Most people’s broom closets are filled and overflowing with chemicals. There are separate products to scrub the toilet, polish the furniture, clean the glass and wash the floor. The janitor’s “closet” isn’t much different. Many times the chemicals a cleaning operation uses for its custodial chores can get out of hand.

To keep chemical clutter at bay, custodial operations must assess their chemicals on a regular basis, says William Griffin of Seattle-based Cleaning Consultant Services.

“Most places I visit have between 20 and 60 products in their inventory,” he says. “We usually try to weed it down to a half dozen or less. These days it’s even possible to get down to one or two basic products.”

According to Griffin, narrowing an operation’s inventory to the minimum chemicals needed, rather than simply keeping a lot of products on hand, helps the environment, cuts down the money spent on chemical purchases and reduces the amount of training custodians require.

“You don’t need three kinds of glass cleaner, three kinds of multipurpose cleaners, three kinds of bowl cleaner and three kinds of floor finish,” he stresses. “You need one of each product, or one product that does multiple things. Normally you’re after a multipurpose cleaner, a disinfectant, a glass cleaner and possibly some specialty products such as carpet cleaning detergent or a floor finish.”

But with the plethora of choices available, the task is often easier said than done. The smart cleaning manager, says Griffin, wisely puts processes in place to simplify this job.

Who’s In Charge?

Custodial supervisors can begin an organization’s chemical assessment process by deciding who will select the chemicals. Experts recommend appointing a primary person within the organization to head a Process Improvement Team charged with reviewing the products already used, testing new products and setting standards.

The 325-member staff of the University of Washington—Seattle custodial services department is responsible for cleaning and maintaining 175 buildings and close to 10 million square feet of academic and research facilities. To keep its chemical situation under control, Gene Woodard, director of facility/custodial services, says he charges his assistant director with purchasing all cleaning products and works with just two chemical companies.

Even though a single person acts as a gatekeeper for chemical purchases and as a liaison with chemical companies, Woodard explains, custodians are also included in chemical and equipment selections. He calls eliminating custodians from this process “the worst mistake a manager can make.”

“We want our staff to have input on the things they can control or contribute in regards to their job,” Woodard says.

The information custodians offer up can prove invaluable, yet Griffin explains that often custodians feel as if they have little to no input into chemical selection.

“But they generally have strong feelings about these products because they must use them every day,” he says. “They know whether they work, smell good, are easy to use, and are corrosive or damaging to their skin or make people cough.”

Testing 1-2-3

Custodial supervisors may be constantly bombarded by requests to try the latest and greatest products, which can make chemical selection a year-long chore. To reduce time spent on product assessment, Griffin recommends limiting chemical evaluations to set times of year, such as between the months of March and May. Thus, when a salesman shows up with the “latest and greatest” cleaning breakthrough, the custodial supervisor is armed with a stock answer: “We’d love to test your product, please bring us samples during this time period and we’ll check it out.”

This prevents cleaning managers from having to try every new product that comes along.

The Process Improvement Team should oversee all product tests and meet at least once a week to review their findings. The team should also examine the number of products needed, the amount of water the product requires, the packaging it comes in and so on.

Griffin advises considering the following:

1) Is the chemical an environmentally safe product for custodians, building occupants and the environment?

2) Does it work? “There’s no use in buying a ‘safe’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ product if it doesn’t clean well because no one is going to use it,” he says. “It’s got to be functional, safe and usable.”

3) Is it economical? “People are not going to buy things that cost a lot of money,” Griffin says. “If it costs more than a typical product people won’t be interested.”

Determining the answer to these questions requires considerable time scrutinizing the products and their performance. Several years ago, the University of Washington—Seattle began a 9-month review of the floor finishes used on its 6 million square feet of floor space.

“We wanted multiple-use chemicals,” Woodard explains, but instead found they had a floor finish for terrazzo, a different floor finish for Vinyl Composite Tile and another for Battleship Linoleum.

The organization launched an extensive study and one corridor in the university’s Health Science Center became the test bed for custodians to apply new finishes under close scrutiny. The study considered eight topics including how the product applied, its smell, buff-ability, slip resistancy and durability.

Test driving products for an extended period of time protects an organization’s investment, says Woodard. He notes the university sought a finish that kept its floors shiny and even in appearance, avoided stripping and the use of harsher chemicals, and explains they could ill-afford a product that didn’t work.

“We are a large organization. When we make a commitment it’s going to be for years,” Woodard says. “It’s frustrating to apply finish on a floor then learn it isn’t durable and the floor needs to be redone. This disrupts occupants and the overall atmosphere, so we try to be as scientific as we can in the selection process.”

While wide-scale testing may involve only a select few, assessing other products such as window cleaners or wet mops can include many more workers, says Woodard. He recommends seasoned staff carry out long-term studies while the entire custodial staff be engaged in shorter product studies.

“If it’s is a commonly used product, we’ll get as many samples as we can and have everyone test it and provide written feedback back to their supervisor,” Woodard says.

The university employs a written form to document custodians’ findings. This document names the product and describes its use then rates fragrances, performance, effectiveness and leaves room for comments. The assistant director reviews the forms and develops recommendations, while the entire management team makes the final purchase decision.

“It’s a long process before we’ll introduce any new product,” says Woodard. “We may have 20 people test a product for a period of time. Seventeen may say they love it and three will say they hate it. We may still implement the product, but we know we have to work with those three people. If you restrict the number of testers you may not get enough data to make an informed decision.”

Make Training Part of the Solution

A lot of times organizations set their focus solely on chemicals, especially when it comes to green products. But having the correct product in place makes up only part of the equation, the total solution also includes training.

“There’s no use bringing in a product and having procedures that counteract it,” Griffin says. “Training is a key factor in using these products correctly. Processes and procedures play a bigger role than just the chemicals alone.”

Successful chemical assessment also entails staying abreast of new technologies and chemicals by attending trade shows and seminars; reading trade magazines; participating in chat rooms; forums and bulletin boards; being involved in various trade associations; and working with distributors and sanitary supply companies.

The University of Washington hosts trade shows and educational programs for the International Executive Housekeepers Association (IEHA), says Woodard, who explains this gives the entire team a chance to see new equipment, dispensers and chemicals.

“Everyone makes recommendations, they are just all funneled through one person, who is always looking at the big picture,” he says.


Facilities change over time, and new floor surfaces, wallboards, furniture and so on are added. Every change to a facility also creates the need for change among the chemicals being used, say experts.

Industry representatives advise gathering information on every new surface well in advance to make sure custodians know how to maintain them. The best source for this information lies with the manufacturer of the surface itself. New or upgraded facilities typically come with a design manual that tells who manufactured every material used. Armed with this information the cleaning supervisor can contact the manufacturer of each surface to see what chemicals and maintenance procedures are recommended.

The University of Washington—Seattle demands such specifications for every new surface. Woodard’s supervisory team analyzes the products recommended by the manufacturer to determine whether they already use a similar chemical that works the same way. They then test their products on small portions of the new surface.

An organization’s jan/san distributors also can help select products for new surfaces.

“I think distributor support is extremely important,” says Jeanie Murphy, owner of Murphy Sanitary Supply in Tulsa, Okla. “A distributor can get the customer information immediately, and it will be more specific and focused than what they can find on the Internet.”

Finally, when selecting products, it’s also crucial to concentrate on choosing chemicals that do not hurt the environment.

“The cleaning industry is saturated with products that add to the environment instead of removing soil from it,” says Allen Rathey of InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc. in Boise, Idaho.

The savvy custodial supervisor knows this and thoroughly assesss chemicals before purchasing one that does nothing more than fill the custodial closet.

Leigh Hunt is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.