When the science of cleaning comes up, the first comment out of many custodial managers' mouths is: "I don't have time for that."

And in an industry plagued by tightened budgets and labor shortages, it is hard to imagine having the time to measure soil load, then clean and measure the results, let alone analyze the data and implement changes.

Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain Inc., Boise, Idaho, admits the industry doesn't have a lot of time to do this, but he is quick to add "we don't have time not to."

He emphasizes the importance of cleaning science with the following analogy: "You're rowing a boat that has a hole in the bottom and is filling up with water. There are alligators chomping at the sides and you're trying to row the boat and bail water at the same time. You don't have time to do any of those things, but you have to do all of them to get to where you're going."

Rathey explains embracing cleaning science practices and implementing them into custodial operations provides momentum that will propel the cleaning industry into the future.

"We want to be making money, using our time wisely and cleaning for health; and cleaning science is the only way to get us there," he says.

Cleaning at its most basic level is the process of removing unwanted substances from the environment. Traditionally that has meant clearing away the dirt people can see, but today it means much more.

"It's also removing the things we can't see: the microbial contaminants, chemical residues, bio- or chemical pollutants," says Rathey. "The old expression, ‘What you can't see can hurt you,' definitely applies to the science of cleaning, which is removing unwanted and invisible things that can adversely affect our health."

Start At The Very Beginning

In order to implement cleaning science into custodial operations, cleaning professionals must first learn to identify the unseen.

"Fortunately, innovations in health care and clean room environments have helped define what those invisible particles are, how to remove them and how to keep them out," Rathey says.

Once identified, cleaning professionals need to know how much of these contaminants exist in the cleaning environment. According to Dave Frank, president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences,  Highlands Ranch, Colo., custodial operations can employ 10 different instruments to measure cleaning efficacy, including: the ATP device, which measures Adenosine Triphosphate; air quality sampling tools; and ultraviolet light testing.

These tools can be used in a variety of ways. For instance, cleaners can use ATP meters to identify germ hotspots then provide surface wipes and hand sanitizer stations to empower employees to help keep those areas clean. The same ATP meter can be used again after cleaning is complete.

"This helps determine if you've left any organic material on the surface," Rathey says. "Microbes grow on organic matter. If you remove the food supply, then you theoretically remove the microbes."

Just like the ATP device can measure matter on surfaces, particle counters measure airborne particles, which can resettle on surfaces, clog HVAC systems or be breathed in by building occupants. This tool can be used in a number of ways. For instance, it might measure contaminants in the air before and after vacuuming to determine how well a vacuum contains dust.

And because urine fluoresces, custodians might utilize an ultraviolet light to detect urine deposits in restrooms, along grout lines and so on.

"You can literally see the contaminants that are not being removed," Rathey says.
These tools help move custodial operations beyond subjective observations — such as looking at a room's appearance and judging it clean — to objective measurements, which provide information that can be used to develop best practices and ensure cleaners remove both seen and unseen contaminants.

However, properly implementing cleaning science programs hinges on management's understanding of them, adds Frank, who points out "I can't measure what I can't manage. It's management first and measurement second."

Rathey agrees stating, "We'd love to see everyone measuring, but we can't do that because everyone doesn't know how." Cleaning managers must be trained to take measurements correctly. "Once you've been trained, your measurements are going to be standard from test to test, and you'll get consistent and reliable results," he says.

Management also needs to focus on documenting the results consistently and accurately over time. The data should be kept in one place for future analysis in order to demonstrate that a particular chemical, tool or process cleans better over time.

Solution To A Problem

"Cleaning science is a solution looking for a problem," says Frank, who believes these measurements should be taken to implement a quality assurance program and build custodial training, and nothing more.

"The measurements need to be tied to a specific outcome," he explains. "We should not be measuring whether or not the surface is dirty, but the workers understanding of what they are doing. I can have the best products in the world but if the custodian doesn't know how to use them, what good are they? What am I really measuring?"

Measurements then can be used to identify and fill gaps in worker training. Let's say a hospital trains a worker to clean patient rooms. After he's cleaned, his supervisor measures the room and gets poor readings. At this point the supervisor can provide remedial training. The supervisor then measures a second time to measure progress.

"What we're measuring is not whether or not the surface is dirty but the workers understanding of what they are doing and whether or not they are doing it correctly," Frank explains.

Measurements may also be used to compare the efficacy of processes and equipment, says Rathey. For instance, an organization considering adding restroom cleaning equipment might first mop the floor, taking before and after measurements with an ATP tool, then clean the floor using the equipment, taking before and after measurements. The custodial operation can compare the results from the two tests to determine the ideal cleaning option.

Frank stresses it is important to remember product incompatibility and other factors can trigger false readings and to take these factors into account when analyzing data. For instance, bio-based cleaning chemicals leave a film behind that prompts a false reading. Measuring three hours after an area has been cleaned is also inaccurate.

Direct And Indirect Benefits

The idea behind cleaning science measurements is to come up with the most productive and effective means of cleaning. Cleaning science looks at soil removal over time.

By testing before and after cleaning, custodial operations can pinpoint processes and equipment that clean well in less time, which can boost productivity and reduce labor costs. For example, a process that puts less dust into the air directly impacts labor needs, because less follow-up dusting will be required.

For instance, "if you use microfiber instead of cotton rags, you're using a better process, which cleans better and is more effective because it kicks less dust into the air," Rathey says. "How do you know? Your measurements will tell you. Plus, with less dust in the air you can dust three days a week instead of five. The amount of time to clean with a cotton cloth and a microfiber cloth is the same, but the soil removal over time is much higher with microfiber."

Indirect benefits exist as well. A program measuring allergens in the environment might be correlated to lower allergy rates among building occupants.

"The power of those measurements over time is enormous," says Rathey. "If I show that I lowered the allergen rate in a school, for instance, I'm affecting attendance. In an office environment I'm affecting how many people have allergic reactions."

That being said, Frank advises custodial operations proceed with caution.

"You can't run around saying the building isn't clean. We already know that," he says. "The question is: ‘How are you going to resolve it?' That comes back to quality assurance and custodial training."

He recommends implementing cleaning science practices while adhering to the recommendations of ISSA's CIMS standard, which addresses quality assurance and measurement, as well as technical training.

Cleaning science programs, Frank adds, may not be a good fit for everyone. He believes healthcare facilities and single-tenant buildings will see the greatest return on investment (ROI).

"Every building could use this, but it will cost the average building between $10,000 and $20,000 to get started," he says. "This program has to go into an area where there is a strong ROI."

That being said, Rathey stresses the more custodial operations get involved in cleaning science programs, the better chance there is to raise the professionalism of the industry and the public's perception of cleaning professionals.

"The real underpinning of cleaning science is that it will help us be viewed as more than just ‘mop jockeys,' " he says. "This isn't a quick fix but rather a path to success."  

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.