,” says Browning. His company switched to using vacuums almost exclusively for hard floors about five years ago.

Often, brooms and mops push dirt around without capturing and removing it from the space. Even worse, they may stir up the dirt and send it airborne, which can affect occupants’ health.

An added benefit of vacuuming hard floors instead of mopping is improved indoor air quality (IAQ). Cleaning for health is especially important to Browning and his clients.

“We are trying to clean not just for appearance but also for health. The backpack vacuum with a HEPA filter is far superior for removing soil,” says Browning. “That really sealed the deal for us. It’s so much healthier for the building occupants.”

A New Approach

As with any cleaning method, vacuuming is only effective when performed correctly. That starts with using the right tool for the job.

Using a traditional upright vacuum with a beater bar on hard floors is a common mistake. The beater bar, designed to agitate carpets, can damage solid flooring. Even with the bar turned off, however, the upright machine isn’t designed to clean hard floors. The opening is too wide, which reduces velocity and doesn’t allow for enough suction power. The two best vacuum options for hard floors are a canister or a backpack vacuum.

Because vacuuming hard floors is a departure from traditional cleaning methods, it’s especially important to train janitors on proper procedures. For example, to make the most of a vacuum, janitors need to focus more on details.

“The whole purpose of vacuuming is to make sure you get into all your corners and edges,” Krauss says. “You have a very efficient tool to do that but you have to be diligent.”

Switching to backpack vacuums may also take some training for janitors used to uprights.

“It’s a different [motion] than the old push and pull of an upright,” Browning says. “With the backpack it’s much more efficient and ergonomic to use a swinging motion. You hold the wand in front of you and swing the hose back and forth.”

It is up to the property manager to work with building service contractors to set frequencies and procedures that meet the facility’s needs without breaking the budget. However, experts recommend the following procedures for ideal maintenance of hard floors.

Floors should be vacuumed regularly to eliminate dust and debris from all areas including cracks and crevices. Vacuuming should always be followed by wet mopping to eliminate any bonded soils. Wet mopping should also be used on an as-needed basis to clean up spills. Floors are burnished on an interim basis for deeper cleaning.

“In the real world, rarely do you have a perfect floor care program,” Rathey says. “You can get away with wet mopping less frequently if you vacuum.”

Keep Mops on Hand

The vacuum is a great option for hard-floor care in most cases. There are some situations, however, to which it is not well suited.

Large, open spaces, including wide corridors or gymnasiums, may be more quickly cleaned with a wide mop or ride-on scrubber. Even in these cases, however, a vacuum may be best for cleaning areas where dirt can get trapped, such as handrails or under furniture. A vacuum may also help in these spaces if there is excessive dirt that would turn to mud under a mop or scrubber.

To achieve proper suction power, a vacuum requires a powerful motor. A good filtration system also needs power behind it to work. Therefore, noise levels are another consideration.

“If you are in a lobby or at a restaurant talking with someone and the housekeeper fires up the vacuum, it’s can be very loud and annoying,” says Krauss. “If it’s in an office building at night and no one is around, it doesn’t really matter how loud it is. You need the right tool for the job and for the facility.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.