Is there a better way to clean restrooms? An equally important question: Is there a way to make the process of cleaning restrooms less torturous? Toilets and urinals must be scoured, which often requires bending at the waist or getting down on hands and knees. Soil becomes lodged in grout, requiring extra scrubbing. Fixtures must be polished until spotless.

Coming into contact with soiled, contaminated surfaces and harsh cleaning chemicals is often unavoidable.

Two types of touch-free cleaning methods — pressure washing and vapor/steam cleaning — have been designed to save time, clean more effectively, and protect employees from contaminated surfaces and strong chemicals.

The employee edge
Pressure washing is a touch-free cleaning system that utilizes an indoor pressure washer, chemical injection and a wet vacuum. First, cleaning solution is sprayed onto restroom fixtures and floors, starting from the ceiling and progressing downward. Next, water is sprayed at a high pressure (400 psi) in order to dislodge soil and rinse it away. Finally, a wet vacuum is used to vacuum the floor dry. A portable floor drain can be attached to the lowest part of the floor to remove excess water.

“Pressure-washing systems represent a more dignified way to clean,” Barry Meyer, manager of housing services at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., says. “Employees are insulated from coming into contact with contaminated restroom surfaces, like toilet fixtures.”

Pressure washing also reduces physical labor for employees. “You don’t have to get on your hands and knees,” says Roger Strobel, assistant director of University Center Building Services at the University of Montana. “It saves physical labor because the user stands upright, and doesn’t need to bend down. We now have custodians that prefer to clean restrooms over any other task.”

Employees also don’t need to lug around as much heavy equipment or tools. Most touchless systems are mounted on a rolling cart. “When you go to clean a restroom, you normally need to take a wet mop, a mop bucket, a dry mop, and all your cleaning chemicals,” says Jim Reffitt, supervisor of facilities at Butler Technology and Career Development Schools, Hamilton, Ohio. “Now you just need to take one machine to do the job.”

User testimonials
Cleaning managers have different opinions about whether or not pressure-washing systems are faster or more effective than traditional cleaning methods.

“We have large bathrooms in dorms that take 45 to 50 minutes to clean using traditional methods, and one employee would typically spend a workday cleaning eight bathrooms,” Meyer says. “Using the pressure-washing system, a restroom can be cleaned in 20 minutes. We estimate that the machines paid for themselves in less than six months because of the time savings.”

However, Keith Lieberg, custodial manager at Grand Forks (N.D.) Public Schools, found pressure-washing systems to be no faster than traditional cleaning methods. “It doesn’t take less time for our employees than traditional cleaning methods,” he says. “But the new system does a much more thorough job in spraying dirt out of crevices, fixtures and grout.”

Grand Forks custodians clean the restrooms daily using traditional methods, and use the pressure-washing system weekly for deep cleaning. “Once you come in and thoroughly clean with the touchless system, it is definitely easier to maintain restroom cleanliness afterwards,” Lieberg adds.

A high-pressure system took care of restroom problem areas at the University of Montana. “We have hard water, and all our restroom surfaces had a build-up of calcium deposits (before using a touchless system),” Strobel says. “We didn’t realize that all the surfaces had a hidden buildup of film until we started using the pressure-washing system. But after using the system for several weeks, all the surfaces began to shine like new again.”

Reffitt expanded the use of his pressure-washing system beyond restrooms to include classrooms. He removes desks and other moveable fixtures, and sets the machine on a light spray pattern to ensure that only a small volume of water is used. “If you do a light spray of water and vacuum it up, you are actually using less water than you would have if you had mopped,” he says. “The floor dries within seconds, instead of minutes.”

Although Reffitt has found that the pressure-washing system takes slightly more time than traditional dry-mopping in his classrooms, he believes the results are worth it. “Dust mopping traps dirt on the mop and leaves it in other places, like in the hall or in the air,” he says. “Because the pressure-washing system removes the dust more completely, the classrooms are cleaner, and the indoor air quality is improved.”

Water proof before you spray
Because pressure-washing systems disperse a significant amount of water, Strobel only recommends using them in restrooms that are waterproof. “If your restrooms have painted walls, vinyl tile floors or cracks in the floor that would allow water to seep below and cause water damage, I would not use these systems,” he says. “Some of our restrooms have inexpensive stall partitions that are showing signs of rust, and some of the silvering on the mirrors has oxidized, causing damage.”

Reffitt recommends preventive maintenance before using pressure-washing systems. “Get the grout sealed and make sure the tiles and walls are tight and waterproof,” he says.”

Some managers recommend that all dispensers be removed before pressure-washing, but Lieberg hasn’t noticed a problem with water damaging restroom dispensers. “Most of our dispensers are fairly water-resistant, although you could use plastic bags to cover them,” he says. “We try to avoid spraying water directly on our toilet-paper dispensers, but ours are almost completely closed, so we don’t have problems getting the toilet paper wet.”

The vapor/steam option
Vapor or steam cleaning is another touch-free cleaning method that can be used for daily or deep cleaning. A “boiler” heats up water to 330 degrees and releases a dry steam at 100 psi. The heat of the vapor loosens debris. A wiper is placed over the steam head to absorb steam. The operator then uses the wiper cloth to remove dirt. Settings can be adjusted to change the spray pattern from narrow to diffuse, or to turn the water temperature up or down. Squeegees or brushes can be attached to the hose for specialized applications.

Because it uses less water than pressure-washing systems, steam cleaning can be used for a wider variety of applications. “We use it in our restrooms but we also use it in resident rooms for cleaning beds, chairs, cubicle dividers and curtains,” says Bruce Slaminski, director of housekeeping at Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill, Wis.

David Wortman, housekeeper for Chicago-based Boeing Company, uses the steam-cleaning machine in areas which cannot withstand a lot of moisture. “I use it for spot upholstery and hard surface walls because it doesn’t leave a lot of moisture residue,” he says.

Like pressure-washing, steam-cleaning systems may not be faster than traditional cleaning methods — but definitely clean more thoroughly. “We think by cleaning the traditional way you end up with a clean restroom,” Slaminski says. “But I was amazed at how much dirt was really still there when I took this machine in there, and got into the crevices around the sink handles, around the grooves of the toilet seat, and in the fixtures, and I saw how the dirt was blasted out.”

Lynne Knobloch-Fedders is a free-lance writer based in Vernon Hills, Ill.