When Marlin Wynia is not at work as director of housekeeping for Oregon State Hospital, he volunteers as a referee at a local high school. While walking through the school one evening, Wynia saw a custodian cleaning the long hallways with a ride-on floor machine.

The encounter got Wynia thinking that perhaps he should consider similar equipment for the hospital. After all, his 340-acre campus has more than 2 miles of concrete tunnels used for transporting patients between buildings.

When Wynia finally purchased the hospital’s first ride-on autoscrubber, he wasn’t disappointed.

“We use it to clean the tunnels every week,” Wynia says. “It cut our time significantly. We used to do it with a 20-year-old ‘pusher’ and it took us three or four days. Now we can do it all in a few hours.”

Driven by cleaning managers’ requests for technology that allows them to do more with less, manufacturers continue to fine-tune ride-on floor-care equipment. Today, the industry boasts ride-on sweepers, vacuums, scrubbers and polishers. The latest? Ride-on burnishers.

While this automated equipment is a smart solution for many facilities, it may not be a good fit for every building. Housekeeping managers must consider many factors, including the size and storage space of their facility, their budget and cleaning needs, and their employees’ skills and training requirements.

Size wise
Ride-on equipment is most logical for large, open spaces. Cleaning Temple University’s field house, which houses four basketball courts, with a traditional walk-behind machine would be tedious and time-consuming. Instead, the cleaning crew uses a riding sweeper-scrubber combination to make the textured rubber floor shine.

“Having a person walk behind and push a machine would be a lot of labor,” says Virginia Arnsberger, director of housekeeping. “With this machine, within an hour or hour and a half, you can scrub and vacuum the whole floor.”

Custodians at Washoe County (Nev.) School District’s two new high schools use ride-on scrubbing machines for the schools’ wide hallways. Although the areas could be mopped by hand, the automated machines cut cleaning time in half, says Harry Kirkbride, the district’s housekeeping field supervisor.

Ride-on machines don’t make the grade in smaller spaces; neither Arnsberger nor Kirkbride use them in their classrooms. Stephanie Maxwell, facility coordinator at Samaritan Village Senior Community in Hughson, Calif., agrees.

“We’ve looked into them, but we can’t justify it,” she says. “Our residents’ rooms are about 800 square feet. We don’t even have the room to store something like that.”

The bottom line
As Maxwell discovered, specifying ride-on technology is all about justifying the initial capital outlay.

“If you are on a limited budget and it means one machine that I could only use in a hallway or two machines I could use anywhere, my choice is going to be two machines,” Arnsberger says. “I have to get my money’s worth.”

But even if a ride-on machine can be used in just one area, it still may be worth the cost. A machine that costs twice as much as its traditional counterpart but cleans twice as fast will pay for itself quickly in reduced labor costs.

Two years ago, managers at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel in Dallas purchased three ride-on vacuums for $8,500 each. Spending more than $25,000 on machinery is a big proposition for any facility and Kevin Buck, Wyndham’s director of rooms, gambled that his purchase would pay off. And it did.

“We are having tremendous savings in labor with the ride-on machine — about $30,000 a year,” Buck says. “One guy can do a ballroom within two hours versus four people taking four hours to get it done.”

Not sure if a ride-on machine will save you time and, therefore, money? Put it to the test. The best way to determine labor savings is to have your staff try it in your environment. Oregon State Hospital’s Wynia discovered the price difference between traditional and ride-on sweepers was several thousand dollars. To help make his decision, Wynia had the vendor bring the product on-site for a demonstration.

“We used it on a section of the tunnel,” he says. “Just from the time it took us to do that section we realized our savings right off the bat.”

Wynia projected his savings in wages and chemicals (the new machine has automatic solution control) would pay for the machine in one year; payback is already ahead of schedule.

Machines that multi-task
To further justify the expense of ride-on equipment, some facility managers look for machines that can be used for more than one job or area.

Although Oregon State Hospital’s machine is primarily used for cleaning tunnels, it is also used in the 31,000-square-foot kitchen and it can make quick work of drying a flooded room. The Wyndham uses its machines in ballrooms and other meeting areas, in back-of-house areas with rubber, carpeted, or concrete floors, and to rescue flooded bathrooms.

At Washoe County School District, the ride-on scrubber is used to clean hallways and, with an attachment, to sand the gym floors.

“In the old days, you’d put water down and get the 21-inch buffing machine and pad and screen and work the floor that way,” Kirkbride says. “Now I can either sand a floor all the way down or just screen with an attachment. It’s very, very nice.”

Employee issues
Even with its attachments, Kirkbride’s equipment is very user-friendly. Although ride-on equipment is typically easy to use, employees need to be properly trained.

“We tested them on our guest-room hall floors,” he says. “We found out quickly that you really have to pay attention when driving down a corridor. We were finding that our guys would run over a tray or bump walls.” For these reasons, the hallways on guest floors are vacuumed with a traditional walk-behind machine.

“I know my staff can run a hand-operated machine into a wall and cause damage and I can just see them on these riding machines deciding they are going to race,” Arnsberger says. “I’m concerned for damages that a riding machine might cause to my walls.”

For training help, vendors often provide on-site training when you purchase a machine, as well as subsequent training for new hires.

A few more considerations
Ride-on equipment is typically larger than its traditional counterparts so adequate storage space must be available. Depending on the size of the machine, it may not fit through standard doors, making a roll-up door necessary.

A final consideration for purchasing new equipment is whether to choose a cordless battery-operated model. While batteries are more expensive, cordless equipment allows for more cleaning freedom.

Whatever equipment a manager chooses, it is just one weapon in his or her arsenal. A ride-on machine is not a cure-all but can be a nice complement to a facility’s overall cleaning plan.

“I have high-tech equipment and conventional tools. I may mop by hand or use a riding scrubber,” says Kirkbride, who is planning to buy a ride-on extractor for three new schools under construction in his district. “I look at a piece of equipment as a tool and my preference will be different than someone else’s.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.