Upright or backpack? Battery or corded? Bag or bagless? These are just a few questions building service contractors address when purchasing a new vacuum.

But, a growing number of BSCs are expanding their operations into niche markets such as day cleaning, cleanrooms, or industrial facilities, and need tools that can meet the special demands of these environments. Low-decibel, cleanroom, and explosion-proof vacuums are a few specialty machines available to BSCs.

Low Decibel
When cleaning 24/7 facilities or implementing day-cleaning services, disruption to tenants needs to be minimized. A low-decibel vacuum can help keep noise to a minimum.

There are many low-decibel vacuum options available to BSCs, says Robert Bright, equipment specialist for Mission Janitorial Supplies, a San Diego-based distributor. Most commercial manufacturers have this type of vacuum either on the market, or in the works, he explains.

So what’s the industry standard for a “low-decibel” vacuum?

“Decibels is a tricky issue,” says Allen Rathey, president of Instruction Link/Jan Train, Inc., Boise, Idaho. “Most quiet vacuums say they’re quieter than 70 decibels, but every manufacturer measures it differently.”

For instance, it is important to note the testing environment. If tested in a chamber that produces no echo, the decibel rating will be lower, says Rathey. However, the vacuum may be tested in a corner of the room, at the motor, or at the ear of the operator, which would all give different decibel ratings. Rathey recommends using a vacuum with The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard F1324-02. While the standard is not universally used by all manufacturers, operators can tell precisely how the vacuum was measured, and how loud it is.

“Often you must get into the environment you’ll use it in,” says Rathey. “The bottom line is, trust your ear. Does it sound acceptable to you?”

One caution BSCs have is that quieter vacuums often come with a trade-off of a weaker motor, which results in less suction power, says Ed Moschler, vice president, Southern Building Maintenance Co., Inc., Greensboro, N.C.

As a compromise, BSCs can purchase a vacuum with adjustable sound levels, says Rathey. These vacuums feature a quiet mode and a high performance mode.

In cleanrooms, the goal is to keep all but the tiniest of particles from entering the environment. For instance, a tiny speck of lint could short-circuit a microchip in a manufacturing facility. While there are many precautions taken in cleanrooms, including strategic air flow and head-to-toe sealed suits, these rooms are as susceptible to allergens, dust, skin dander, mold, spores, pollen and bacteria as any other and the right vacuum is important.

Whether BSCs need a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuum or an ULPA (ultra low penetration air) vacuum depends on the class of the cleanroom, says Rathey.

Cleanrooms range in class from ISO1 to ISO9, explains Rathey. A ISO6 class, for example, permits 102 parts at 3 microns; for this a HEPA vacuum would suffice. As the classes get lower, the standard allows 10, .1-micron particles, per cubic meter of air. For these instances, contractors would need an ULPA vacuum, which collects 99.999 percent of particles in the range of .1 to .2 microns.

To put this into perspective, the human eye can’t see anything smaller than 10 microns, says Rathey.

ULPA vacuums feature heavy-duty filtration, which requires larger motors.

“It’s common physics,” says Rathey. “A very big, dense filter captures fine particles, which tends to create back pressure because you’re slowing the air down. You may sacrifice suction to achieve better filtration, but most good clean room vacuums compensate with bigger, more powerful motors to maintain airflow and lift for effective cleaning, while allowing the filter to scrub the air.”

Cleanroom vacuums also have seals to prevent stirring up dust at the tool head, and particles escaping with the motor’s exhaust. Since there is no certification or unified standard for cleanroom-certified vacuums, BSCs should look for a manufacturer who tests their entire vacuum in a chamber with a particle counter, advises Rathey.

Explosion Proof
When cleaning certain industrial facilities, an explosion-proof vacuum might be necessary. These specialty vacuums minimize static, sparks and arcing in environments with flammable solids, vapors or liquids — everything from powders in pharmaceutical applications to saw dust, metal dust, carbon-based dust, grain or fiber dust, gasoline and solvents.

These vacuums feature a variety of safety features, starting with vacuum design. Manufacturers utilize metals such as stainless steel and aluminum that allow for conductivity, says Chris Toomey, an applications engineer for an explosion-proof vacuum manufacturer. This prevents a build up of static, which could create a spark if it jumps to a lesser charged surface. This is known as arcing.

Explosion-proof vacuums also prevent static electricity with features such as HEPA technology, conductive accessories including wands and brushes, as well as special bumpers that eliminate metal-to-metal contact, says Toomey. In case there is an arc, conductive wheels provide a path for the electricity, making it safer for the operator, he adds.

Despite all these features, operators should not allow themselves to feel a false sense of security with this equipment, advises Toomey. Users should not pick up anything that the unit is not intended for, and be on the lookout for lit cigarettes or matches, or hot pieces of metal produced from grinding, and dispose of them appropriately, he adds.

Specialty vacuums are quite different from the commercial vacuums BSCs routinely use. But, with a little homework, BSCs will be educated to purchase the machine qualified for cleaning their new niche market.

Lauren Summerstone is a business writer in Madison, Wis., and a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.