Cleaning aside, housekeeping managers face tough challenges every day: diluting, stripping, extracting, squeezing, scraping — and that's just the operating budget. During these tough economic times, managing budgets while meeting cleaning expectations has been a struggle in many departments.

As tight budgets get even tighter, everyone has to work a little harder to meet expectations, and that means getting the most out of floor equipment. While the staff is working harder, they're counting on the managers to work smarter to keep the floor cleaning operations running smoothly and efficiently. These four tips may help accomplish that:

1. Budget in Terms of Overall Costs

It's no surprise that labor costs comprise the biggest chunk of the cleaning dollar. Depending on the operation, payroll and benefits may account for anywhere from 65 to 90 percent of the budget. Equipment costs, on the other hand, may be as little as six percent of the entire janitorial budget.

In an ordinary environment, it's important to find equipment that makes staff as efficient as possible. In today's belt-tightening economy, that equipment may also have to do the job of a staff member that's been eliminated.

If upgrading the floor care equipment, Alan Rigg, president of 80/20 Sales Performance in Scottsdale, Ariz., suggests working closely with distributors to determine the department's precise needs and various options.

"It's very important to do some kind of financial analysis of the cost per service with a new machine versus doing it manually," he says.

But, labor costs are only the beginning of the equation.

"The total cost of equipment includes materials, training, maintenance and chemicals, above and beyond the cost of the personnel," says Rigg. "A sensible way to look at it is through the lifetime cost of ownership."

Jon Scoles, managing director of Scoles Floorshine Industries of Farmingdale, N.J., notes that replacing labor can improve the department's return on investment (ROI).

"ROI depends on the type of equipment and its cost, but more times than not, if you're replacing labor, you should get your return on investment in six to 10 months." A lower-cost item, such as a new vacuum, might even pay for itself in as little as four or five months.

Other costs to consider have less to do with the departmental budget and more to do with the facility's overall operating costs. Newer, more efficient equipment is likely to use less water and electricity, which not only impacts utility costs, but also can make for a greener environment. Using the appropriate equipment and techniques also helps the flooring last longer and uses fewer chemicals, which is healthier for both the environment and the custodial staff.

Rigg's sales management experience has shown him that "people buy emotionally but justify it rationally." When margins are slim, emotional choices aren't going to convince the powers that be.

"A good distributor is going to give managers the ammunition they need to convince their decision makers that a new equipment purchase is essential," he says.

2. Take a Hard Look at Features and Benefits

"When you're looking to save time and money, you have to evaluate procedures as well as equipment," says Ray Herzog, equipment and floor care specialist for Burke Supply in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Sometimes, the thing that will help departments most in the long run will cost more in the short term."

For example, "you might try to use a scrubbing and recoating process instead of stripping," suggests Herzog. Stripping is messy, time consuming and hazardous to the environment. "Scrubbing can be done on a daily basis and maintains the integrity of the floor longer."

With the appropriate process in place, consider machines that have the versatility and ease of operation to maximize productivity for the applications used most often. For instance, departments might need a machine that can clean a variety of floor surfaces, baseboards and grout. Maneuverability through tight spaces may be another concern.

Next, consider features that will further maximize operator efficiency. Something as simple as the ability to clean in both a forward and backward motion can be crucial to productivity.

"There's also a huge difference between ride-on and walk-behind equipment just from a fatigue standpoint and maneuverability," says Scoles. "Take a look at tank capacity — the fewer times you have to stop and refill the equipment, the more productive it is."

The same goes for battery life. Consider how long the machine will operate before it needs to be recharged.

Another important consideration is if the machines can help fulfill the green mandates and earn points toward certification. The short-term benefits are as important as the long-term impact on the environment: A healthier staff exhibits better morale, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.

3. Seek Out Sales Support and Extras

Price should not be the only factor in deciding on a major floor equipment purchase. Distributor and manufacturer service and support can greatly impact the satisfaction with equipment throughout its lifetime.

For starters, managers may need to look for vendors that offer flexible payment plans or a lease-to-own arrangement if the budget limits capital expenditures.

Also consider the type of service available after the sale.

"The initial installation of the equipment should always be done in person," recommends Scoles.

Online videos are good as refreshers or for new-hire training, but many distributors recommend in-service sessions at least annually or semi-annually to make sure operators are using the equipment safely and effectively. It's a matter of keeping liability low and efficiency high.

Sometimes, says Rigg, "support is as simple as having someone who knows what they're talking about available to answer questions over the phone."

While some distributors and manufacturers conduct a front-end analysis to encourage sales, look for a resource that's going to help track the benefit of the investment.

"It's reasonable to ask your distributor to help you make the case and track the return on investment you're receiving," says Rigg. The exercise is beneficial to both the manager contemplating future purchases and the distributor trying to establish a track record of a particular machine's ROI.

Finally, managers should look for distributors "who service the equipment and have a loaner program if the equipment goes down," suggests Scoles. "It's not as common as you would think."

Distributors that don't have a service department require the involvement of a third party, which can add time and complexity to the repair process. Without a loaner, the cleaning staff has to fall back on manual methods, which adversely affects both productivity and cleanliness.

Scoles also warns against trying to take care of repairs in house or using a nonapproved service shop that could void the warranty on equipment.

4. Treat It With R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Floor equipment that's properly operated and maintained should last for years. Steve Hanson, owner of Minn.-based, formerly operated two cleaning contracting businesses — and had many pieces of equipment that lasted 15 or even 20 years.

"We were probably one of the few contractors who read the manufacturer's manuals from cover to cover," says Hanson.

Norman Schmidt, president of Hopkins Sales Company in Easton, Md., points out how improper use can reduce the life of the equipment and result in poor cleaning quality.

"We've seen employees who vacuum but never empty the bag," he says. At the very least, an overfull bag can lead to poor performance and excessive dust release. At the worst, it can lead to overheating and a damaged motor.

"Just using the proper setting and emptying the bag frequently could save housekeeping departments tons of money." Schmidt should know; he sees rotary floor buffers that have been around since the Korean War.

Herzog agrees. "Teach the operators to take ownership of the equipment and give the training needed so they know what to look for if the machine isn't working properly. They can fix minor issues and keep the machinery working longer."

Overuse or underuse of chemicals is another classic mistake that Schmidt has seen. When cleaning carpets, too much residual soap can make fibers heavy, sticky and more prone to attracting dirt and stains.

"If you follow directions carefully, you'll have less wear and tear on carpet, machinery and your employees' backs, and the place will look better," he recommends.

Proper storage is equally essential. Schmidt has seen floor machines stored with a pad driver directly on the floor, or machines full of solution stored in freezing temperatures. Of course, when they're turned on again, "there's water spraying everywhere because they left solution in the lines, switches and valves, and it froze," says Schmidt.

What it boils down to is employees being properly trained and taking their jobs seriously.

"If you hire somebody who's reluctant to learn and doesn't take pride in their work, let them go. If you find someone willing to learn, keep them happy and teach them. And give them a pat on the back," says Schmidt.

In short, the experts seem to agree that shrinking budgets don't always call for less sophisticated equipment. Analyzing departmental needs, comparing the available features, and developing a good working relationship with vendors and employees will maximize floor care dollars.

Maureen Connors Badding is a freelancer based in Milwaukee, Wis.