Is this the year to invest in a small-profile autoscrubber or burnisher? A better question might be, are there small or congested areas in the facility that need to be cleaned?

Micro autoscrubbers as little as 10 inches and small scrubbers up to 18 inches are becoming increasingly popular among custodial departments that manage the cleaning in these tight areas.

Some departments are upgrading from a mop-and-bucket system, while others are adding a second, smaller piece of floor care equipment to take care of tight spots where a larger model or a ride-on machine won't fit.

"We're seeing them used in kitchens, cafeterias, restrooms, at schools, universities, nursing homes and other health care environments," said Keith Schneringer, marketing manager for Waxie Sanitary Supply in San Diego. Office buildings, churches and day cares, or stores and casinos with narrow aisles would also benefit from this equipment.

Custodial staffs in those environments are taking advantage of benefits such as these:

Cleaning Capability. There's no question that a small autoscrubber cleans better than a traditional mop and bucket, which many describe as "moving dirt around." But how do they compare with larger equipment?

"I think they're comparable to their larger counterparts," says Russ Melton, vice president of RoyalLab in St. Louis. "I don't think the larger machines have any additional advantage except they cover a larger area."

Schneringer agrees. "As a general rule of thumb, you're going to be able to do what you need to do with a smaller piece of equipment. It's all about having the appropriate amount of pad pressure."

Maneuverability. A small autoscrubber easily handles corners and cleans under tables and counters, which substantially reduces the time a cleaner would have to spend moving furniture or manually cleaning inaccessible areas.

Schneringer also notes that there are plenty of facilities where a larger autoscrubber simply won't fit.

"People have to clean two floors and transporting the machine can be a challenge," he says. "The elevator can't always fit a larger scrubber. For that matter, some facilities end up with doorways and incongruent floor surfaces that won't accommodate a larger scrubber."

Easy Operation. Cleaning departments sometimes choose a smaller autoscrubber to reduce fatigue and injury associated with pushing a larger machine.

"If a large autoscrubber has a 20-gallon tank on it, workers are pushing close to 200 pounds of water when the machine is full," says Melton.

While smaller machines may not have the drive motor their larger counterparts offer, some offer a pad assist system to help reduce fatigue on the cleaner.

"The rotation of the pad that's cleaning actually pulls these smaller machines along," Melton adds.

Managers considering smaller equipment should also factor in battery-powered versus corded models. The best option depends on the size of the space and accessibility of outlets. Operators should not have to stop cleaning to unplug the scrubber and search for another outlet.

Melton says that 95 percent of the autoscrubbers they sell are battery powered. Still, electric corded models are seeing increased demand recently because of their lower price.

Day Cleaning. Since an autoscrubber lays down liquid, scrubs, and picks up dirt and water all in one pass, it's much safer to use for day cleaning than a mop and bucket.

If you have a 24-hour operation, "The squeegees and suction on these machines are so good, the person walking behind it is walking on dry ground," says Melton. "And the sound from a smaller model is under 65 decibels, which is even acceptable when day cleaning a hospital."

Lower Maintenance Cost and Time. Fewer bells and whistles usually means less to maintain and repair — which keeps equipment and staff more productive.

"The person making the purchase decision needs to take into consideration who's running these autoscrubbers. We've seen bad situations where the machines are just a little too sophisticated for the operator," says Melton. "A simpler machine with pedals and handles is easier to operate and maintain, and doesn't break as easily as one with buttons and a lot of electronics."

In many cases, smaller autoscrubbers are easier to service because the components are more accessible and easier to disassemble.

One maintenance consideration is whether departments choose a wet cell battery or a dry cell battery, according to Schneringer.

"The dry cell battery is going to give you, in most cases, a longer life. A wet cell battery can do the same if it's well maintained, but it's rare that I see a well-cared-for set of batteries," he says.

A wet cell battery that isn't maintained is going to rapidly decline from three or four hours to as little as a half hour of usable life.

Green Advantages. In general, smaller autoscrubbers use less energy to operate and may offer reduced water consumption. The real eco-friendly features become apparent, however, when looking at the chemicals they require.

Look for models that feature onboard chemical metering. For light cleaning, custodial staffs can use just water and pad pressure, Schneringer says.

"Then when a tougher job comes up, you have the opportunity to introduce more chemical," he adds.

Melton also recommends looking into equipment that utilizes electrically activated water technology. Not only does this technology mean fewer chemicals are being disposed into the environment, but there are energy savings by not having to manufacture, package and transport chemicals.

Cost Savings. Maneuverability may have been the first consideration when manufacturers started making small-profile autoscrubbers, but shrinking budgets in a prolonged tough economy have undoubtedly added to their popularity.

A 17-inch autoscrubber can cost as little as $2,000, which can be less than half the price of a traditional walk-behind machine. Top-of-the-line ride-on machines can run as high as $10,000.

Make the Right Purchase Decision

The lower initial outlay for a small autoscrubber is only one part of the equation in determining whether it's the right piece of equipment for the department.

"The whole reason to get a piece of equipment in the first place is to save time," says Schneringer. "Usually when getting a smaller piece of equipment, you're replacing a mop-and-bucket system. If that's the case, then it's a good fit."

On the other hand, if departments have a large area to clean and are considering a small autoscrubber because of its lower cost, they may not get the savings they're expecting.

"You need to save on your largest cost, and that's labor," says Glenn Rothstein, president of Bio-Shine in Spotswood, N.J., and

"Where's most of your money being spent? Labor. Just because you're cutting the cost of the machine doesn't mean you're cutting your expenses," he says. "In a smaller autoscrubber, the tanks are smaller, the batteries are smaller and the pads are smaller."

Saving money up front with a smaller machine and expecting it to cover a large area is "penny wise and dollar foolish," according to Rothstein.

For instance, one 18-inch, walk-behind model can clean about 5,000 square feet in an hour. A typical 26-inch walk behind cleans more than twice as much area in an hour, and a 34-inch ride-on scrubber can offer nearly 30,000 square feet in the same time frame.

Both Schneringer and Rothstein suggest calling a local distributor's rep for recommendations. A smart rep will take the size of the facility, floor surfaces and staffing into consideration before making a recommendation.

"The people with the money aren't necessarily the people with the need. If $3,000 isn't going to buy the machine you want this year, you may be better off waiting until next year to get the larger machine you really need," says Rothstein.

Small Burnishers Shine Too

Smaller burnishers are emerging as a growing market segment for the same reasons as similarly sized autoscrubbers: greater maneuverability in small or crowded areas, faster set-up and quieter operation. And everybody loves the great shine a burnisher produces.

The key is to prepare the floor properly before burnishing. A burnisher will always produce a shine, but if there's still dirt on the floor, cleaners could be damaging the finish in the long run.

"You can't burnish a floor until it's clean. If you're just using a mop and bucket, don't bother burnishing, because you'll just be melting dirt into your floor," says Rothstein. "Over time, your finish will start to yellow and break down."

In addition to a thorough cleaning, Rothstein instructs his customers to use a restorer before burnishing.

"Using a restorer is like putting a cream on a dry, flaky hand," he explains. "A burnisher creates heat and friction, so if your floor is dry, you'll send powder into the air."

Rothstein has heard of powdery fogs so thick, they set off alarms.

"A restorer will prevent all that and make sure you're not creating more issues down the line," he says.

If considering a small-profile autoscrubber or burnisher for the department this year, call in a trusted distributor to help identify a solution that's going to save both time and money - so the department will shine as well as the floors.

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