Ask 10 housekeepers how best to clean a restroom and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. That’s because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The best method varies based on the type of setting, the expectations and experiences of upper management, the skill and training of your staff and the budget.

“We use a variety of methods because no one approach works best for every situation,” says Willy Suter, director of physical plant operations for American University, Washington, D.C. “There isn’t just one answer.”

Facility matters
Different types of facilities often require different cleaning methods. What works well at a warehouse may not be appropriate for an office or elementary school. This is a lesson that Mike Smith has learned well after 25 years in the industry.

Smith is the executive director of facilities and support services at Drexel University in Philadelphia, but prior to accepting his current position, he worked at a large, urban hospital. The biggest differences between these settings, he says, are flexibility and time.

“[At the university] we schedule restroom cleaning times for evenings and weekends when classes aren’t being held,” Smith says. “A hospital is a 24-hour building — there wasn’t a set time that you could shut down the restrooms. You had to train your people to go in with speed.”

This simple difference meant the hospital’s restrooms were rarely steam-cleaned because it required shutting down the space; whereas the university’s restrooms get a deep cleaning quarterly.

Even within the same facility, multiple approaches may be necessary. At American University, for example, housekeepers use two different methods to clean restrooms. In newer or large restrooms, they use a spray-down method. In the school’s old or small restrooms, which cannot be made watertight, they clean using the traditional hands-and-knees approach.

The boss rules
The biggest factors affecting how housekeepers clean restrooms are the expectations and experiences of upper management. What the building’s owner or manager wants, the housekeeper must deliver.

“It’s really driven by the requirements of the facility’s manager,” says Paul Roberts, secretary treasurer for wholesaler Vernon Sanitation Supply Co., Los Angeles. “You need a basic level of cleanliness, but there are things on top of that that would require additional processes. For example, they may want a floor polished to a specific shine or restrooms serviced once every hour or two.”

Sometimes, cleaning methods reflect the manager’s preferences more than the most appropriate or affordable approach for the specific facility.

“I have always used the same method wherever I have worked,” says Linda Lindberg, executive housekeeper at Summit Hotel, Big Sky, Mont. “I have always found that there really is no miracle cleaner that you just spray on and ‘poof,’ everything is clean. Good old-fashioned elbow grease is the best product we have.”

Although Lindberg prefers to stick with a familiar cleaning procedure, she is open to making changes when necessary. Over the years, she has modified traditional methods — swapping out harsh chemicals for eco-friendly ones, for example, or adding steam cleaning in the hotel’s health club — when newer options have proven safer or more effective. She has also implemented piecework wages, which allow workers to be paid for the work they accomplish, including the number of restrooms they clean per shift.

Sticking to a tried-and-true method may sound like a timid approach, but it may actually be a budget-wise decision. A facility manager who is personally uncomfortable with a new cleaning method also will likely be uncomfortable managing a crew that uses that method.

“If you are going from hands-and-knees cleaning to steam cleaning, you need to be comfortable managing that,” Roberts says. “To bring in the equipment but not have an understanding of how best to use it might not improve the bottom line.”

Staff skills and training
Just as equipment is only as effective as the person using it, a cleaning method is only as useful as the person implementing it. Which is why training is crucial. With well-trained staff, a manager can confidently implement any method; without it, a manager’s options become more limited.

“Methodology is often determined by the abilities of the labor force,” says Lanny Schuster, president of United Sanitary Supply, Baltimore. “The key to any successful program is to start with personnel, training and guidelines and then work up to the equipment and supplies. Many start at the wrong end of the spectrum.”

Hands-on and on-site training — both at the start of employment and regularly thereafter — are the best ways to create a skilled staff that can be called upon to execute any cleaning method.

“Training must be constant,” Schuster says. “It’s a mistake to train someone for an hour or a week and then turn them loose for the rest of their employment. It has to be an ongoing thing.”

A good training program will not only educate the staff on particular methods, it will also make them feel more comfortable each time new products or procedures are introduced. If housekeepers are confident they will not be thrown into a new situation unprepared, then they will be more open to new ideas.

“Creating an environment where change is anticipated and welcomed is difficult in an industry where doing the same thing the same way has been the tradition,” says American University’s Suter. “But we have confidence that when our cleaners are properly trained, they are very supportive and enable our entire effort to be more effective and more efficient.”

As important as it is to create a well-versed staff, it is equally important for housekeeping managers to recognize when a particular method is beyond their workforce’s abilities. Although Smith’s staff spends a lot of time in training, he doesn’t feel comfortable allowing them to restore restroom floors, which he hires an outside company to do.

“Could I use steam cleaners to do the same thing? Yes. Could I use different chemicals on the market to do it? Yes,” Smith says. “But sometimes it is just too much of a liability.”

Money talks
As is the case with any issue in this industry, the budget ultimately drives most decisions about cleaning methods. The procedure used for cleaning a restroom must not only work, it must be cost effective.

“Any time you decide on a specific process, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis,” Roberts says. “It tells you if making a change is going to be worthwhile.”

Housekeepers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas use a combination of traditional and steam cleaning methods. While the latter works best, it is only done monthly while the former is done nightly. Why? It’s a matter of dollars and cents.

“We have over 300 restrooms in my area of responsibility,” says Robert Taylor, the university’s environmental group manager. “In a perfect situation I would like to have a steam cleaner in all of my buildings where it could be used nightly, but equipment costs stop us from doing that.”

At Drexel University, Smith has determined that team cleaning is a money saver while green cleaning has not yet proven worth the investment. On the other hand, American University has embraced green cleaning.

“My research and my personal experience indicate that green cleaning is always as effective — and in some instances more effective — than the methods we employed before,” Suter says.

Of course, initial cash outlay for the equipment and chemicals is just one way of evaluating the cost. Managers should also consider employee safety, training needs and results.

“We are always on the lookout for methods that help our cleaners do their work better,” Suter says. “There isn’t just one approach that works best all the time.”

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