Sustainability is one of the founding principles of Royal Roads University, Victoria, Canada. The university is currently developing an environmental management system to improve the campus environment and reduce campus impact on the environment.

“It’s our job [as a department] to come up with ideas to be more environmentally friendly,” says Darren Gardham, supervisor, custodial and housekeeping services. The custodial services department has developed ways to minimize cleaning chemical use, use fewer cloth and paper resources, improve health of custodial staff and occupants, and increase cleaning efficiency.

For approximately the last five years, microfiber products have played a significant role in the university’s sustainability program.

The custodial department was first introduced to microfiber cloths by a manufacturer representative. After seeing a demonstration, the department supervisor at the time implemented a six-month trial in one of the campus buildings.

The trial proved that microfiber saves staff time (microfiber tools cut cleaning time in half when compared with mop-and-bucket systems), is healthier for custodians and occupants, and reduces chemical use.

Black-light test
During the trial period, the manufacturer representative conducted a black-light test demonstration to compare microfiber performance results with other tools and products.

The test was conducted on three restroom urinals after a day of use. Before any cleaning was done, a black light was used to test the area for protein spots. Then each urinal was cleaned using different methods.

One urinal was cleaned with a cotton rag and water. A second urinal was cleaned with a cotton rag and disinfectant. The third urinal was cleaned with a microfiber cloth and water.

“The microfiber cloth used with water produced almost identical results as the regular rag and disinfectant,” Gardham says. “[Whether we used] disinfectant with a regular rag or microfiber with water, the urinal was bacteria-free.”

Chemical savings
Restrooms are the biggest area on campus cleaned by microfiber cloths and mops.

“The chemical we used [in restrooms] was designed to kill,” he says. “The key word is ‘kill.’ There are side effects to the user cleaning with that chemical.”

Microfiber cloths are designed to trap bacteria in the cloth until it is washed. The bacteria is released in the university’s high-heat washing machine, he says. The university purchased a washing machine that heats water to 250 degrees for laundering microfiber cloths.

In the first year of use, Gardham says the university saved $3,000 to $4,000 in chemical costs. He also cites labor savings.

“Our manpower savings is huge because staff are exposed to fewer VOCs [volatile organic compounds],” Gardham says. “[Years ago], I spent one work shift cleaning restrooms with a bathroom cleaner that I was allergic to. I ended up with blood clots in my legs and it took a month to get rid of them.”

Dry vs. damp
The distributor of the cloths claims that microfiber does not allow for cross-contamination — the fibers grab and trap bacteria — but as an extra precaution the university purchased red cloths for restrooms and blue cloths for other areas.

In some cases, the friction between the microfiber cloths and dry surfaces can cause resistance, making the job more difficult for the cleaning worker. For floors with little or no coating, workers spray a small amount of diluted neutral cleaner during damp mopping. The solution allows mops to glide better and reduces the likelihood of injury.

“We use microfiber dry on the surfaces where you can tolerate the resistance because the cloths try to grab everything they can as they go across the surface,” says Doug Coleman, custodial coordinator, Rockwood School District, Eureka, Mo.

Coleman was first introduced to microfiber products at a cleaning-industry convention, but he didn’t try microfiber until someone in a cleaning-related chatroom suggested he do so.

“It was a gentleman from Sweden who had been using microfiber for many years,” Coleman says. “He explained something we haven’t yet experienced: His employees had carpal tunnel syndrome from using cloths on some dry surfaces.”

Coleman says his employees, in some cases, use slightly damp cloths and says he hasn’t found a surface on which he can’t use his organization’s medium-pile loop-weave (common grade) cloths.

Introducing new tools
Coleman says that after he decided to try microfiber, he considered the implications of introducing a new product.

“We knew that changing would be hard,” he says. “So we organized a barbecue training session for 170 custodians then handed out two to three free cloths to each custodian to take home. It only took a while [after custodians started using the cloths to clean their homes] before they were asking to use them here.”

He says his distributor supplied the cloths free of charge — the cloths were leftovers from the manufacturer’s temporary pastel color line.

Each building site within the district bags soiled cloths and sends them to a small warehouse where the district stocks a few specialty materials and equipment and a washer and dryer for the cloths.

Only about half of the district’s 34 sites are supplied with microfiber.

“The cloths are expensive — we didn’t have the money to replace all our cloths at once,” Coleman says. “We are still transitioning one building at a time.”

Since the district hasn’t totally switched over, Coleman says he can’t really accurately calculate cost savings, but he is happy with the results.

“I have been doing this for a long time and I think microfiber is the best thing that has happened to the cleaning industry in the last 50 years or so,” he says.