With all of the other decisions a housekeeping manager must make each day, choosing between power sources for floor machines may seem inconsequential. Glossing over this “minor” point, however, could be a mistake. There are big differences among propane, electric and battery options, and it’s important to take the time to select the best one for your facility.

“You should review all types before ultimately deciding,” says Johnny Eaddy, assistant director of physical plant for San Diego State University in San Diego. “Keep an open mind. They each have pros and cons depending on your particular operation and task at hand.”

Propane Floor Machines
No power source can generate more head pressure than propane. These machines deliver high productivity, thanks to their strength, speed and ability to go anywhere (no need for outlets or battery chargers). They also produce the highest possible shine.

So why isn’t propane more popular? The highly effective power source is not without fault. Although it is still a top choice among in-house custodial workers, propane can create fumes and excessive noise that are unacceptable in facilities where occupants are present during cleaning hours. Propane machines also require more maintenance than other options.

“Most retail stores are now banning them because of the hazards of storing the propane tanks,” says Steve Spencer, facility specialist for State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Ill. “Generally, these machines are used overnight but not stored in the building. The cleaning crew comes in and strips floors and then stores the machine in its designated area.”

While there are downsides, propane has come a long way in the last 20 years.

“It’s an issue of perception because the technology is far superior than it ever was before,” says Dave Frank, president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences, Highlands Ranch, Colo. “Cleaning managers who want a glassy look in a large area will want to burnish very quickly using a high weight.”

Many universities have at least one propane-powered machine to tackle large areas quickly. They are often used overnight when students are not around. San Diego State’s Eaddy values propane’s ability to go anywhere without being hindered by a cord. Increased productivity more than pays for the machine’s cost (and higher maintenance expenses), he says. The biggest problem with propane, which many housekeeping managers don’t think about, is storage.

“They get locked into ‘I have to have propane’ without considering how it will be stored,” Eaddy says. “Storage of propane can only be done in well-ventilated areas, which eliminates a lot of options for all of us.”

Electric/Corded Machines
Perhaps the most common power source for floor care equipment is electric. Corded machines are usually very affordable, weigh less than propane- or battery-powered options, and are available in a wide variety of sizes. They also operate on a standard 110 AC wall current, so they can be used anywhere there is an outlet.

Oddly, many of the benefits of electric machines can also be drawbacks. For example, their lighter weight means they produce less head pressure. When it comes to burnishers, a cleaner must work harder to produce a shinier surface.

The cord itself also can be the source of problems. If it is too short, it will need to be frequently unplugged and re-plugged, slowing down the user. Or the machine simply may not reach areas that are too far from an outlet. If the cord is too long, however, it can be a safety issue.

“You always have a tail trailing behind you,” Spencer says. “While using a corded machine, you have to not only watch for people in the area, but also for yourself.”

Users should be careful that cords don’t get caught in the floor machine or dragged through wet or dirty areas. Cleaners should also be careful not to accidentally yank the plug from the wall, damaging the plug or the outlet. Finally, examine the machine after every use. Cords that become frayed or come loose from the handle can be electrical hazards.

“There are a lot of things that can go wrong with a corded machine,” Spencer says. “There’s been a push in the industry to get rid of the cord. Users feel tethered. The freer they are to move, the more productive and more satisfied they will be with using that equipment.”

Battery-Powered Floor Care
The troubles associated with cords may explain the recent surge in popularity of battery-powered floor machines.

“A battery is safer to use, especially for machines used in healthcare settings,” says Kent L. Miller, CHESP/CLLM, director of environmental/linen services for Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Worker fatigue is much less of a problem with battery operated equipment, just as long as the batteries are appropriately sized.”

Productivity is reportedly higher than with corded machines, in part because users do not spend time plugging and unplugging the machine. According to the ISSA Cleaning Times Calculator, a person can dry burnish 12,500 square feet per hour using a 20-inch electric machine, or 16,260 square feet per hour using the same size battery operated machine.

Productivity gains come at a price, however; battery powered machines cost more (and require chargers at additional expense) and have one big downside — a battery has limited run time.

“When you have build-up on the floor, you have friction, and friction runs down batteries,” Frank says.

The more powerful or multifunctional the machine, the more quickly the battery will drain. To address this problem, manufacturers are creating machines with on-board chargers, which add to the cost. Even with these changes, run time is an important consideration. A small facility that doesn’t use the entire life of a machine’s battery probably isn’t getting its money worth. A large facility, on the other hand, may use the entire battery before finishing the job or may not have enough time between shifts to allow batteries to fully charge.

Storage is also an issue with battery-powered floor machines, which are often larger than the other options. They also depend on charging units, which require an outlet — something that’s not always present in a storage area.

Users have also had concerns about battery maintenance. New gel batteries address these issues because they are completely enclosed and do not require a user to refill them. Although they are more expensive and provide less run time, the gel options are more environmentally friendly.

The Verdict
Unfortunately, there is no simple formula for choosing among propane, electric and battery powered floor machines. Housekeeping managers must weigh the pros and cons of each type of machine and then fully consider the type of cleaning tasks their staff perform.

“The machine must fit the application,” says Casey J. Wick, assistant director of physical plant and custodial services for Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “Each is utilized according to the facility type, floor covering and environment in which it will be used. Do your homework before buying. This is a major purchase and should not be done in haste.”

Ask yourself the following questions before buying. How large is the area to be cleaned? Are building occupants present when cleaning is performed? Is initial capital outlay more important than life-cycle cost of use? Are users comfortable with the technology or is training necessary? Do you have adequate storage space?

Use the answers to these questions to match up the appropriate machine with the job at hand. For many facilities, the best solution may be a mix of all three types. For example, a propane-driven machine can be used in the warehouse, a battery operated machine can be utilized in long hallways, and a corded machine can be saved for smaller office or classroom spaces.

“Each has their appropriate place in the cleaning equipment arsenal,” says Steve Mack, director of building and grounds at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. “Battery powered machines give you the freedom of movement, which increases productivity. Corded equipment gives you both the maneuverability and power necessary for timely cleaning. Finally, propane-powered machines provide high-speed power with the maneuverability of a smaller corded machine. You have to evaluate all equipment and their power sources to determine the best fit.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.